Tom Johnson: The Champion Who Brought Boxing Back to Prominence

By the start of the 1780s, prizefighting had taken a steep drop in prestige since the golden age of Jack Broughton three decades earlier. Broughton had inherited his championship laurels from James Figg in 1738 and reigned until his defeat at the hands of Jack Slack 1750. During those 12 years, he established the sport’s first code of rules. Broughton had come up from destitute poverty, but possessed an innate nobility of character that allowed him to comfortably associate with the highest members of society, not just in the gymnasium, but across all areas of society. His chief patron was Prince William, the second son of King George II. Broughton toured Europe as a member of the royal entourage and served as a bodyguard to the king.

After Broughton’s loss, the sport took an immediate decline. Prince William, who had always been the sport’s most prominent supporter, lost a fortune betting on Broughton against Slack and turned against boxing as a result, for a period leading a high-profile crackdown on its legality, until eventually coming back to supporting Slack.

But although he had bested the aging Broughton, Slack could never match him in esteem. Whereas Broughton was a refined gentleman, Slack, a butcher by trade, was unfailingly course and crude. Whereas Broughton had been a master technical fighter, Slack was a physically relentless brawler. Slack was widely admired by the most devoted members of the fancy, for his power and his endless bottom. But he lacked the star power of Broughton, and interest in prizefighting began to wane.

As a result of lagging interest, purses for the fighters plummeted. This led to a rash of “crosses,” or thrown fights. Among the champions that followed Broughton and Slack, William Stevens, George Meggs, William Darts, Peter Corcoran and Harry Sellers were all strongly implicated as potentially involved in fixing championship fights. The hint of illegitimacy served to further drive down the sport’s standing, both among fans who had viewed it as an heroic venture and among gamblers, who have always been a part of the sport’s core fan base.

Over the centuries that boxing has been an organized sport, it has always suffered through highs and lows in public esteem. Inevitably, the dawn of a new golden age has always corresponded to the ascent of a new champion with the personality to draw back the more marginal fans.

As the decade of the 1780s began, Tom Johnson emerged as this kind of crucial champion. Johnson had moved to London as a teen and spent 20 years of his life laboring as a corn porter at a warehouse along the Thames. A popular story about Johnson illustrates both his incredible physical ability and his generous spirit. At one point during his tenure as a corn porter, one of Johnson’s co-workers became ill. This was an era of brutal, laissez-faire capitalism, with nothing in the way of workman’s compensation. When a worker went ill and was rendered unable to labor, it left his family destitute. To help his mate avoid this calamity, Johnson simply lugged twice as much corn at one time during the entire stretch that his co-worker was disabled, allowing the sick man to continue drawing wages.

Johnson stood about 5'9” tall and weighed in at close to 200 pounds. His physical strength was a huge advantage for him in fighting, but his cool, calculating demeanor during the heat of an exchange gave him a particular advantage over opponents. Pierce Egan described Johnson’s guard as “inelegant,” and his manner of approach awkward and puzzling for opponents. Like so many great fighters, he was a dangerous counter puncher.

Johnson exploded onto the prizefighting scene in 1783 and by 1784 had beaten so many notable opponents that he had earned the right to call himself the Champion of England, a title that had been regarded as vacant since 1780. He beat the ageless veteran Steevy Oliver, known as “Death” due to his pale skin, before a crowd that numbered in the thousands, a good indication that boxing was on the rise.

In this era, the city of Bristol was emerging as a boxing hot bed. The great champions who would immediately follow Johnson were almost all Bristol men. In 1787, Bristol native William Warr was tabbed to face Johnson. Within a short time of the fight beginning, Warr realized he was over-matched in power and attempted to evade and tire Johnson instead. The encounter was described by Egan as “scarcely worthy of being called a fight,” but it solidified Johnson’s claim to the title.

Following his unsatisfying scrap with Warr, Johnson next engaged Michael Ryan of Ireland in two knockdown-drag-out wars which pushed both Johnson’s popularity and the popularity of the sport to new heights.

Johnson’s two victories over Ryan set the stage for the most famous battle of his celebrated career, as he faced off with Isaac Perrins, a giant widely viewed as the strongest man in England. Not a single opponent had lasted five minutes with Perrins. He outweighed Johnson by over 50 pounds. Perrins hailed from Birmingham and his supporters from the city were so confident that they offered two-to-one odd for him to unseat Johnson as champion.

When the two fighters stripped to the waist at their set-to, Egan describes Perrins as looking “like a Hercules, and Johnson, who in his other fights appeared as a large man, by the side of Perrins now looked like a boy.” The fight was a marathon battle, with the advantage and the odds shifting between combatants. After over an hour straight of fighting, both men had eyes swollen shut, but Perrins’ nose was split down the middle and his entire face was swollen beyond recognition. Finally, the giant’s friends convinced him to concede defeat. One happy gambler personally gave Johnson a thousand pounds as a reward.

Neither man can ever be the same after such a fight, but Johnson had one more epic battle left in him, as he faced off with Big Ben Brain, another Bristol star, in 1791. Although Johnson and Brain were both outstanding scientific fighters, Egan writes that they left science aside and “ferocity was the order of the day.” The fight was concluded within a half hour, with Brain knocking Johnson out, but the intensity of the battle left both men permanently damaged. Brain walked away champion, but never recovered enough to defend the belt.

Johnson, despite his brilliance as a fighter and his generosity as a person, was afflicted with a weakness for gambling. He never fully recovered physically after his final battle with Brain and he died penniless six years later.