Johnson and Lester Prepare for Fight in the Bull Ring

Damon Runyon

Wilkes-Barre Evening News/February 23, 1926

John Arthur Johnson, former heavyweight champion of the world, called in some state. He was attended by a sort of committee, which included Mr. Dan Cole, of Nogales, Arizona, who is promoting a demonstration of the manly art of scrambling ears in which the participants will be John Arthur Johnson and Pat Lester, of Arizona.

You wouldn’t believe that John Arthur Johnson is rising forty-eight. He has his head shaven so that the froth of time cannot show here. His black scalp fairly gleamed as a vagrant sunbeam drifted in through the window and used his skull as a toboggan slide.

The ghost of the famous old golden smile flitted over the room as John Arthur Johnson shook hands. He was wearing a brown suit that seemed to fit him a little too soon, but that was because it was one of those narrow-cut garments of another sartorial era. No diamonds sparkled on his fingers, as of yore. In fact, there was a somewhat subdued air about Mr. John Arthur Johnson.

He has been living quietly in Chicago for some time, he said. Married again—the fifth trip to the matrimonial barrier for him. This time to a woman of French descent. He tried to pronounce her maiden name without much success. It was Poin-something, he said.

His first inquiry was about “”Mist’ Tad”, the great cartoonist. John Arthur Johnson always thought more of Tad than of any other newspaper man in the business. Incidentally, Tad was about the first newspaper man to proclaim John Arthur Johnson’s pugilistic greatness when few others could see it.

In a few minutes. John Arthur Johnson was bubbling with all his old time good nature as he began telling fish stories, and arguing with Mr. Cole, and Mr. Sisk and Mr, Bishop, the other members of the committee, about the merits of the fishing in the Gulf of Mexico, as against other parts of the world.

He is a cosmopolite, this burly negro who was the first and only member of his race to hold the heavyweight championship. He spoke glibly of India, of Australia, of South America, of Mexico, of France, and England—and he has been to all those places. He has traveled more than any living pugilist, much of the time with John Law reaching his coat tails.

He talked of old time fights and fighters. He showed all his gold teeth in a guffaw when someone mentioned Stanley Ketchel. and asked him what he thought of Ketchel as compared to the present day in middleweight and light-heavies. It took John Arthur Johnson twelve rounds to subdue Ketchel.

“’At li’l’ boy could suttinly fight,” said John Arthur Johnson. “Jiminelli but ’at boy ’d have a picnic today.”

Ho said he never had any personal animus against any opponents in his career save Tommy Burns, Frank Moran and Frank Childs, a negro heavyweight contemporaneous with him. He said he tried his best to damage them when he fought them.

Burns he disliked because the Canadian talked bitterly about him before they met. Moran, he thought, was a party to an attempt at crossing him in Paris, while he never cared for Childs on general principles.

“Burns didn’t have much heart out o’ the ring, but inside them ropes he was a lion,” said John Arthur Johnson. “He was the gamest man ah ‘evuh see.”

Mr. Sisk asked what sort of a fight I thought Lester would make against John Arthur Johnson. He seemed somewhat amused when I said that if Johnson didn’t beat the redoubtable Pat very easily, he wouldn’t beat him at all.

Lester is a big, strong, improving young fellow, who takes a hard punching. It isn’t in the cards that a man of John Arthur Johnson’s years can struggle fifteen rounds against that type of an opponent, though he may make Lester look foolish in the early rounds.

They meet in Nogales, Sonora, which is across the street from Nogales, Arizona, on May 2, in a bull ring that seats about 8,000. Mr. Cole the promoter, tells me that he hopes for a capacity crowd.

Lester is an Arizona product, handled by the celebrated Spider Kelly, formerly of San Francisco, who has been living in Tucson, Arizona, for some years. Kelly went there for his health. He found Lester one day in the army, as I recall it, and has been slowly developing him ever since.

Lester is the type of fighter who comes on slowly. He has tremendous heart, or you can bet Kelly wouldn’t have fooled with him for any length of time. The redoubtable Tim McGrath has been handling Lester around San Francisco for the Spider, and he says of Pat, “He’s a brave fighter.”

John Arthur Johnson is probably getting a fair sum for the fight. He never rated his services cheaply, even when he needed money, which I imagine is his status at this time. He has been making a little out of exhibitions, and the show business but this will be the first purse he has collected from real pugilistic endeavors in some time. 

He won from Homer Smith in 1924 in ten rounds. Prior to that he got a technical knockout over Farmer Lodge in four rounds in Havana, and boxed old Jock Thompson fifteen rounds in the same place. His last appearance before the Smith bout was in an exhibition at Quebec with poor Battling Siki.

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