Review of Ingemar Johansson: Swedish Heavyweight Boxing Champion

Brooks, Ken. Ingemar Johansson: Swedish Heavyweight Boxing Champion. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2015. Pp. 272. Index, Acknowledgements. $29.95 paperback.  

Reviewed by Benjamin Dettmar

I love boxing, a fact that often confuses many of my friends and family. It is, for me, the most honest of sports. There is no hiding place in the ring, no teammate to save you, no chance to have an off day—just you and your opponent. I understand the criticisms of the sport and I accept that the sweet science is not for everyone; but when boxing is at its best there is little in sport that compares.

Take for example boxing movies. The Rocky franchise, Raging Bull, Million Dollar Baby (I could go on) are all award-winning and critically-acclaimed. Figures such as Muhammad Ali, Oscar De La Hoya, and Floyd Mayweather have transcended the sport and despite big fights almost disappearing from network television successful boxers remain some of the highest paid sports stars in the world.

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McFarland, 2015

Ingemar Johansson (Ingo) is from the golden era of heavyweight boxing. His peers included Floyd Patterson and Sonny Liston, and the generation following him included Ali, George Foreman, and Joe Frazier. Ingo was an Olympian, a national hero, one of the first celebrity couples of the 1960s (with his first wife Birgit Lundgren), and from 1959–1960 the heavyweight champion of the world.

When Ingo knocked out Floyd Patterson in the third round of their heavyweight title fight at Yankee Stadium in New York City he became Sweden’s first (and to date only) world heavyweight champion. Johansson’s heavyweight title reign lasted a year before he was defeated in a rematch with Patterson at New York’s Polo Grounds. He would go on to lose a third fight with Patterson in 1961 in Miami, Florida.

These losses were the only defeats of Ingo’s career but the Patterson trilogy is only a small part of Brooks’ book. Like all good history books, in Ingemar Johansson: Swedish Heavyweight Boxing Champion Ken Brooks manages to use Johansson as a tool through which to explore a myriad of subjects.

Swedish immigration in the twentieth century is explored with the extraordinary tale of Johansson’s grandparents (Evald and Hulda) who both immigrated to the US at the tail-end of the great Swedish migration to America when nearly one fifth of Sweden’s population left Scandinavia for the New World. Both quickly returned to Sweden, Hulda following her future spouse home after he was arrested for causing a drunken fight at Niagara Falls! The lure of the US would continue to play a pivotal role in the tale of Ingemar Johansson.

The importance of the Olympics and Olympic boxing is discussed. Both Patterson and Johansson were Olympians in Helsinki in 1952; Patterson at middleweight, Johansson at heavyweight. Patterson easily won the Gold medal, knocking out Romanian Vasile Tiţă in the first round; Johansson controversially only managed to win a silver medal. Ingo had been a national hero in Sweden up until this point and he was roundly criticized back home for his disqualification, particularly as it appeared he had lost the fight in a cowardly manner. He was disqualified for passivity, he barely threw a punch all fight, and American Ed Sanders was awarded the gold medal. Ingo claimed he had been trying to tire his opponent but his ignominious exit was devastating to such a proud man and he considered quitting boxing after he was disparaged back home.

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Ingemar Johansson knocks out Floyd Patterson to become World Heavyweight Champion on 26 June 1959 at Yankee Stadium, New York City. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Brooks has managed to find some fantastic images that chart his career. Most of these, unsurprisingly, focus on his boxing matches and like a lot of boxing photos make the reader a little squeamish but they certainly help the reader appreciate his athleticism and his fights. There are also some excellent images of Ingo’s private life and these help to chronicle his story as a small boy from a Swedish fishing village to one half of Sweden’s premier celebrity couple of the early 1960s. There are pictures of Johansson with Ali, Liston, Joe Louis, and Jack Dempsey (amongst others) showing the exclusive circles with which he associated. The book is published by McFarland and is certainly not a typical academic monograph (I have a feeling Brooks would be the first to admit this). There are no footnotes but there is an extensive index and bibliography.

One of the more interesting aspects of Brook’s book is his brief discussion of race. Ingo’s trilogy with Patterson came in the late 1950s and early 1960s when the Civil Rights movement in America was becoming more and more prominent. Brooks discusses how for many white Americans the decision whether to support a boxer who was Black and American or white and foreign was a difficult choice. Indeed the match program for their first encounter at Yankee stadium in 1959 featured a cover image not of Ingo and Patterson but of white British fighter Tom Cribb fighting the former Black slave Tom Molineaux. Brooks quotes Black activist and novelist John Oliver Killens who watched the fight at a theatre in Los Angeles.

I shall never forget an evening I spent in a movie house in Hollywood watching a closed circuit broadcast of the first Patterson-Johansson fight…the great shame I felt for my white countrymen as they began to smell a possible victory for the white foreigner over the black American. Forgotten entirely was the fact that soft-hearted Patterson was a fellow countrymen. Color superseded patriotism. As I sat there hearing shouted exhortations like, “Kill the n***r” [asterisks as used by Brooks], I felt that Patterson and I were aliens in a strange and hostile country, and Ingemar was home among his peers. (162)

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An image of Tom Molineaux (on the left) Vs. Tom Cribb (on the right) fighting in 1811 in England. A similar image featured on the cover of the first Johansson Vs. Patterson bout at Yankee Stadium in 1959. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Readers, particularly historians and sociologists, might want more discussion of the aforementioned issues of immigration, race, and celebrity culture. Similarly the sports historian might want a wider discussion of the dark side of boxing; Brooks briefly mentions the mob and fixing of bouts but the topic is worthy of further discussion with regard to Johansson and fighters of that time period. All of these issues are touched upon but not fully explored. However, Brooks has the advantage of being the first to document Johansson’s career and he has laid the framework for those who want to view these topics further through the lens of Sweden’s greatest ever boxer.

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“Ingo the Champ”, Peter Linde’s Statue of Ingemar Johansson in Gothenburg, Sweden. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Brooks’ book is very easy to read, he tells Johansson’s story in a chronological manner and is not afraid to hide his clear admiration for the great boxer. At times this perhaps goes a little too far, for example Brooks tries hard to give credence to the idea that a deliberately poisoned steak was responsible for Ingo’s passivity and ultimate defeat in the second Patterson fight. Further, Brooks suggests that if it wasn’t the steak it could have been an adverse reaction to painkillers that caused his sluggishness. He does not however shy away from the controversies of Johansson’s career and he also admits that his hero is not in the same class as heavyweight boxing greats such as Ali, Louis, and Dempsey. What we are left with is a much needed study of an Olympian, a celebrity, and a Heavyweight Champion of the World.

A national hero in Sweden, Johansson is relatively unknown to the wider US audience. Today, most of Johansson’s fights are available on YouTube, including his trilogy with Patterson, I would encourage anyone interested in Ingo to take a look at these videos. Along with footage of his fights, Ken Brooks’ expertly written biography will hopefully help to raise the profile of Ingemar Johansson.

 

Benjamin Dettmar is a Ph.D. candidate at Michigan State University. He can be reached at dettmarb@gmail.com, or on twitter @olympicsprof.

 

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