IN A WORLD of broken noses and fractured promises, those who have stumbled through the fields of uppercuts and dazes are doomed to forever carry the tariff of their brutal trade.
The cost of professional boxing is measured in scar tissue. The stories of ring wars become more slurred with each year away from the bleeding business.
In a world of broken promises and broken men, Bunny Johnson, Britain’s first black heavyweight champion, remains an enigma. At 76, Bunny, bright enough to follow a legal career after the final bell tolled on his fighting life, remains articulate, remains the fight game’s philosopher. He holds court with an old-style West Indies verbosity that would do Samuel Pepys proud.
Bunny, from Kingstanding, Birmingham, was canny enough to realise time had scattered sand in his boxing shoes and got out of the game. Others have tried to shuffle the grit from their soles – and paid a lasting price.
After ending his career in Australia, he studied law at Wolverhampton University and became a police station representative: doling out advice in a soft, lilting Caribbean accent to those whose collars had been felt by the long arm of the law.
His is a larger-than-life tale, crammed with unexpected twist, turns and triumphs, and he recounts them all with Churchillian precision.
“I enjoy talking to journalists,” he smiled, stretching his long frame on a sofa. “Journalists deal in life and I enjoy talking about life.”
Bunny’s adventures, both in and out of the ring, make for gripping yarns.
*After moving here from Jamaica as a 16-year-old, he established himself as one of the game’s great technicians. He captured both the British heavy and light-heavyweight titles in a career spanning 13 years and 73 fights.
*He became a sparring partner for the domestic game’s elite: tasked with sharpening the skills of household name’s such as Henry Cooper and Joe Bugner.
*He owned night clubs and pubs in Birmingham.
Bunny has stepped off the rollercoaster of his early existence and, in his dotage, is content. More importantly, he is not bitter. “What has happened has happened,” he shrugged, “I do not regret anything, it’s a waste of energy.”
Yet the marvellous athlete, blessed with a jackhammer left hook, has good reason to be bitter. In the 1960s and 70s, he watched on helplessly as far inferior fighters got the breaks and bumper paydays.
The sport’s residency rule – a stipulation fighters must have lived here for 10 years before contesting British titles – meant Bunny trod water during his prime time. “I stagnated for three years,” he explained, “just when I was supposed to get to the pinnacle. I was going over the same ground, boxing the same calibre of people.”
Bunny, like so many fine Caribbean fighters, was also cursed by the colour of his skin. He performed in an era when black fighters, quite simply, didn’t compete on an even playing field with the game’s great white hopes.
Cooper and Co had the right complexion, they had the right connections.
“In the ‘70s, I had a conversation with one of the big promoters, I will not mention his name,” said Bunny, measuring each word. “He explained the overwhelming majority of people who watched boxing shows were white people and they liked to see an image of themselves in the ring.
“That was correct. There was not that level of support for Caribbean fighters. If you went to a fight, you would not see a substantial number of black people in the crowd. There was a reason for that. They came over here to save money with the expectation of one day returning home. Of course, many didn’t, but that was their expectation. It was very difficult for the promoter to make it economically viable. Maybe he was partly right, but he was not wholly right.
“He could’ve marketed us, but marketing us was something he was not prepared to do because it would cost more money. It was not racism, it was economics and I understand economics.”
Bunny thought for a while before again diving into the deep waters of racial divisions. “In the ‘80s social changes began to emanate. You had black fighters like Benn and Eubank, fighters who could attract 50,000 people to Wembley Stadium. My children went to school here, they are part of the whole society, more so than myself. They are black Englishmen.”
Like so many Caribbeans of a certain age, Bunny was shaped and moulded by his mother Pearl, a woman he still speaks of in reverential tones. Her iron-rule kept Bunny on the straight and narrow, separating him from the street clashes between Birmingham’s growing band of immigrants and indignant white residents. “I was a good lad under the influence of my mum,” he admitted. “It didn’t soften me. My mother said you should always fight for what you want.”
Bunny followed his parents to Lozells with an unlikely dream: to become Britain’s first black heavyweight champion. He announced the target, to a chorus of laughter, before even lacing on a glove.
“I said it at work,” he laughed. “I was a spot-welder at Alvic Tools, in Aston Cross, and told someone what I was going to do. He said, ‘if that happens, I’ll eat my hat’.”
After peeling off 32 wins in 36 fights in the amateur ranks, Bunny signed pro forms with George Biddles, an old-school East Midlands promoter who brought a Barnham-esque schtick to the sport.
It was a spit-and-sawdust Swadlincote gym where raw-boned Jack Bodell, a champ in waiting, ruled the roost. More firepower than finesse, he and Bunny engaged in savage sparring sessions: Jack’s broadsword against Bunny’s rapier.
“They were hard,” Bunny admitted. “Bodell was not technically strong. He had to use brute force to overcome the subtleties.
“I knocked him out once. I hit him with a peach of a left hook. It looked like he wasn’t going to get up, but eventually he did.”
A 1970 sparring session with Henry Cooper revealed Bunny’s true potential, however.
Paid £20 for every round, Bunny more than held his own with Our ‘Enry, a perennial titleholder, admittedly, past his best.
“Boxing with Cooper was a revelation. I didn’t realise at the time I was that good. I opened with a double jab and left hook. He backed off to the ropes. I stepped back because I respected him as a champion and also I thought he’s not going to pay me £60 a day to get knocked about.
“George Biddle was over the moon. He said, ‘do you realise what you’ve done? You’d beat Cooper now – you know it, I know it’.”
For Bunny, boxing was strictly a business. There is not a trace of the faux animosity towards opponents that’s become part and parcel of “selling” today’s fights.
Of Danny McAlinden, the brawling Irishman he trounced in nine rounds to take the heavyweight title in 1975, he said matter-of-factly: “I used to do a few rounds of sparring with Danny. I cannot see what confidence he would’ve had going into that fight because he had been shown to be somewhat ineffective when sparring with me.”
Of Tim Wood, sparked out in one round for the light-heavweight title two years later, he said: “A nice man, a very nice man, but not made for the rough-and-tumble of professional boxing, I felt.”
Bunny ended his career in Australia, bowing out of boxing in 1981 with a stoppage loss. “I went for six weeks and stayed seven years,” he laughed. He set-up a security firm in Sydney, but returned home to look after his ailing mother.
He was not lost to the game and became a representative on the Midland Boxing Council.
He is not a fan of the game, however. “I was always a performer, not a spectator,” Bunny reasoned. “I was a performer, not a lover of boxing. Once I couldn’t do it any more, I moved on to something else. As an old man, you don’t want to do the things you did as a young man.”
And Bunny is an old man with a lot of memories.