Thursday, October 2, 2008

Marvin Johnson: Indianapolis Boxer

Photo Courtesy

Marvin Johnson

By Rick Johnson

Blinding lights and a television camera focused on Marvin Johnson, recording the sound and the fury of his workout on the heavy bag. While Marvin snapped punch after punch into the bulky canvas bag, members of the TV crew hustled around trying to cut down some of the background noise in the Police Athletic League (PAL) gym at 1431 East Washington Street.

Hopeful boxers were working out on the speed bags. Others skipped rope, and the buzz and slap of the rope hissing through the air and hitting the floor was nearly synchronized with Marvin’s punches.

A pair of youngsters flailed away in the ring, while their coaches shouted instructions…first to one, then the other.

Away from the glare of the lights, but close enough to watch every one of Marvin’s moves, stood a pair of black men. Though they were in their mid-50s, they stood erect and proud…as old warriors should stand. No noise or event could distract them. Smiles of great pride crept across their faces as they watched Marvin furiously assault the heavy bag with left-right combinations, hooking rights and lefts, straight rights, left crosses, right crosses. A bob, a weave, then a step in toward the swaying bag, and another barrage of punches.

When the workout was over, Marvin calmly and distinctly began answering questions while the camera continued to grind.

The two men in the background listened, obviously as pleased with the way Marvin handled himself during an interview as they were with his punching. Marvin made no boasts. He issued no challenges, no threats…just honest, straight talk.

The two men, R.L. Johnson and Colin Chaney, looked at each other and nodded, grinning broadly. To each of them, Marvin is a fulfillment of every hope and dream they ever had and were not to be when they were young warriors nearly four decades ago.

Marvin has always been close to his father, and his respect for his dad is a pleasure to witness. His respect for Chaney, an Indianapolis policeman who spotted Marvin’s talent and determination to be a winner and coached him toward that goal, is nearly equal to that Marvin holds for his father.

But there is no rivalry or jealousy among these warriors as they discuss training procedures, workouts, interviews, or fight strategy. Their goal…work, work, work, and more work. All of them know it takes more hard work and determination to stay on top than it takes to get there, and all three are willing to make the required sacrifices.

At 56, R.L. Johnson is still ramrod straight and strong. His smile is spangled with a row of gold teeth. But he doesn’t flash that smile just to show his gold teeth. He’s a warm, friendly man who loves his family, and never passes an opportunity to talk about his nine boys and girls.

R.L., who says the initials are his first and middle names, was born in Hernando, Miss. When he was eight years old, he was put to work in the cotton fields, and was expected to chop 50 pounds of cotton a day.

“I was a fighter…just an amateur though. I loved it,” R.L. said. “But there was no way black men could be fighters in those days. None of us were ever given a right to expect any more than a plow, a mule, and a cotton field. Sure…Joe Louis came along, but there weren’t many others in his time.”

The written words seem harsh, cruel, and bitter, but R.L. did not deliver them that way. He spoke them with a satisfaction that era of which he spoke has passed.

While still a young man, R.L. married Ruth Massey, and they moved to Indianapolis and started their family. Henry L., Ernestine, Ruth Ann, Marvin, Ernest A., Fenton, Johnnie, Mae, and Dexter were all born at General, now Wishard Hospital, and the family lived at 409 West 13th Street. The Johnson home site at 13th and Missouri Streets has been covered by the I-65 inner belt.

From that location, the Johnson family moved to 1606 North New Jersey.

To support his family, R.L. has had many jobs…all of them physically demanding labor. His first job in Indianapolis was with the Indianapolis Union Railway.

“At first, they had me unloading and loading crossties. Then the boss told me I was too good a man to do that work, and for the next year I hammered iron (drove spikes) for the railroad.”

R.L. then went to work for the old Malleable Foundry in Haughville, and he spent nine years there at a variety of jobs.

He then went to work as a hod carrier for the Hunt Construction Company, and he has worked there nearly 10 years.

Being a hod carrier is seasonal work, and frequently he has been forced to do a lot of traveling to find work and keep his family fed.

No matter how hard he worked, he had troubles keeping his family fed. R.L. has never made more than $13,000 a year, but he managed, and he refused to let Ruth work.

