Honey Boy Bratton: The Boxer Who Inspired Miles Davis and Muhammad Ali
The look and sound of Chicago in the 1940s and 1950s was strikingly different from the rest of America. During that time period, it was estimated at one point that more than 3000 African Americans per week were moving to the Windy City from various Southern states. Outside of New York, it housed the largest black population in the northern states.
Workers from the fields of Mississippi and Arkansas now were employed in Chicago packinghouses, and brought with them the sound of southern blues—the songs of labor. That familiar 12-bar riff was their soundtrack, but a welterweight slugger named Johnny Bratton was their action hero. For black children now living in Chicago, the sight of Bratton being chauffeured around in a white Cadillac, dressed in a $400 all-red suit gave hope that the dream their families had chased migrating north could become reality.
The Brattons had come to Chicago from Little Rock for the same reason. Robert S. Abbott's Chicago Defender was widely read in the South, championing full racial equality and encouraging migration north. To many, Chicago seemed like the one place where they and their fellow African Americans could have a voice.
As Johnny was coming of age in the South Side of the Chicago—then termed the Black Belt—he struggled to find his identity. He was arrogant, prone to trouble, but had a spindly frame. Like so many others throughout history who carried those same attributes, he discovered that the boxing gym was where that combination could be moulded into something positive. And although he had tiny fists, he quickly found out they still packed a wallop.
Within a year, he'd won the Chicago Golden Gloves, and had dropped out of DuSable High School to focus entirely on fighting. DuSable's school motto, one that is inscripted in its auditorium, is “peace if possible, but justice at any rate,” a famous quote from 19th century abolitionist Wendell Phillips. Phillips was described as “an agitator by profession”—a description Bratton would go on to hold in the eyes of fight fans outside of Chicago.
As the son of a preacher-turned-taxi driver, he had inherited his father's charisma, but not his willingness to either study, or settle down and get a menial job. He dreamed of opulence, of stardom like the soul singers, jazz musicians and bluesmen whose records he collected. He was in a hurry to grow up, and nothing can turn you into an adult—or at that time, offer you a fortune faster—than becoming a professional fighter.
At the age of 15, Bratton signed a managerial contract with Howard Frazier, a seedy gambler with a penchant for moving his fighters quickly. It wouldn't be long before he was a main event fighter in Chicago. According to the Detroit Free Press, less than two years into his career, he had already made more than $60,000.
Bratton spent a great deal of that money in the same time period. He had the white Cadillac, with his ring moniker “Honey Boy” on it, and a Jaguar that said “Johnny B.” By the time he was 17, he already had a child, and was divorced. Perhaps influenced by his manager, he took a liking to gambling himself, particularly dice, and developed a massive entourage which he loved to wine and dine.
It would be easy to say that Bratton blew all of his money, but the reality is that as reckless as he was at times, a great deal of his early earnings were squandered by Frazier. In 1949, Bratton noticed that money wasn't coming in on certain nights in the dressing room, and took to the Illinois State Athletic Commission to prove what he'd suspected: Frazier had been gambling and losing many of his purses.
The deception wouldn't undo him professionally, or turn him to a life of frugality. He had an image to maintain. Honey Boy was the idol of the black Chicago youth, the most famous black athlete in the entire city, and one that was becoming a household name throughout the country. It's important to remember that the Gillete Cavalcade of Sports, the Friday night televised boxing program, was watched by 20 percent of the United States at its peak. By comparison, Modern Family, ABC's top rated program today, is watched by 2.2 percent of the country.
“It's hard for people who are young now to get a sense of how famous and how admired and how much of a command of the culture a Johnny Bratton would have had,” said author and historian Bijan Bayne. “(Chicagoans) could identify with him because his life pattern was similar. I would imagine that a lot of boys went into the Police Athletic League and the Golden Gloves hoping to become the next Bratton. Because they would have seen him. They would have actually seen him in the streets where their parents lived. There was an accessibility to him because he was so young.”
One of Bratton's biggest admirers was Miles Davis, who spent time in Chicago in the early 1950s for two principal reasons: To study pianist Ahmad Jamal, and to meet Bratton. The two became friends, riding around in a convertible throughout town, and Davis was enamoured not only with his hero's style, but with his fame. He was amazed when people from the streets would shout “Honey Boy!” as they were driving up and down the block.
More than that however, he loved Bratton's style of fighting, and wanted to emulate it himself. Bratton was a sinewy, frail looking welterweight who had a flashy style unlike the brawlers that mostly populated the rankings of the day. The pizzazz was just window-dressing however, because his means of victory almost always came through devastating power punching. As he found out early in his teenage years, his little hands which were once described as “looking like they'd crumble like a potato chip,” could put any 147-pounder in the world to sleep.
Later, when he would return to New York City, Davis asked Bobby McQuillen, trainer at the legendary Gleason's Gym, to show him “the swivel,” a fancy name for the amount of torque Bratton would put into his punches.
“Bobby was teaching me Johnny Bratton’s style, because that was the style I wanted to know. Boxing’s got style like music’s got style,” wrote Davis in his 1989 autobiography Miles.
