Boxer vs Film Star: the day Jack Johnson fought a Hollywood icon

Gary Lucken
10/03/2018 7:04pm

Gary Lucken's latest foray into boxing history is an updated version of his account of the day that the great Jack Johnson fought a future Hollywood legend and Oscar winner...

VICTOR MCLAGLEN 1939

A little-known quirk of boxing history is that the first person Jack Johnson fought as World Heavyweight Champion was a famous Hollywood movie star. The bout took place when Johnson arrived back in North America a little over two months after claiming the heavyweight crown by pounding Tommy Burns into submission in Australia on Boxing Day 1908.

Just hours after coming ashore in Canada the Galveston Giant agreed to take on an obscure pugilist named Victor McLaglen in a six-round exhibition at the Vancouver Athletic Club.

The young McLaglen (pictured left in 1939), a powerful but limited scrapper, was comprehensively “schooled” by the newly minted champ in the no decision battle on 10 March 1909, which isn’t included on Johnson’s official record because of its exhibition status.

But in a remarkable twist of fate he went on to become an icon of the silver screen – he is the same Victor McLaglen who starred in numerous hit films and who bagged a best actor Oscar in 1935 for his role in John Ford’s 'The Informer'.

McLaglen was born in England in 1886 (accounts differ as to whether this was in East London or Tunbridge Wells, Kent) and went on to lead an astonishingly varied and adventurous life, even allowing for later embellishments by the Hollywood publicity machine.

The son of an Anglican minister, he moved to South Africa as a child and ran away to join the British Army at the age of 14 in the hope of seeing action in the Second Boer War, enlisting in the First Life Guards, part of the Household Cavalry.

He was forced to leave the military after around three years when his young age was discovered and subsequently sailed to Canada in his late teens where he worked as a silver miner before joining a travelling carnival as a strongman, wrestling and boxing all-comers for $25 a time.

McLaglen eventually settled for a time in Tacoma, Washington, and in 1908, now aged 21 and a strapping 6ft 3in of solid muscle, he started boxing professionally.

During the course of that year he had five bouts – winning three and losing one, with one no contest – and in 1909 he moved to Vancouver, apparently to become a policeman.

On 9 March Johnson, the new champion, arrived in Victoria on the Canadian-Australian liner Makura following a nearly month-long voyage from Sydney.

He came ashore for a time and told pressmen he was happy to defend his title against “any man in the world”, including retired former champ Jim Jeffries, and said he planned to sail on to Vancouver before disembarking there and heading to Chicago and then on to Texas.

At that stage he appears to have had no immediate plans to climb back in the ring but at some point in the next 24 hours he was persuaded to take part in an exhibition fight to help raise much-needed funds for the Vancouver AC.

Johnson got an adoring welcome from the black community when he arrived in Vancouver with his white wife and according to one press report he was “resplendent in white spats, red necktie and lavender clothes” and attracted “more attention on the streets than an Indian potentate”.

Outside of the city few in the media seem to have been aware of the planned exhibition bout, in which Johnson’s opponent was initially supposed to be Denver Ed Martin.

An exception was The Tacoma Times, which reported: “In consenting to make the performance a benefit for the club, Johnson has made a great hit with the Canadians here, who declare the negro fighter has shown rare sportsmanship.

“’Better look out for yourself, Ed’, said Johnson today in discussing tonight’s bout with ‘Denver Ed’, ‘I am feeling pretty fine now that I have gotten rid of my sea legs and I feel just like eating up some large man, black or white, I don’t care much which’.

“’Denver Ed’ smiled doubtfully but assured the champion that he would be able to ‘step lively’.”

Denver Ed ultimately did nothing of the sort because he subsequently pulled out, apparently claiming that his wife had suddenly fallen ill in Seattle and that he had to leave to be with her.

Sceptics claimed he had simply gotten cold feet about climbing in the ring with Johnson but whatever the reason it left the club scrabbling to find an opponent.

BIDDY BISHOP The Day Book Chicago July 25 1912

At this point it appears that boxing promoter and manager George “Biddy” Bishop (pictured left), who was also the Sporting Editor of the Tacoma News, stepped in to help save the event by putting forward McLaglen’s name as a last-minute replacement – a classic case of the right man in the right place at the right time.