“No baby sitter was going to raise my children. Ruth agreed her spot was to take care of our children, see that they were raised right, with my help in disciplining them, setting a good example, and providing all I could,” R.L. said with a vigorous nod of his head.

When R.L. and Ruth moved to Indianapolis, he sold his boxing gloves and vowed to never put them on again. But when Henry was born, he cozied up to Ruth, and after some cooing, got her to agree to the purchase of some gloves so he could work out with Henry.

“Thought that boy ought to have a chance if he had some ability,” R.L. said with a smile. He found some gloves at a Goodwill store.

Henry had some boxing ability. He became a national AAU champ, and has a Golden Glove title as well. Henry has been in the Army some time, and is a member of the Army boxing team.

Marvin, fifth oldest of the Johnson family, has three sisters between him and Henry. From the time Marvin was a toddler, he watched as his father and Henry sparred. Then when he got older, Henry would lace on the gloves with him, get down on his knees, and spar with Marvin.

Although Ernest, Fenton, and Dexter are proud of Marvin and the determination he has shown to become a champion boxer, as yet, none of them have chosen to walk that same rigorous path…although Dexter is beginning to show some signs, R.L. said.

Aside from Marvin’s punching power and his stamina, the next most impressive thing about him is his conduct. R.L. was asked to comment on that.

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“…his upbringing…pure and simple. He was taught to be a gentleman. He was taught to use his head. I told him he was taking a good brain and good upbringing into the ring every time he fought, and when he came out of the ring, he’d better show it. And he does.”

R.L. is convinced that Chaney had a great influence on Marvin. “Champ” insists that his fighters behave like gentlemen in and out of the ring, and he sets an example for them.

In the PAL Club dressing room, one of Chaney’s signs states, “Be Nice Before and After the Fight…Not During.” And the boxers say Champ’s word is law.

R.L. rolled back on his heels a moment and said, “You know…after Marvin started having some success, and it looked like he was going to be a winner, a lot of people began trying to crowd Champ out. They’d tell us Champ was doing this and that wrong…even if it was working. Marvin and I talked it over several times. Champ even offered to step aside if it looked like him sticking around would keep Marvin from getting the shots we all knew he deserved. Well…Champ is with us, and as long as Marvin laces on the gloves, he’s going to stay around, and he’s going to get a piece of the action,” R. L. said proudly.

A lot of people were critical of R.L. for allowing Marvin to spend so much time with Chaney and the other PAL Club boxers.

“Champ Chaney is a fine man. He’s able to give a lot of boys guidance they don’t get at home. He gets ‘em straightened out, and he keeps them that way. As far as Marvin is concerned, he got all the discipline and upbringing at home. He needed Champ to show him how to fight, and Champ sure did that, didn’t he?” R.L. said with a flash of gold teeth.

Chaney, now 56 years old, has the physique of a man 25 years younger. He runs six miles a day, and does boxing workouts regularly with Marvin. He can not only tell young boxers how to fight, he can show them, and his hammer-blow punches have lost none of their wallop even though his reflexes are not quite as keen.

Chaney’s memory, though, is razor-sharp. He recalls his past, not so much with bitterness, but with hurt. Chaney, and many other boxing buffs in the area, knows he could have been World Heavyweight Champion after Joe Louis vacated the crown in the late 1940s.

Chaney, born in Commerce, Ga., was one of 18 children. He wanted to be a fighter, and his idol was Joe Louis. Farm Life held no interest for him. He loved basketball and other athletics, and he had an extraordinary physique. He worked in the Civilian Conservation Corps for a time, and tried desperately to become a boxer. But in the Deep South, there were as many gymnasium doors barred for blacks as there were restaurants.

“I had an uncle in Indianapolis, Ed Chaney, and he operated a restaurant at 21st Street and Martindale,” Champ said. “My dad let me come to Indianapolis in 1942, and I went to work for my uncle.”

“One of the first places I went was Leeper’s Gym. I told them I wanted to be a champion, not just a fighter, and they looked me over.”

A few weeks later, Chaney, who never had an amateur fight and almost no ring training, fought his first fight and his first pro fight at Columbus, Ind., and got a draw in six rounds. In his next fight in Evansville, he got a win. He next fought in Indianapolis in the old outdoor arena, and knocked out his opponent in the first round.

