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Johnny Bratton's career ended at 27, an age when many fighters are just hitting their stride. Possessor of a catlike quickness, a devastating right hand and awesome ring courage, he survived three broken jaws to fight for the welterweight title three times, winning once. He is said to have earned $400,000 in all, but when he retired from boxing in 1955 he was penniless and owed the U.S. $5,000 in back taxes. On March 30, Bratton was absolved of charges of possessing marijuana. Two months later he was confined to a state mental hospital near Chicago, where he is today
I was 15 years old when I met Johnny Bratton, and he was 18, and we went to the movies on our first date. Our story might have been the same as any other, except that at 18 Johnny was already a big success.
I was just getting ready to graduate from high school, but Johnny had quit school and was on his way. He had a black Cadillac and he had traveled all over the country.
A little later he gave the black Cadillac to his two brothers and bought a white Cadillac convertible for himself. Not many 18-year-old boys have Cadillacs that they earned themselves, but even that wasn't big enough for Johnny. His white Cadillac had a record player built into the glove compartment, and on the side of the car it said "Honey Boy" in big gold letters.
I soon got him to take the "Honey Boy" off. It was a name given him by his fans in Chicago in a publicity contest run by his manager, and I never liked it. But I did like the record player and we had a lot of fun with it. We had a game we played at stop lights: we would tune it up loud so the people in the other cars could hear the hot jazz we were playing, and out of the sides of our eyes we would watch them fiddling frantically with their radios, trying to get the same program. In those days we did not worry about much.
I wish I could have looked ahead then. I wish I could have foreseen that in the next six years Johnny and I would run through a quarter of a million dollars in purses and have nothing to show for it at the end except tax debts and a lot of good-looking clothes. I wish I could have foreseen the beatings Johnny would have to take, the broken jaws, the broken hand. I wish I could have known how tough it was going to be to keep a home together and how frightening it would be much later on.
The trouble that came to us later was partly caused by the difference in our backgrounds. I grew up in Detroit, in my grandmother's house, and we were a close family and we lived in a closely knit community. I was taught to pray on my knees every night—and I still do—and I was raised with children who grew up the same way. There were about 20 of us in the community and we and our families stuck very close together. The adults always knew where the children were and what they were doing.
Johnny's life was nothing like that. His father was very religious—he is a deacon in the Church of God and Christ—but he was so strict that the religion did not have the effect it should have had. Johnny was a normal, mischievous boy, and often had to go against his father's wishes to be himself. I guess he wanted a lot of things in life and, like so many other Negroes, he saw that one of the few ways to get them was to become a fighter. He didn't waste any time. He was in the ring when he was 14.
All I knew about boxing when I met Johnny was Joe Louis. In our neighborhood we knew the Louis story very well indeed. Whenever Joe fought, every member of my family—and all the families we knew—would sit close to the radio and listen as intently as if the outcome meant something to all of us personally. The minute the decision was announced everyone would run outdoors, and after that you could hear nothing but the sound of car horns.