Tuesday, May 30, 2023  |


Ingo left his mark with one unforgettable performance

Fighters Network

Ingemar Johansson didn’t remain atop the boxing world for long but sure made an impression while he was there.

Johansson, who died at 76 late Thursday after battling Alzheimer’s disease, wasn’t a great boxer; he was a good one. But he had excellent timing: He fought during a period of weak heavyweights and had the perfect foil in Floyd Patterson.

When Johansson came from Sweden to fight the then-heavyweight champ from Brooklyn on June 26, 1959 at Yankee Stadium, he came with credentials, good looks and a colorful personality.

“Ingo,” as he was known in Sweden, had scored a first-round knockout of then-No. 1-ranked contender Eddie Machen the previous September to run his record to 21-0. Machen fell victim to Johansson’s signature punch, his right hand, called “The Hammer of Thor.”

If he wasn’t taken seriously, he should’ve been.

And everyone seemed to find him charming. Television analyst Larry Merchant, who covered all three Johansson-Patterson fights as a sportswriter, remembers visiting Johansson’s at his unusual training camp in the Catskill Mountains.

Johansson brought with him his beautiful “secretary” Birgit, who was really his girlfriend and later his wife. Sweden was known for its openness in regard to sex but it would be years before the “Free Love” movement in the U.S. Plus, it just didn’t gibe with boxing.

“It shocked the whole boxing world,” Merchant said. “I remember thinking, ‘You’re kidding me, right?’ Prize fighters were supposed to go into a cocoon without sex for weeks or months. I think everybody thought it was some kind of joke.

“They (Ingemar and Birgit) were delightful together, though. It was great fun covering him.”

And Johansson didn’t look the part of a boxer. As Merchant said, he wasn’t hard looking in any respect. He had a sweet face and a somewhat pudgy body.

Yet, in the ring, he was all fighter.

Patterson was a big favorite going into the fight in 1959. At 21, he had become the youngest man ever to win the heavyweight title when he stopped Archie Moore in 1956 and was making his fifth title defense.

And while few saw Johansson as a pushover, the fact he was European made it more difficult to imagine him as champion. No one from the continent had worn the belt since Primo Carnera in 1934.

Alas, no European during that time had The Hammer of Thor, or “Toonder and Lightening,” as Johansson liked to call his right-handed power.

Patterson seemed to be controlling the fight in the third round when, BAM!, Johansson landed the right and the badly hurt champion fell to the canvass. Before it was stopped by referee Ruby Goldstein 2:03 into the round, Patterson had gone down an astonishing seven times.

For those present, it was unforgettable.

“Patterson had that famous (trainer) Cus D’Amato peek-a-boo style of fighting, with his gloves around his cheeks while he advanced aggressively,” Merchant said. “Johansson threw the perfect right between his gloves and knocked him down and senseless. Patterson had nothing left after that.

“It was a big shock. And I think it was perceived a little bit as a fluke somehow. I remember it was a big deal in Europe. Americans had dominated the division for so long.”

Indeed, back home, an estimated 3 million Swedes listened to the live radio broadcast at 3 a.m. And, obviously, they liked what they heard: Many say it remains the most significant feat in Swedish sports history.

“There’s hardly a Swede that lived back then who didn’t know and remembered what he or she did that night,” Swedish boxing historian Olof Johansson said in a statement quoted by Bloomberg News.

That was the extent of Johannson’s glory in the ring.

He enjoyed the spotlight while it lasted, making many public appearances as heavyweight champion of the world. He also was named Sportsman of the Year by both Sports Illustrated and the Associated Press.

Meanwhile, Patterson, obsessed with revenge, prepared for their rematch almost exactly a year later at the Polo Grounds in New York.

This time, it was Patterson who landed the big punch – his signature leaping left hook, which knocked Johansson out cold in the fifth round. The single most-indelible image of their trilogy was an unconscious Johansson on back with his foot quivering.

Patterson survived two first-round knockdowns to also win the third meeting, stopping Johansson in the sixth to end the Swede’s run as a major player in heavyweight boxing.

However, to this day, his name evokes a short, but dramatic period in boxing.

“I think it’s fair to say that among fighters who held the heavyweight championship for a very short time his name resonates for some reason,” Merchant said. “It was those fights (against Patterson), I guess. Fourteen rounds, 11 knockdowns against a famous American fighter.

“Somehow that series of fights and the fact he was such an iconic, mythical figure from Sweden, sets him apart.”

As one Swede commented on a Youtube video of the original radio broadcast of the first Johansson-Patterson fight:

“R.I.P. Ingo, en legend!”

Michael Rosenthal can be reached at [email protected]