Chaney says he was, at that time, a raw talent, and usually mishandled, mismanaged, or over matched in his early fights. But he continued to survive and strive toward his goal. In 1944, he fought Lou Nova and lost a TKO in five rounds. Nova was a top-ranked heavyweight who had just fought Joe Louis. In 1945, Chaney lost a five-round TKO to the ring veteran Archie Moore.

Chaney was fighting a lot and getting experience, but he still had to work. He went to work for the Omar Baking Company as a janitor,, and the baking company bought him a robe and boxing togs.

By 1948, Chaney was the third-ranked heavyweight contender, and he was certain to get a shot at the title.

Then, prior to a fight with Lee Olmo at Milwaukee, Chaney answered a knock at his hotel room door. A pair of men walked into his room. One of them wasted no time, glaring menacingly at Chaney he said, “You know what you’re supposed to do, don’t you? Go down in the sixth. There’ll be $750 for you.”

With no further conversation, the two men left Chaney’s room.

Chaney wasted no time reporting the incident to the boxing commission, and the FBI also made an investigation. Chaney won the fight, but the way things worked out, the incident would make him a big loser.

“I was completely cleared, and neither Olmo nor his manager were involved in the fix attempt.

“But after that,” Chaney said, giving a sad nod of his head, “I couldn’t get fights with the people I had to fight to get to the title. They just froze me out. By 1951, I lost my third-place ranking.”

Chaney, with his goal in sight, was prevented from attaining it. Reduced to a club fighter, he had to have a better job. In 1951, he joined the Indianapolis Police Department, and a short time later, was assigned to the PAL Club to help build a boxing program.

“Marvin was about 15 when he came to the old St Rita’s PAL Club. He was quick, but not very accurate…a little clumsy, in fact. He said he wanted to be a boxer, and he asked an awful lot of questions. I answered them the best I could. He told me he wanted to be a boxer, and would do whatever it took to be one.”

“Talk doesn’t impress me much,” Chaney said. “I told him what he would have to do, and he’d have to do it when I told him to, and as often as I told him to, and there would be a lot of sacrifice involved. He still said he was willing, and I gave him a program to follow and said…show me.”

Marvin’s determination soon impressed Chaney, and he began to spend more time with the persevering youngster.

“He came a long way that first year. I almost took him to the Golden Gloves, but thought he was just a little too young. Our boy, who was in Marvin’s weight class, lost his fight. I knew if Marvin had been there, we would have won that spot. I told the other coach that I had a boy back home who could take his boy the next year.”

“I couldn’t wait to get back there with Marvin,” Chaney said as he pounded his fist into his palm. “And sure enough…Marvin won.”

“Marvin came over to me after the fight and said, ‘Thanks, Champ.’ I think both of us cried a little.”

In analyzing Marvin’s success, Chaney said, “I’ve had a lot of youngsters who have had ability…as much as Marvin, in fact. But they won’t be punctual and regular in their training. They ease off, start fooling around, and they’re done.”

“Right now,” Chaney said, “if I’d go out there and say, ‘Marvin…I think you should go chop wood for a few days,’ Marvin wouldn’t hesitate. He’d go chop wood. If I say run eight miles a day for a while, Marvin will run eight miles. No matter what I tell him, he does it, and he does it now,” Chaney said with an emphatic snap of his fingers.

“Some of the boys who have been here grumble. They say I’ve been showing Marvin things I don’t show them. Not true. I show them and tell them all the same. The difference is, Marvin listens and does it.”

“Marvin’s a respectable boy. He’s a great example…dependable and reliable. He makes me feel good. In fact, you can say Marvin has made my life,” Chaney offered.

As is has been for so many black men, living in the ghetto was a major reason for Marvin Johnson to turn to boxing for an escape route.

“From as early as I can remember, Mom always had us say our prayers before bed time. She gave us the words to say when we were young. We gave thanks to God for all that we had. As I got a little older and looked around at what we had, I wondered why we should thank God. We were poor…awful poor. We lived in a house that should have been condemned. We had enough to eat, but that was about the only luxury.”

