BACK in late 1929, the British lightweight title was held by Fred Webster of Kentish Town. There were a many good challengers for his title and two of them were matched to box at the Stadium Club on High Holborn, in London, on 13 November 1929.
Sam Steward was the ex-champion, having been defeated by Webster some six months previously. His opponent, Johnny Mann of St George’s, in London’s east end, had only had 21 professional contests, of which he had won 16 and lost five. He was a former top-flight amateur, having boxed for Limehouse and Poplar BC, for whom it was claimed he had taken part in over 400 amateur contests.
His losses were all against good fighters and, as losing was very much part of the game back then, particularly as one was learning on the way up, his chances against Steward were considered to be high. The two men weighed in at two o’clock on the day of the contest, as was standard practice back then, and both men made the agreed limit, 9st 10lbs, with Mann being two pounds under the weight.
Johnny had lost his sister, Eva, a few weeks prior to the contest and he had been greatly disturbed by this. As the death of a young person was far more commonplace back then, he was urged to get on with things by both his family and by his manager. After weighing in he returned home, where he told his parents that he was retiring to bed for some rest. They woke him up at five and then departed for the venue, as they were going to watch the bout. Johnny had told them that he was going to take a short walk and that he would get himself to the club later. He never arrived.
The top of the bill contest, between Jackie Brown, the British flyweight champion, and Phineas John of Wales passed off satisfactorily, with a points victory for Brown, but the promoters were fretting about the whereabouts of Mann. Eventually they cancelled the contest and Harry Fenn, a local fighter, stepped in at very short notice to take Steward to a close 15-round decision.
As Mann had completely disappeared Scotland Yard were informed, and the young fighter was treated as a missing person. He was eventually found, lying unconscious, on the pavement directly outside the Oval cricket ground, at two o’clock in the morning. He was taken to hospital by ambulance by a well-meaning passer-by whose identity was never established. Harry Stone, an amateur boxer and a friend of Johnny, recognised him there and alerted his parents. Quite why Harry was at the hospital is not known.
Johnny remained in a dazed and delirious state and his parents were asked not to communicate with him until he had recovered. His mother admitted that on the day of the contest she had found him in his room, sobbing bitterly about his sister, and asking where she was. He was clearly in no state to be taking part in a 15-round contest but, true to the times, his mother told him to “pull yourself together and have a wash in cold water.”
His manager, Billy Palmer, had to spend some time convincing the press that Johnny had not just walked away from the contest, not fancying it. Regardless, Johnny’s standing amongst the administrators and the promoters took a nose-dive.
He did not box again until December 1931, more than two years later, and he had 15 more contests, losing only one of them. He was a top-ranked fighter, considered a certainty to become a British champion, but his mental aberration, or whatever it was, was enough to isolate him from championship reckoning for the remainder of his career.
In later life Johnny became a much-respected coach at Stepney and St George’s BC, where he was responsible for the development of the great Sammy McCarthy.