Boxing history was made on January 13th, 1975, as Jamaican-born Bunny Johnson became the first black man to win the British heavyweight title. There is a good chance the skilled and ultra-determined Johnson could have won the title earlier than he did, if not for the, as he puts it, correctly, “racist rule” that existed in Great Britain at the time: no man could fight for the title until he had been living in the country for ten years.
Johnson arrived in Great Britain in the early 1960s, aged just 16. Even then, however, Bunny made a promise to himself: he would become the British heavyweight champion. Bunny made good on his promise; in fact, he became the British light-heavyweight champ as well (winning the title and then going on to own the coveted Lonsdale belt outright).
Today aged 74, his memory is not what it once was, Bunny, who still lives in Birmingham, is a cheerful guy, always quick with a laugh and a joke. Bunny sure has some career to look back on.
Here, Bunny, 55-17-1(33), speaks about his ring career.
Q: You accomplished a lot, at both heavyweight and at light-heavyweight. At which weight were you at your best?
Bunny Johnson: “Well, I had a career which comprised of me being the first-ever black heavyweight champion [of Great Britain]. That was a prediction I made when I was a youngster. I remember telling a guy, a friend, that I would do it, and he said to me that if I did it, he would eat his hat. Which was a popular saying at the time; we were jiving (laughs). At the time, if you were a boxer, being the heavyweight champion is what you wanted to be.”
Q: Did you spar Henry Cooper when you were a young man, and did you want to fight him?
B.J: “I wouldn’t say I sparred him a lot, but we did do some sparring. I was a young man, aged 23, and he was getting ready to fight the Spanish guy for the European title (Jose Manuel Urtain). This was in 1970.
I had been told by my trainer that Cooper never took any prisoners in sparring, that he gave Johnny Prescott, who was a young fighter coming up at the time, a hard time of things in the gym. I was being paid £15 around, and that was good money back then. But Cooper told me that he would get his money’s worth because I would give him good work.
“I was a little nervous, as I was going to spar with the king. All of Fleet Street was there when Cooper sparred. Cooper was one of the best in the world at the time. I remember getting changed, wondering what tactics I would use when I fought him or sparred him.
He had that left hook, of course, but I had a left hook myself. Cooper was a little bit different, a bit special. I also sparred Joe Bugner, who, of course, went on to beat Cooper. But anyway, I went down to London to work with Cooper, and he showed me no mercy, as he showed no mercy with Prescott, who Cooper murdered (laughs).”
Q: But you gave Cooper all he could handle?
B.J: “Is this my story, or are you telling it? (laughs).
Q: Sorry, sir – carry on.
B.J: “Cooper told me he’d pay me no mercy as he was paying me good money. Anyway, I came out, and I hit Cooper with two jabs and a left hook, and I backed him into the ropes. But you know what? I backed off.
You do not take advantage of the champion who is paying you. I hit him with a double jab and a left hook. I thought to myself, ‘I have ability; why not show it?’ I had the great man backing up, and I stepped off. I showed him respect.
I got some good press for it. I knew then that I could maybe beat Cooper in a fight. My trainer told me that I would, but I couldn’t get the chance because of the racist rule they had at the time, where you had to be a resident in the country for ten years before you could fight for the title. Can you imagine that? That was a terrible rule.
“At the time, I was reading as much as I could about the great Jack Johnson. He and Muhammad Ali, they were the two greatest ever. I saw those moves Johnson had. At the time, I didn’t appreciate what he could do, but now, that man could really do amazing things.”
Q: You eventually did get your shot at the British heavyweight title in 1975, and you KO’d Danny McAlinden.
B.J: “Yes, I did, in nine rounds. I made good on my prediction.”
(At this point, we lost connection. Hopefully, I will be able to speak more with Bunny in the near future. Johnson went on to have great fights with the likes of Dennis Andries (twice), Richard Dunn, Duane Bobick, James Scott, and Mike Quarry)