“I talked to Mom about it. I asked why we should thank God. She told me we should thank Him for our good health and our strength, and even for the roof over our heads…though it wasn’t fancy, it was much, much better than no roof.”

“Mom was right, of course,” Marvin said.

“I sent up a lot of prayers after that. I knew that to get my family out of the ghetto, I had to be good at something…not necessarily boxing, but something, to make a lot of money and leave. I dreamed my dreams. I prayed my prayers. I like to make it known that I believe in God, and that prayers are answered.”

“My brother Henry boxed with me…so did my dad. It seemed the way to go. There was always some big story on television or in the newspapers about how much a champion boxer made.”

“So, I went to see Champ Chaney. I had a lot of talks with him. I asked him about his record as a fighter. He told me how many fights he had. I asked him if he ever lost. He told me yes. He never tried to make himself better or bigger than he really was. He told me the truth.”

“I believed he was a man I could trust, and he had the experience to teach me all I needed to know. He also had the ability to demonstrate his points, rather than just talk about them.”

“He could teach you to slip or roll with a punch, show you why and how you got hit as you moved in or out on your opponent, and the thing I liked best…he didn’t try to change any boxer’s natural style. I’m an aggressive fighter, and he didn’t change that or attempt to. He took what I had, and worked with it.”

“People talk about my determination. I believe I was born with that, and that I got it from my father. Dad’s a very determined man. His determination is one of the reasons I respect him so much. Many men in the ghetto wouldn’t stay with their families. They left them because it was just too much. My father didn’t leave. He stayed and fought it out. There were a lot of times when the utilities came due, other bills were overdue, and money was short, but Dad fed us first and took care of us the best he could. He didn’t run out.”

“We had a lot of boiled potatoes, biscuits and jelly for breakfast, but we loved it, and we stayed together. We stayed healthy. I can’t recall a single time when any of us had to go to the hospital,” Marvin said quietly, “but I was determined to do better.”

Step by step, Marvin continued to do better…Golden Gloves, AAU, then to the Olympics, where he won a bronze medal.

“When I came back from the Olympics, I set my sights on a world championship. It was my goal to become a champion, and use my first big payday to buy my mother and father a new house, and get them as many of the things they deserve as possible.”

“God helped me to be a man, and He helped me to get where I am. We are all members of the Church of Christ, we attend regularly, and we live the Word.”

Marvin said he is aware there are many needy youngsters who worship him. He buys a few of them coats and shoes.

“I really don’t have to be concerned about my conduct when I’m around little kids. I don’t curse. I’ve never had a drink or smoked. I just don’t have to worry about making a mistake in front of them and setting a bad example. I’m just myself in front of little kids or anyone else. That’s the only way I can be. What you see is what you get.”

Marvin graduated from Crispus Attucks High School in 1971. He said he had about a C average, and was interested in playing football. However, although his dad refused to tell him not to play, he discouraged it as a high-risk game because of injuries…the sort of injuries that could end his boxing career.

“I finally gave up on the idea of playing football when I had a talk with the coach, and he told me he’d like to have me, but didn’t think I ought to do it. So, I concentrated on boxing full time while I was in high school.”

While an Attucks pupil, Marvin took an interest in his present wife, Delores.

“I always liked her because she was a lot like me…kind of quiet…and she was awful pretty. But it was later, after we got out of school, that we began dating. She wanted to get more involved with my career, and she decided to make all my trunks and my robes. She really does a great job. And I have to thank her for her understanding and patience. She knows that it took a lot of hard work to get to the top, and it’s going to take as much or more work to stay there.”

The Johnson home at 1606 North New Jersey Street is a two-story dwelling with red brick shingle siding. The house, which stood on the northwest corner, has been torn down. The liquor store on the northeast corner has been robbed more times than anyone in the Johnson house can recall. Directly down the street is a service station that holdup men knock over with surprising regularity. All around the Johnson home are boarded up houses.

Six stray dogs were curled up sleeping on the porch of the vacant house directly east of the Johnson home. But to a visitor, the Johnson home is only 1606 North New Jersey on the outside.