Details of the fight are difficult to find as there was relatively little coverage of the bout – contemporary stories about Johnson concentrated on the possibility of a title defence against Jeffries and the issue of Johnson’s wife (interracial marriage was outlawed in many US states).

There was also extensive reporting of the fact that several hotel proprietors in Vancouver refused to let the champion and his spouse rent a room at their premises, forcing them to stay at the home of local boxing instructor George Paris.

But buried away in the archives of The Vancouver World newspaper is a long-forgotten account of the evening’s action.

The World reported that around 1,000 people squeezed into the club and “crowded every available inch of space”, adding that “Vancouver fight fans last night enjoyed a privilege that sporting enthusiasts all over the rest of the continent will have to wait many moons for”.

The paper revealed that McLaglen, said to weigh around 198lbs, had agreed to fight “at less than two hours’ notice” and among the spectators were several officers from the Makura as well as a number of Australians who had seen Johnson defeat Burns.

The evening kicked off with Johnson, wearing evening dress and with “a diamond as big as a small cherry flashing in his shirt front”, being introduced to the cheering crowd by club president James Findlay.

The champion, whose weight was put at 215lbs with clothes on, gave a short speech in which he thanked the city’s residents for the “many kindnesses” he had been shown, praised the vanquished Burns for his “pluck and nerve” and vowed to fight Jeffries at any time. He then bowed, to further cheers, and left the ring.

Two preliminary four-round bouts then took place – the first between two youths going by the names of “Kid” Wheeler and “Young” Jack Johnson and the second between Oscar Mortimore and Juan Fernandez.

Referee W P Ogilvie then introduced Johnson and McLaglen before the champion, wearing a silk American flag around his waist and dark blue trunks, was examined by the club physician who listened to his heart – “mainly out of curiosity” – and declared him to be “the finest specimen of all-round physical development he had ever examined”.

Johnson then inspected the ring before going to his corner where he adjusted his gloves and waited for the bout, comprising six two-minute rounds, to begin.

The World, under a headline of “Too Much Johnson”, told readers:

“Then the gong rang and the two big fellows went at it. They sparred at long range for a few seconds, sizing each other up, and then Johnson landed a left and right hooks and rushed McLaglen to the ropes. They clinched and as they broke Johnson showed what a whirlwind he was at infighting by getting in a regular tatoo of blows on McLaglen’s ribs. Jack got in a couple of light lefts to the face. McLaglen rushed, but Johnson met him with a left hook to the solar plexus that pretty nearly put the white man on the blink. After giving him a chance to recover Johnson took it easy for the rest of the round and contented himself with following up his man and showing his snake-like gliding footwork.

“In the second round after sparring for an opening Johnson rushed and landed a left jab to the face. McLaglen sidestepped out of danger from a right cross that was coming his way and kept away from Johnson for a little while. They clinched and there was another exhibition of infighting that drew cheers from the crowd. Mac reached the champion with a light left jab, but Johnson came back with two right and lefts to the head followed by a couple on the body, all in a flash. McLaglen then commenced to develop clinching tactics to save himself. It was while in one of these clinches with Johnson forcing McLaglen against the ropes that Johnson acted as a human derrick and swung the Scotchman around and handed him several more jolts as he set him down away from the ropes.

“The third round developed some of the prettiest work of the entire bout by Johnson. McLaglen was stalling and keeping away from the big black fellow when he was not in a clinch. This gave Johnson a chance to show his footwork and the way he would cut across the ring and head off the flying Scotchman, who was trying to keep away from those dreaded fists, was certainly a treat for the boxing fans. For a big man Johnson is as quick as a cat on his feet and seems to get over the ground without any apparent effort.

“McLaglen felt a little fresher when the fourth commenced and started in with a rush. Johnson stopped him with as neat a left jab as any one could wish to see. He followed that up with a succession of left and right swings varied by an occasional straight jab when they got to close quarters. He fairly smothered Arthur [the paper gets McLaglen’s first name wrong here] with blows, and then when McLaglen slowed up to let his head quit whirling, Johnson simply leaned up against him and pushed him around ring just to worry him still further. That golden smile was very much in evidence at this juncture.

