Ingemar Johansson: Boxer who beat Floyd Patterson to win the world heavyweight title

Tuesday 03 February 2009 01:00

When Ingemar Johansson sent Floyd Patterson crashing to the canvas seven times in one round at New York's Yankee Stadium on 26 June 1959, he became the first Swede, and only the third European, to win the heavyweight championship of the world. Before that feat, Johansson, who has died aged 76, had detonated his famous right-hand punch – variously dubbed "The Hammer of Thor" and "Ingo's Bingo" – on the chins of Britain's best heavyweights to lay claim to the European heavyweight crown, another notable achievement for a boxer once denied an Olympic medal on the grounds of pusillanimity.

The son of a road construction supervisor, Ingemar Johansson was born in the southern seaport of Gothenberg in 1932. At the age of 12he bought a boxing ticket with money earned as a delivery boy, and was immediately entranced by thesport, joining the Redbergslid Boxing Club the following year. In 1948, Johannson won the Gothenburg Junior District Championship, and, two years later, captured both the junior and senior national titles in the heavyweight class.

By 1952, Johansson was considering a professional career, and only reluctantly agreed to represent his country at the 1952 Olympiad in Helsinki. On reaching the final, Johansson found himself matched against an American, Ed Sanders, who, like the Swede, was a counter-puncher. After two rounds in which neither man initiated an attack, Johansson was disqualified for "failing to show fight", and denied his silver medal.

On 5 December 1952, guided by his manager and friend, Edwin Ahlqvist, Johansson made his professional debut, stopping the Frenchman Robert Masson in four rounds. Following a spell of national service in the navy (during which he earned 30 days' close arrest for insubordination), Johansson made steady progress in the European rankings. A difficult bout in 1956 against the British-based Jamaican, Joe Bygraves, convinced Johansson of the need to balance what he termed his "ineradicable cautiousness" with a more aggressive approach, and two bouts later, he knocked out the Italian, Franco Cavicchi, with a blow to the heart in the 13th round of their fight in Bologna to win the European heavyweight title.

Johansson made his first defence in Stockholm in May 1957, knocking out Henry Cooper in the fifth round. The following year, he stopped the Welshman Joe Erskine in the 13th round, before disposing of the former champion Heinz Neuhaus in a non-titlebout. Johansson and Ahlqvist then took a calculated risk, luring the leading contender, Eddie Machen, from America. An impressive first-round win put Johansson in line for Floyd Patterson's world title, and in May 1959 he began training in New York's Catskill Mountains, where he caused something of a sensation among the Spartan-minded American boxing press by including in his camp not only his family but also his fiancée.

While the brittle-chinned Patterson was not the most formidable holder of sport's richest prize, Johansson's bludgeoning victory was still regarded as a major upset. The new champion made mystic comments about his favourite punch ("When I need it, it comes... It lands like toonder.") and enjoyed his celebrity status, appearing in films and earning the approbation of Ernest Hemingway for his portrayal of "the Swede" in a 1959 TV adaptation of Hemingway's The Killers.

Less than a year later, on 20 June 1960 at New York's Polo Grounds, Johansson faced Patterson in a rematch. In the fifth round, an overconfident Johansson was caught by one of Patterson's trademark leaping left hooks and, in the words of the celebrated writer and gastronome,A.J. Liebling, "went down like a double portion of Swedish pancakes with lingonberries and sour cream." Johansson beat the count, but a second hook slammed him to the canvas unconscious, his left leg twitching froma trapped nerve, as Patterson became the first man to regain the title.The pair met again for the decider, at the Convention Hall in Miami on 13 March 1961. Johansson, weighing 10 pounds more than when he won the crown, knocked down Patterson twice in the second round, but was stopped in the sixth.

A disappointed Johansson returned to Sweden, where he regained the European title in 1962 with an eighth-round defeat of the Welshman Dick Richardson. In 1963, Johansson was knocked out in the final seconds of his bout against Britain's Brian London. Although declared the winner on points, he never boxed again. A shrewd businessman, with interests that included trawling and construction, Johansson divided his time between Sweden and America. Although professional boxing was banned in Sweden in 1970, Johansson remained involved as a commentator and columnist. In 1982, he finally received his silver medal from the International Olympic Committee, and also completed the New York Marathon with his old rival, Floyd Patterson. He was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 2002.

The following year, he was confined to a nursing home, a victim,like Patterson (who died in May 2006), of advanced Alzheimer's Disease. Onthe sport he loved, Johansson once wrote, "People with strong humanitarian feelings often lack knowledgeand clear-sightedness to see through the outer brutality of boxing and to see it for what it really is – an image of our existence."

John Exshaw

Jens Ingemar Johansson, boxer, born Gothenburg, Sweden 22 September 1932; married three times (five or six children); died Kungsbacka, Sweden 30 January 2009.

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