Inside, Ruth Johnson is always busy cooking a meal and cleaning her home. The home is comfortable, clean, functionally furnished, and the atmosphere is friendly. In one corner of the living room, boxing trophies, won by Marvin and Henry, take up considerable space. There are several pictures of the Johnson children, and of Marvin and Henry in their boxing gear.

Although all of the Johnson children were raised in the ghetto, and saw many friends and acquaintances get into trouble with the law, none of the Johnson youngsters are so blemished.

Why and how is this so?

Primarily, the reason is fear, but it goes deeper.

Marvin grinned and shook his head when asked about family discipline, and looked at his mother.

“She always kept some real skinny switches around the house, and she’d braid them together. And, boy oh boy…if you did wrong, you got a switching. But when the switching was over, she’d explain just why she had to do it, and she’d always tell us that it was hurting her to do it much more than it was us. I didn’t think I’d ever be able to understand that.”

“You know the Bible says ‘Spare the rod, spoil the child.’ Well…Mom and Dad never spoiled the child.”

“As we got older, we understood what things were about, and the older ones began taking charge of keeping the younger ones in line. Pretty soon, we were policing ourselves. We just didn’t get into trouble away from home because we knew if we did what would happen when we got home.”

Marvin praised his mother’s cooking.

“Got to be pretty careful here…just newly married, you know…but Mom is absolutely the best cook in the world. It took me a long time to get used to eating away from home. My wife is learning, though. She’s gotten so she can cook some things real well already. And she’s trying to learn Mom’s coconut cake recipe.”

“Mom always wanted us to eat at home so she could be sure we had a good diet. We had a lot of steak, chicken, roasts, fish, eggs, grits, rice, greens and beans…all of it good food…but I still don’t think there’s a better breakfast than fresh biscuits, jelly, and boiled potatoes.”

With Marvin’s success and the related publicity, a person could rightfully wonder if any resentment had been stirred within the family.

“No,” Mrs. Johnson said. “We are all proud of Marvin for what he is. We all love him, and we love each other. He has an ability God gave him. God helped him and gave him the strength, and chose Marvin to pull us out of the ghetto,” Mrs. Johnson said.

Without sounding conceited or cocky, Marvin bowed his head slightly, as though returning a private thanks, and said, “Yes. I don’t think there’s much doubt that I am the chosen one. And just as soon as I can, we’ll be leaving here. I want to give my folks all the things they’ve had to do without. You only get one mother and father, and when they’re gone, nothing will replace them. I want to be able to give them things they will enjoy, and be able to enjoy watching them.”

When asked what he intends to do when he concludes his boxing career, Marvin said, “Well, I hope I can make enough money and take care of it so I don’t have to work an 8 to 4 job again.”

“If I’ve got the money to do it, I’d like to help some of the hungry people in this world. There are people in this world who are born hungry and die hungry. I’d like to help some of the sick and afflicted people.”

“But you know,” Marvin said after a pause, “I don’t know if I could be another Champ Chaney. Champ was so patient and so kind with me. He’s been that way with a lot of others too. If I could be another Champ, God would have put it there. I don’t think it’s there now.”

Marvin’s self-doubts brought to mind a scene at the PAL Club gym only a few nights before.

While Marvin laced his shoes prior to a workout, Champ stood as he talked to a reporter. A youngster, about nine years old, dressed in tennis shoes, a sweatshirt, and a light coat, came into the gym office. The youngster was carrying a soft drink.

“Hey,” the youngster announced, “I brought my four dollars. I want to be a fighter. Where do I sign up?”

Chaney said, “Who told you you had to have four dollars? All you need are some tennis shoes and some trunks. Got that?”

The youngster nodded yes.

“We’re gonna have to have a few talks if you want to be a boxer. The first thing is…we don’t drink pop. The next thing…we knock on a door before we enter, and we learn how to be gentlemen,” Chaney said.

Marvin Johnson glanced at the youngster, while he laced his shoes and smiled. He knew exactly what Champ Chaney was going to tell the youngster next. He’d heard it all in 1969, but Marvin remembered all of it, and he had done exactly as Champ said.

So you see Marvin…God might tell you to be like Champ someday, but if Champ tells you to do it first, you will. But don’t count on finding another youngster like yourself.