“The fifth round was rather slow, but very amusing at the close, when Johnson pushed his glove into McLaglen’s face and kept jabbing him right into his own corner.

“In the sixth round McLaglen, who was clearly not in condition, was getting pretty tired, but managed to ginger up some. Always mindful of his laurels, Johnson started in to make it a fast finish. But the Scotchman could not stand the bombardment nor the punishment of those short-arm punches. He slowed up and stalled and Johnson did not want to make any worse farce of it by chasing McLaglen around the ring. So he took things rather easy too until just before the close of the round when there was a fast and very pretty rally, in which those chocolate coloured arms commenced to work at high speed again for a little while on McLaglen’s face and body. There was one stiff upper cut that landed on McLaglen’s jaw just before the gong that rocked his head in a manner that made many spectators wince. Yet the fist that did the trick did not move more than six inches in making the punch. This gave the sports present who bet on Burns a chance to see just how they lost their money.”

The paper concluded that Johnson showed “easily the cleverest work in those six rounds that has ever been seen in any ring in this city” but praised McLaglen as being “as game too as Tommy Burns” despite commenting that he “never landed an effective blow on the champion” despite “trying all the time”.

The bout was said to have generated a little over $1300 in receipts and swelled the club’s coffers by around $700 after expenses were deducted.

Among the relatively few papers outside Vancouver which carried any details of the exhibition was The Tacoma Times – it ran a report under the headline “McLaglen of Tacoma easy for big Jack Johnson” and said: “The exhibition was lightning fast and McLaglen was hopelessly outclassed by Johnson who landed on the white man almost at will.

“Although a trifle heavy about the waistline, Johnson showed all his wonderful speed and did not perceptibly tire during the six rounds. He even disdained a chair during the intermissions.

“The bout almost terminated abruptly in the first round when, emerging from a clinch, Johnson sent a hard left smash into McLaglen’s solar plexus.

“The Tacoma scrapper sank to his knees and was almost out, but recovered and managed to continue. Thereafter Johnson was careful not to harm McLaglen.

“Following the entertainment Johnson was tendered a big banquet by the colored people of Vancouver.”

The Washington Herald also carried a brief report of what it described as “six fast rounds”, commenting: “Johnson gave a dazzling exhibition of boxing and walloped McLaglen at will.

“The latter narrowly escaped a knockout in the first round from a solar plexus punch. After this Johnson was more careful not to injure the Canadian.”

The day after the exhibition an unmarked Johnson and his wife hopped on a Canadian Pacific train for Chicago and it’s not known if he and McLaglen ever met again.

McLaglen continued boxing, including while serving in the British Army during World War One, and was even touted by some as a “White Hope” despite a relatively modest ring record.

But in an unexpected turn of events he quit the ring after being offered a film role following a bout at the National Sporting Club in London’s Covent Garden in 1920, retiring with a professional record of 11 wins, six losses, one draw and one no contest.

After a string of parts in British silent movies McLaglen moved to Hollywood, made a successful transition to “talkies” and the rest is history.

He became best known for playing rough, tough-talking characters and his list of co-stars is like a 'Who’s Who' of celluloid icons – it included John Wayne, with whom he appeared in several John Ford films, plus Boris Karloff, Cary Grant, Douglas Fairbanks Jr, Humphrey Bogart, Mae West, Basil Rathbone and Marlene Dietrich.

VICTOR MCLAGLEN MOVIE POSTER

His career peaked with his 1935 Academy Award, when he beat fellow nominees including Clark Gable and Charles Laughton for their roles in 'Mutiny on the Bounty', but he was also nominated for a best supporting actor Oscar for his part in the 1952 flick 'The Quiet Man'.

Over the years some boxing scribes have wondered if Johnson ever realised that the rich and famous movie star Victor McLaglen was the same young man he had once fought in Canada.

It turns out that Johnson was well aware of the fact.

