by Springs Toledo

UnCrowned Champions
by J.J. Johnston and Don Cogswell

Uncrowned Champions is a collection of essays recounting the greatness and the tragic oversight of prize fighters from the first half of the 20th century. J.J. Johnston is an amateur boxer-turned-actor-turned-boxing historian who co-authored Chicago Boxing (2005), Chicago Amateur Boxing (2006), and Babyface and Pop (2011) –the latter of which is an overdue biography of the great Jimmy McLarnin. D.S. Cogswell is a boxing historian and member of the International Boxing Research Organization. He has written extensively about the sweet science over many years.

Tipping the scales at almost 2 lbs and with 22 articles spanning over 300 pages, Uncrowned Champions approaches Big Bill Tate in the book weight division. The sheer volume of information it offers to boxing aficionados, chroniclers, and historians rivals the punch stats of Harry Greb over 15 rounds. Perhaps its most attractive feature is the graphics that are offered on almost every page –artwork by the late Robert Carson is accompanied by rare action photographs, portraits, and contemporary newspaper sketches.

While it is and always has been true that the sport of boxing offers poor boys a detour from dead-ends, it doesn’t end with that. Only a small percentage of those gloves take hold of fame and fortune. Far more have ended their careers as broken as they were broke, despite their blood-stained determination and often enough, despite their skill.

Who tells their stories?

The enthusiasm of Johnston and Cogswell burns brightly enough to see them exhume even the smallest details about long-dead giants like Peter Jackson, Harry Wills, George Godfrey, and the great giant-killer himself –Sam Langford. Later fighters examined include Lloyd Marshall, Holman Williams, “Tiger” Ted Lowry, Charley Burley, and Jimmy Bivins. Mike Gibbons and Packey McFarland stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the rest and in rebuke to the widely-held notion that a fighter’s complexion was his only hindrance to glory.

Interestingly, this book reduces well-known icons to supporting roles, and yet it whispers something else, something quite poignant: Great though they were, the world champions with names every boxing fan knew were, in the end, lucky. There were others –and these others were ducked and avoided because of their color, lack of connections, or the timing of their arrival on the scene. They may have been every bit as good as the gods of the ring.

There were others; Johnston and Cogswell have summoned them out of the black and into the blue.

~ Springs Toledo
Uncrowned Champions (2011) by J.J. Johnston and D.S. Cogswell.
Nonfiction/sports history. $38.00. 978-1-4507-7749-0.

for a signed copy, email Cogswell at