Hand drawn (pencil) matchstick boxers with signed quotation by Manchester's unofficially brilliant uncrowned champion Len Johnson. Measures 4" x 2 3/4".
Quotation signed by Len Johnson:
"It is far better to give than to receive is my motto"
Condition very good (indentation left side top edge & paper yellowing with age)
The Uncrownable Champion
It’s hard to believe, but just over 84 years, a Mancunian boxer's achievements were overlooked because of the simple fact he was black. Below, author Rob Howard tells the story of Len Johnson and his career-long fight with the 'colour bar'.
Len Johnson, born in Manchester on 22 October 1902, learned the noble art on boxing booths, and eventually became the owner of his own booth – travelling around England with fairgrounds.
Len was a highly skilled boxer, with an educated left hand and a slippery defence that made him difficult to hit and left his features largely unmarked throughout his career.
Johnson embarked on a conventional boxing career in 1921 that saw him win more often than he lost, but seemed to be headed nowhere in particular. In 1925, however, he had his first real break when matched in a non-title bout with Roland Todd, the reigning British Middleweight Champion.
Johnson seized his opportunity by defeating Todd on points, repeating the feat in a rematch. These wins should have automatically earned him the right to a title contest, but the boxing authorities forbade such a match, due to Johnson’s colour.
At the time, boxing regulations included the infamous Rule 24, which stated that title contestants "…must have two white parents".
The rule didn’t stop Johnson’s domination of the British and European middleweight division. Despite not being allowed a shot at the title, he defeated many big names of the day, with the likes of Ted 'Kid' Lewis, Len Harvey, Gypsy Daniels, George West, Ted Moore, Jack Etienne, Harry Crossley, Leon Jaccovacci and Michele Bonaglia all failing in their attempts to beat him.
Australian hero, British outcast
Fed up with the attitude of boxing officialdom in Britain, Johnson spent six months in Australia, where he won the British Empire middleweight championship by defeating local hero Harry Collins. Johnson was popular and successful Down Under, but he found a different attitude when he returned home to get married.
On arrival in England, Johnson discovered that his Empire title won fair and square was not recognised by the boxing authorities, who had installed Scotland’s Tommy Milligan as Empire Champion. It was an open snub to the man now regarded by boxing fans everywhere as Britain’s best middleweight.
Sadly, there was little Len could do to object. The 'colour bar' rule which had permanently blighted his ring career (and would go on doing so) was unwavering, and although he relentlessly campaigned for a change, his was a voice in the wilderness. This was before the age of protests, and most promoters kept silent on this issue as they didn’t want to risk retribution from the boxing authorities.
It wasn't just the boxing authorities either. The 'colour bar' rule had the tacit support from politicians and had its origins in an irrational fear felt by the Victorian ruling classes of an insurrection amongst the black colonial inhabitants across the British Empire. It was believed that black boxers seen to be defeating white boxers could incite rebellion.
The 'colour bar' ended in 1947 when the new, reforming Labour government, recognising that the Empire was changing to the Commonwealth, leaned on the British Boxing Board of Control to effect a change.
Fighting For Rights
The change was just too late for Len. By 1945, his involvement with boxing was over (he had given up the ring in 1933, but continued to tour with his own boxing booth until 1939) and Johnson became a member of the Communist Party, a trade unionist, and a local civil rights activist.
Johnson spent many years championing the causes of the under privileged – six times, he ran unsuccessfully for a position on Manchester City Council - and was recognised as a community leader in Moss Side, where he frequently intervened in cases involving racial discrimination. Indeed, such was his standing that he was one of the local representatives at the influential Pan-African Congress in 1945.
Even his private life had a campaigning bent - amongst his friends was the American actor/ singer/ civil rights activist Paul Robeson.
Johnson died on 28 September 1974, a month shy of his 72nd birthday. He is remembered as a courageous campaigner and an intelligent, considerate man.
For all that though, what he might have liked most is the posthumous recognition of that hard-fought and fairly won Empire title, rightfully giving him his place in the record books and in history as a champion boxer.