In a 1936 article discussing fistic “White Hopes” of the past, American newspaperman Damon Runyon revealed he had once talked to Johnson about McLaglen.

Runyon quoted Johnson as saying: “Well, Mr Biddy Bishop had Mr McLaglen up in Vancouver them days and he got me to come up there and box the boy.

“Them people in Vancouver thought Mr McLaglen was a good fighter and I never did nothing to make them think nothing else.”

Runyon added that Johnson also described McLaglen as being “big and strong” and said he “knew something about fighting”.

In 1937 Johnson again mentioned McLaglen in a newspaper feature in which he recalled the various white fighters who had been touted as the men to dethrone him when he was world champion.

The list, he said, included “A Britisher who has since become a world famous film star – Victor McLaglen, whom I beat over six rounds in Vancouver in my first fight after I had won the championship.”

Johnson added: “McLaglen was a dandy fighter and a dandy fellow. He deserved the great break he got later.”

As for McLaglen, he was often asked in later life about the day he fought the great Jack Johnson but appears to have been curiously reluctant to talk about it in detail.

Occasionally however he would briefly indulge the press and reveal a tantalising snippet about what it was like to swap blows with a man some consider to be among the finest heavyweights who ever lived.

In 1926 the Niagara Falls Gazette (New York) quoted McLaglen in a piece about the premiere of his film 'What Price Glory'.

The star was said to have commented: “He [Johnson] beat me in the scheduled six rounds but I gave him a tough scrap – and got a broken nose for my efforts.”

In a 1930 interview with the Dundee Evening Telegraph in Scotland McLaglen said: “I know that sports writers in recent years have asserted that Johnson ‘carried me’, that he let me ‘stay’ six rounds, but that fight was on the up and up.

“There was nothing funny about it. If Johnson could have put me out he would have done so.”

And in a 1934 feature which appeared in The Argus (Melbourne, Australia) McLaglen was quoted as saying Johnson “was undoubtedly the hardest man to hit I ever met”.

He added: “He was also the most charming opponent, standing well back and waving me forward when I slipped into the ropes in retreating before an attack of his, chattering away blithely during the heat of a clinch, and never altering that good-natured expression which some men found so disconcerting.”

In 1941 a reporter from the Brooklyn Eagle (New York) interviewed McLaglen and discovered he was much more interested in talking about the horses he bred on his huge Californian ranch than he was in chatting about Johnson.

Finally, after repeated questions about Johnson, McLaglen briefly opened up, saying: “Oh, all right, if you must! It was up in Vancouver. Johnson had just come back from beating Tommy Burns in Australia.

“I was just a raw kid and my idol was Jim Jeffries. So I went in with Jack and stayed six rounds. But what do you want with that stuff? I never wanted to be a fighter.”

In a 1945 interview with The Saratogian (New York) McLaglen contradicted his claim about not wanting to be a fighter.

Reflecting on his Oscar win, he said: “I guess that was the biggest thrill of my life. I had always wanted to be the champion prize fighter of the world. I hung up my gloves when I realised I would never make it.

“The night they handed me that Oscar I looked at it and said to myself ‘Well at least I’m a champion actor – champ for a year’.”

Even at the end of his life McLaglen was still being asked about his fight with Johnson.

In 1959, 50 years after the bout, a reporter spoke to him on the set of the TV series 'Rawhide' where he was playing a punch-drunk old fighter opposite a young Clint Eastwood in an episode directed by McLaglen’s son Andrew.

McLaglen, now 72, was tight-lipped on the subject as usual but did comment: “It was an exhibition match so it was a no decision outcome.

“To tell you the truth, Johnson gave me an awful whipping.”

A month later, on November 7 1959, McLaglen died from heart failure.

One can only speculate as to the reasons for his apparent reticence on the subject of Johnson over the years – perhaps his pride was hurt by the trouncing he got (a trouncing his idol Jim Jeffries also later received when he came out of retirement) or perhaps he was simply bored of talking about it.

Whatever the reason, it was a remarkable episode in a remarkable life and it’s certainly no disgrace to get a whipping from one of the all-time great heavyweight champions.

Some might argue that it’s actually an honour.