More than half-a-century ago, television was still in its infancy in Iowa. My Grandfather swore he’d never get one of those “new-fangled contraptions.”
He didn’t like ‘em. He thought they were the Devil’s tool. He thought radio was far more entertaining, more worthwhile, more wholesome.
Part of the problem, of course, was that my Grandfather’s eyesight wasn’t the best and the small, grainy black and white television images gave him headaches.
So, all of us grandchildren thought it was pretty neat when Grandpa bought his first television set, a Zenith model. He waited until later in the 1950s when sets were a little bigger and pictures a wee bit clearer.
Never one to spend much time on anything but work, he thought participating in sports was a waste of time and watching sports on television was an even bigger waste of good God-given time.
That was before Ingemar Johannson burst into world-wide prominence as a heavyweight boxer. Johansson had been disqualified in the 1952 Olympics championship fight in Helsinki, Finland for “running away” from his opponent. In fact, his silver medal was not presented, although eventually he was awarded the medal in 1982.
After the 1952 Olympics shame and a six-month hiatus, Johansson returned to boxing and won his first 22 fights as a professional. The 21st of those victories came over American Eddie Machen via knockout on Sept. 14, 1958. The fight in Johansson’s hometown of Gothenburg, Sweden, drew an all-time Swedish boxing record crowd.
More importantly, it earned Johansson a shot at the world heavyweight championship. He would fight American champion Floyd Patterson, who was the 1952 Olympic middleweight boxing champion. At 21, Patterson became the youngest boxer in history to win the world heavyweight title.
The pre-fight hype for the June 26, 1959 battle at Yankee Stadium in New York brought a fever pitch in both the United States and Sweden. Boxing, in those days, was one of the top spectator sports in the nation. Americans – thousands if not millions - were glued to their television sets for the weekly “Friday Night Fights” that were a viewing staple for most of the decade.
My Grandfather was one of those Americans caught up in anticipation of the fight, but he was torn between loyalty to his new homeland and his old.
Finally, neutrality took a back seat.
“Ain’t nobody can beat no Swede,” he said to anyone who would listen.
While Grandpa had become a proud American, having immigrated here in 1901, he was nonetheless proud of his homeland, especially one Jens Ingemar Johansson, who would carry the Swedish blue and yellow flag into the championship battle held in the Mecca of baseball stadiums.
Johansson really didn’t seem to be taking his shot at the title too seriously. He “trained” at a resort in the Catskill Mountains and he was often seen at night spots, accompanied by his attractive “secretary.”
Johansson entered the battle as a 5-1 underdog.
After two rounds of retreating from Patterson, Johansson landed a solid punch that staggered his foe in the third round. He kept up the pounding and sent Patterson to the canvas seven times in the third round before the fight was stopped.
Johansson was world champion.
My Grandfather became a champion, too, boasting about the Swede to anyone who would listen.
“I told you ain’t nobody can beat no Swede,” he said.
History will tell you, of course, that Johansson’s reign as world champion lasted just 51 weeks. In a rematch at the Polo Grounds in New York on June 20, 1960 Patterson knocked Johansson out in the fifth round. On March 30, 1961 the two met for a third time. It was obvious to all that Johansson was in the worst shape of his career. But Johansson caught Patterson with a solid punch, knocking the champion down in the first round. He scored another knockdown in the first round before he became obviously tired.
Patterson knocked Johansson out in the sixth round.
Those two losses were the only professional fights Johansson ever lost. He finished with a 26-2 professional record – 17 of those wins came by knockout.
But, Grandpa could never accept the fact that anyone had beaten a Swede.
“The fights is all fixed,” Grandpa told anyone who would listen. “I’ll never watch a fake boxin’ match ever again.”
So, what are you going to watch, Grandpa?
“I’m gonna watch wrestlin’,” he said. “That Verne Gagne is a heckuva fighter.
“Ain’t nobody can beat him.”