The admiration was mutual. Like his contemporary—one he's often compared to and overshadowed by—Sugar Ray Robinson, in the 1950s Bratton planned to begin singing in Chicago clubs. The plan never really materialized, though his love of music would be a lifelong romance. Instead, Bratton spent his nights in the club simply as a patron, or more often, simply out on the town where he could be seen.
As destructive as the behavior might have been, it also aided in bolstering Bratton's popularity. Magazines such as Jet, founded in Chicago, took a particular fascination with his personal life. But you didn't have to read the magazines to find out what Johnny was doing—he was everywhere. Particularly for the younger black audience in Chicago, Bratton was an accessible, visible figure, while their parents might have been in the clubs listening to Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf.
“What you had was the cultural shift, from the laid back atmosphere of the rural south versus the more aggressive urban culture. And the kind of labor people were doing. You're getting music being made by and for people who are doing backbreaking work. And when they were done with their day they would go to the neighborhood blues cafe or jazz club and wind down,” said Stereo Williams, editor-in-chief of The Boombox.
Carlo Rotella penned a 2002 book titled "Good With Their Hands," drawing the parallel between boxers, bluesmen and laborors. In it, he wrote, "the makers of (Chicago blues) commanded the attention of an expanding black audience with music singularly expressive of the encounter with industrial urbanism: expressive in lyrics, theme, and the juxtaposition of strong, southern-accented feeling with mechanized, routinized, mass-produced—that is, industrialized—sound and experience.”
Bratton, then, bridged the gap between younger and older black audiences, and embodied the same juxtaposition as the city's blues sound. He was a southern man living in the North, unafraid of hard work in the ring in the form of enduring punishment, but dressed with a commercial flare.
Unfortunately, Bratton often gets forgotten in boxing history because of his proximity to arguably the two greatest welterweights to ever lace up a pair of gloves: Robinson, and Kid Gavilan.
In 1951, after Robinson vacated the title to move up to middleweight, Bratton became the welterweight champion of the world, delivering a masterclass against Charley Fusari at Chicago Stadium. It would be both his biggest professional triumph, and the beginning of his demise. That night, he took home a purse of $39,000, plus 27 per cent of the gate, and an extra $1500 in television and radio rights fees. The entirety of his purse would be garnished by the government in order to pay delinquent income taxes, and an additional $5000 was withheld from him by the National Boxing Association to ensure that he made his mandatory defense against Gavilan, the number one contender.
The two would meet two months later at Madison Square Garden. Bratton's weaknesses were well-known outside of the ring—gambling, booze, cigarettes, women, clothing—but the ones he had inside of it were exposed on this night, May 18 of 1951. The weaknesses, however, were structural. His jaw was broken at some point during the first five rounds, and his right hand was broken in two places. Later, is was discovered that he had an impacted wisdow tooth that led to the weakening of his jaw, and as the legendary Willie Pep once said of him, “a baby could have broken that jaw.”
That's not to say that the losses were simply misfortune. Gavilan was the superior fighter—a faster, more powerful version of Bratton, and every bit the showman—and the unanimous decision on the scorecards proved it. In the locker room after the fight, Bratton couldn't open his eyes to speak to reporters due to intense swelling.
Bratton had hit his ceiling. He couldn't beat Gavilan, but he refused to admit it. Once, he invaded a press conference featuring Gavilan and offered to give $10,000 of his own money to charity if he'd give him a rematch—a poor allocation of funds, knowing Bratton's deteriorating financial state. He'd get his wish later that year, battling The Cuban Hawk to a draw at home in Chicago Stadium.
It was their third and final meeting that would spell the end of Bratton's career though. Undoubtedly weakened by hard living, and by interim bouts with hard-charging, murderous punching middleweights like Rocky Castellani and Ralph Tiger Jones, Bratton was a mere zombie in the ring that night in 1953 at Chicago Stadium. Gavilan would pound him for 15 uncomfortably one-sided rounds.
"Johnny was in a prone position on the table and his face was completely covered by towels. For the first time in my life I heard him cry. I left the dressing room to try to compose myself. When Johnny finally came out he had on dark glasses, but they did not cover the horrible sight of his completely disfigured face. At the hotel the outer room of the suite was filled to capacity with people. When I went into the bedroom I wanted to turn and run but most of all I wished that I would soon awaken from what I hoped was a nightmare. Johnny's face was indistinguishable. His eyes were so swollen that he couldn't open them at all. I walked up to the bed and he said, "Jo, is that you?" He then reached out his swollen hand to touch me,” Bratton's then-wife Joanne once recalled. "I was resigned to the fact that Johnny would not quit until he made the decision himself."
Unfortunately, Bratton knew no other way to live, much less satisfy the tax man and the mounting bill collectors. He remained in bed for two days, once again unable to upon his eyes due to the thrashing he sustained from Gavilan, at one point taking what ringside observers counted as 60 unanswered punches. His wife read him the telegrams and letters that poured in from adoring and concerned fans, and his parents visited to beg him to retire.
Bratton lost to future welterweight champion Johnny Saxton three months later, and was so lethargic that the Pennsylvania commission suspended his license and kept more than $4000 of his purse.
