As an old man he was ravaged by dementia and lived a lonely life in Philadelphia, barely recognisable from the chiselled fighting machine that defeated the likes of Ezzard Charles and Archie Moore during a legend-littered era.
Moore – widely regarded as the best 175lb fighter of all time – got the better of Johnson in four out of their five bouts, and kept the brilliant technician off the throne until 1962. By then Archie was easing into retirement and Johnson, recognised as champion by New York, claimed the vacant undisputed crown via 15-round decision over Doug Jones.
But Johnson’s best days had gone and he only made one successful defence (decisioning Germany’s Gustav Scholz) before losing the title in a major upset to Willie Pastrano in Las Vegas. Johnson, then 34, had not tasted defeat since 1955 and did not like it. “I never heard of a fighter winning the title by running,” he said after the forgettable bout.
Although he fought on-and-off until 1971 he never again competed at the top level.
Born in 1927 with boxing in his blood (his father Phil was also a fighter), he first fought in the Navy which he joined after dropping out of high school and lying about his age. By 1946, he was a professional boxer.
Four years later he would lose to future world heavyweight champion Jersey Joe Walcott (who had also beaten his father) before hitting a peak that was decorated with the kind of fistic artistry now all too rare. Johnson rarely wasted a punch, exhibited restraint and intelligence inside the ring, and won 76 of 87 fights.
Yet his talents did not garner due reward, financially at least, and he would often wish he had chosen a different career path. But boxing should be glad he didn’t. May he rest in peace.