Marvin Johnson is one of a kind.


Blogger's note:

In September of 2008, Marvin Johnson was inducted into the World Boxing Hall of Fame.



  1. I knew Marvin Johnson on a Personal level in the 1980's & 1990's and what this story has told you is very accurate. After I had met Marvin I had become a Boxing Coach with Champ Chaney at the Police PAL Gym on East Washington Street for several years. It's hard to believe all of the training & sacrifice a Boxer like Marvin & Champ Chaney had to make but it is all true because I personally saw it year after year. Most fighters today will not even begin to train as hard. They have no idea of what is really required to be a Champion!
    If the youth of today would be required to be involved in such a program as the PAL Police Athletic League in Indianapolis, it would be a deterrent to crime in the community. This is an excellent & accurate Blog & I highly recommend it to everyone!
    Mike Morgan

  2. Thanks for this information. I trained briefly with Marvin, before he became champion. I will always remember his kindness, and that of Champ Chaney also.They both have Class.

  3. Champ was the Greatest Man I ever knew besides my Dad. I miss him a lot.
    I was in that gym on washington st. 7 days a week, everyday and knew everyone. I don't remember you being a coach there Mike. I do remember you, but I didn't think you were ever a coach.
    Lowell Thomas has a gym at 42nd and Keystone now called LT Warriors. He is the only legit person still teaching boxing that came from Champ's lineage currently. Besides myself and Chad Wright. (that I know of)
    Champ got his name from calling everyone Champion. He was "Champ", he made you feel great about yourself, and I miss him a bunch.
    Keith Whitaker just passed away a great guy and a big fixture of the old pal club as a fighter and a friend.
    Any old fighters or acquaintances feel free to drop me a line.
    John King

  4. I got the chance to train with with champ and marvin briefly in the very early 80`s, through the pal club, I was introduced to them from a halfway house on woodruff place where I was a troubled teen I was a scrawny lanky 6 ft 5, 165 lb, kid, with no direction in life - them and the ones that introduced to me to it all turned me into a 6 ft 5, 220 lb powerhouse, both physically and mentally, it changed my life completely, what champ and marvin did for me, the youth, and the city of indianapolis,is unmeasurable. I will always remember them and hold them in the highest regards for the selfless time they gave.

  5. I boxed at Indy PAL under the GREAT Colin "Champ" Chaney in the 80's and early 90's (off & on for over a decade) when I was a kid and later I was honored to be asked to serve on the Board of Directors of Indy PAL where I proudly served from 2002 to 2004. (I only stepped down because I was activated to go to war...) I'm extremely proud to have had the privilege to be coach by such a GREAT MAN like Champ...

    Brian M. Alvey

  6. After reading this story, I remember the old St. Rita's gym the day I walked in to it to meet Champ . After going to the Golden Gloves with my family I notice that the St. Rita's boxers were good. I told Champ I want to be a fighter, he asked me how much I wanted to be a fighter, I told Champ I come from a family of fighters, and I wanted to follow in their footsteps, he told me to come back in two months, I came back in two weeks. And the rest is History. My name is Curtis Smith, and Champ took me to the top in a few top years. I became the 1978 AAU Champion at a 147 pounds, with a few Golden Gloves Championship wins.I loved Champ as if he was my Father, I will never forgrt him, sad he's gone RIP Champ

  7. Sounds accurate to me. I'm a distant family member of the Johnson' s. JC Massey Ruth is my great Aunt.

  8. I remember meeting Champ Chaney as a kid while my Uncle, Steve Korosy, was involved with the E Washington Boxing club. Chaney was a top notch guy that had an aura of respect from the moment you met him. Had always heard he was 3rd in world but never heard the whole story until this article. Thanks.

  9. Taking a trip down memory lane reading artcles about Marvin. Growing up, going to St Rita's with my dad, Lee Deck, and watching him help out was an experience that couldn't be matched. Between Champ Chaney, Mr. Brown at Christamore house and Sarge Johnson at Atterbury job corps, just being aware pf men like this made me a better man. Howard Holly was a coach on E. Wash. St. that helped me and I'll never forget. A shout out to Randall Woodsen also. John "Hoss" Deck


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