Thanks to Johnny’s son’s generosity, his precious Lonsdale strap will continue to be viewed by countless museum visitors
BOXING author John Harding wrote to me recently with news of the death of Ed Brown, son of the 1920s British bantamweight champ Johnny Brown, who won a Lonsdale Belt outright. After inheriting his father’s gold belt, Ed could have sold it and made a mint. But instead he spent many years searching for somewhere to deposit the strap where the British public could see it. Eventually, he donated it to the Museum of London in Docklands. It is, I believe, the only Lonsdale Belt on permanent public display.
So who was the man who fought to make the belt his own property? Johnny Brown was born Philip Heckman in the East End of London in 1902, the son of poor Jewish immigrant parents. He used the pseudonym Johnny Brown to keep his amateur boxing hidden from his widowed mother, and when he moved into the pros the name stayed with him.
He signed with the well-known East End manager Joe Morris and had his first recorded fight in March 1919. Most of his early bouts were south of the River, at the famous Ring in Blackfriars Road. Between 1921 and ’23 he spent two spells fighting in America, and it’s likely this is where he developed his roughhouse all-action style.
In the States, Brown tangled with some of the best bantams in the world and built a fine reputation. So when he returned to Britain in 1923, he was fasttracked to a British and European title fight. The holder of both crowns was Plymouth’s Bugler Harry Lake, a skilful boxer who’d beaten Johnny a year earlier in a non-title fight.
In their championship contest, Brown drew Lake into a close-quarter battle. The East Ender strove to knock his man out, but Lake was too clever for that. After 20 rounds, Johnny clinched the decision. He had won a Lonsdale Belt, but some critics felt he lacked the commitment to earn two more notches and make it his own.
A big bantam, Brown struggled to make 118lbs and was known to neglect training. According to writer/historian Gilbert Odd, Johnny developed a chain-smoking habit and his trainer, Jack Goodwin, had to constantly nag him to cut down on fags.
Luckily, by the time of his first defence, Brown told reporters he had “practically given up smoking.” He stopped Harry Corbett of Bethnal Green in 16 rounds in February 1925. That October, in defence number two, he KO’D Tooting’s Mick Hill in 12 to win his Lonsdale Belt outright.
After that, Brown went on another US fighting tour, but his form was abysmal. After losing seven in a row, including two bouts in Canada and one in South Africa, he returned to London. Britain’s governing body of the day, the National Sporting Club (NSC), called on Johnny to defend his crown at its Covent Garden HQ, but its purse offer was too low.
After over two years without a defence, the NSC declared the title vacant. Despite this, Johnny claimed he was still champion, even though fellow East Ender Kid Pattenden had captured the vacant crown in an Nscsanctioned bout.
In his final fight, in August 1928, the 26-yearold Brown was a shadow of his former self. He was bombed out in two by bantamweight star Teddy Baldock. Later, Johnny emigrated to South Africa. He died in 1975, aged 72.
Brown’s younger brother, Jacob (who boxed as Young Johnny Brown), was also a top fighter. He challenged Johnny’s successor, Kid Pattenden, for the British bantam crown in 1928, but was stopped in 12. The Brown brothers were part of a generation of exceptional East End Jewish fighters, most of whom today go unremembered.
‘HIS TRAINER HAD TO CONSTANTLY NAG HIM TO CUT DOWN ON FAGS’