Tom Johnson restored to boxing a modicum of credibility and public respect—lost since the days of Hall of Famer Jack Broughton. After Broughton’s demise in 1750, the title was held for ten years by Jack Slack, inventor of the paralyzing rabbit punch and accused fixer of fights. By the time Slack was defeated, crooked fights were common. The championship bounced from one fighter to another, and by the 1780s, no one had a firm hold on it.
Born in Derby, Johnson worked for many years as a stevedore on London’s wharves. In 1783, he became champion almost by chance when he offended a fighter named Jack Jarvis. This led to a challenge and a boxing match in which Johnson convincingly defeated Jarvis in just fifteen minutes. After this victory, some acclaimed Johnson as the champion. No one had held the title since Irishman Duggan Fearns defeated Harry Sellers in a 90-second fight, reputed to have been fixed. When Fearns abruptly disappeared from the scene, the title became vacant.
Johnson defeated the Croydon Drover in 1784, and later that year, triumphed over Stephen (Death) Oliver. At this point, Johnson declared himself champion. In 1786, Johnson whipped four more opponents easily, then faced the Irish champion Michael Ryan the next year. The two champions fought ferociously. When Ryan landed a hard punch to Johnson’s temple, sending him reeling against the ropes, Johnson’s second entered the ring and grabbed Ryan. Ryan could have claimed victory on the foul but did not. Given time to recover, Johnson came back to defeat Ryan ten minutes later. He also won a rematch.
Johnson’s next fight was a grueling 62-round battle with Isaac Perrins. Though he suffered several knockdowns, Johnson hung on to win. In 1791, the aging Johnson lost his title to Ben Brain in eighteen rounds.
By the time he retired, Johnson had amassed a small fortune, but within a year, he had spent and gambled it all away. He then taught boxing in Ireland until his death in 1797. Johnson’s refusal to engage in “crosses,” as fixed fights were called, rekindled the public’s interest in boxing and restored much-needed integrity to the sport.
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Excerpted with permission from 'The Boxing Register' by James B. Roberts and Alexander G. Skutt, copyright © 1999 by McBooks Press. All rights reserved.