His body could no longer perform what his massive heart wanted to, and he was no longer good enough to make money fighting, even when he actually fought. After two more bouts, Bratton declared he was retiring, in his words, “while he still had all his buttons.” That day, his mother would see him cry once more, as he told her, “ma, I'm never again going to keep bad company.” He walked away from the sport with none of the $400,000 he had been paid out during his career.
In the grand scheme of things, only a select few boxing careers end as anything other than a tragedy. But even in the realm of tragedy, Bratton's fate was particularly heartwrenching. Most fighters eventually lose the ability to perform their job, or any other job, having spent their lives learning an otherwise useless skill. Bratton not only lost that, he lost all of his money, and according to people at the time, his mind. His tragedy only really begins when his career ends.
In May of 1956, little more than a year after his retirement, Bratton was admitted to Manteno State Mental Hospital. The idea that Bratton was mentally ill is something that has been accepted as fact without consideration of the times. This was a time that predated comprehension of both the effects of repeated brain trauma and seemingly anything pertaining to mental illness. It's quite possible that his admission was due to nothing more than what we would today categorize as typical concussed behavior. His retention in facilities for almost a decade likely had a lot to do with the fact that he continued to escape—once to loot a store in Atlantic City—lending credence to the institution's theory that he was indeed “crazy.”
If his last hurrah as a boxer came the night he won the welterweight title, then the last night he was truly “Honey Boy” came in April of 1959. Bratton escaped the Chicago State Hospital with nothing other than the scrubs he was wearing, and the five records he owned: Billie Holiday, Milt Jackson, Nat King Cole, Charlie Parker, and of course, his old friend Miles Davis.
Generous street merchants purchased him a $103 suit and gave him spending cash, and his old boxing pals, former lightweight contender Luther Rawlings and Hall of Famer Bob Satterfield took him out on the town where he sipped ginger ale and smoked cigarettes. He stopped at several boxing clubs to see the young fighters, still in awe of him whether he was 60 pounds heavier or not. Before the night was over, he paid a visit to the local radio station, where he joined the nighttime broadcast and fielded more than 50 calls in 15 minutes from fans and well-wishers. Somebody else must have been listening though, namely someone with a badge, as the police scooped him up at 4:15 AM and returned him to his room.
“You know, they didn't forget me out there on the South Side,” Bratton told Jet magazine after the incident. A local cab driver was effusive in his praise for Bratton when approached by the publication as well: “Gavilan made his face look like a hamburger, but Johnny wouldn't go out. He wouldn't let the South Side down.”
Bratton would make a few more escape attempts. Once, he stole the key ring and shimmied down a coal chute before borrowing money to fly to New York, where he was found and returned. Coverage of him dwindled, and by the time he was officially released in 1962, even Jet, which had committed space almost weekly to updates on Bratton in years past, spared only a few paragraphs when he came home.
By the time he was finally a free man, it was his ex-wife Joanne the tabloids cared about. No longer a call center agent struggling to get by, Joanne remarried and became Joanne Jackson, and was one of the co-founders of Golden World Records in Detroit. Golden World ran parallel with Motown Records for a time, notably producing the first Parliament record, and launching the careers of Carl Carlton and Edwin Starr, both of whom went on to have major pop hits. Ultimately, Berry Gordy would purchase the company and its headquarters at 3246 West Davison Avenue would become Motown's “B studios” for years to come.
Before long, Johnny would be sleeping in the lobby of the Hotel del Prado in Chicago, where reporter John Schulian of the Chicago Sun-Times found him in 1979. The hotel had since been converted to apartments, but was once a hot spot for entertainers and athletes—none more popular in their day than the one crumpled up in the corner of the decaying structure.
In 1991 it was discovered that a homeless man in the New York Port Authority bus terminal had been impersonating Bratton for years, soliciting meals from compassionate old fight fans, and snatching free fight tickets from oblivious promoters. The real Bratton would get his last taste of the spotlight, if only to reveal that he was the real Honey Boy.
The episode became a laughing matter for press and readers who wondered why anyone would want to impersonate Johnny Bratton, of all people.
The reality was lost on them, as it is today, that generations of fighters, musicians and South Side Chicagoans are in some ways Bratton imposters.
"I adopted all I could from those who made the trade, bloody, vicious and savage as it might be, an art. As Sugar Ray, Kid Gavilan and Johnny Bratton had done. They were the Picassos among fighters, and they made it all seem a thing of pride, poise, courage, strength and class," wrote Muhammad Ali in his autobiography The Greatest: My Own Story. Prior to his bout against Oscar Bonavena at Madison Square Garden, Ali had thoughts of having a sign made, dedicating the fight to Bratton, whom he'd heard had fallen on hard times. It's a good thing he didn't, as it likely would have been the man from the bus station who showed up to be honored, rather than the real man.
In his final interview before his death in 1993, Bratton was asked if he thought he paved the way for the generation of big-money fighters at the time.
“Yeah, I did my part. I think I did my part,” said Bratton, before offering his final words of wisdom. “Save your money, and buy good whiskey.”
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