ON MAY 1 last year, Irish Johnny Turner was inducted into the New York State Boxing Hall of Fame. This writer has known Turner from when he first walked into a boxing gym over 50 years ago and was one of his sparring partners in the amateurs. On the afternoon of the event, I had the honour of presenting him his award.
Chances are, the majority of you reading won’t know Turner, nor what he accomplished during his career. That in itself points out the cruel, all or nothing mentality which engulfs not only our sport but life in general. Unless a fighter is a world champion or perennial top contender who has been in some memorable encounters, their legacy is not as strong as it deserves to be. Turner falls into that category.
In the January 1979 World Boxing Council ratings, the Brooklyn welterweight was listed as a Top 10 contender. The champion at the time was Wilfred Benitez. The top four contenders, in order, were Roberto Duran, Ray Leonard, Carlos Palomino, and Thomas Hearns. All future Hall of Famers. A murderers’ row to get past for any welterweight looking to get to the very top of the mountain. Turner never quite did, but nevertheless was one of the more popular fighters in New York City during the 1970s and 80s, finishing his career with a more than respectable 42-6-2 (32) record.
At one point it looked like Turner would box Leonard when both were on the way up, but for whatever reason never materialised. Turner did meet up with Hearns once and they had a respectful conversation about signing to box but, again, nothing came of it. Eventually Turner obtained his big fight, versus Benitez, but the timing of it was just not right, he says.
Turner got his start at the Sweeney Center Police Athletic League in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn. The boxing facility was exclusively dedicated to the amateurs. At the time Turner arrived in 1971, the undisputed king of the gym was Vito Antuofermo, who would soon turn pro. Then 15 years old, Turner was just another kid with aspirations, but it soon became apparent how gifted he was.
Turner’s career as an amateur mirrored Herol Graham’s as a pro, in that he could not quite get over the hump and win the titles that were projected for him. Between 1971 and 1974, Turner entered the prestigious New York Golden Gloves tournament, being eliminated in the semi-finals three times and he was once a losing finalist. The frustration of not quite being able to put it all together was evident in the lightweight final against Dominic Monaco in front of a sold out crowd at Madison Square Garden in 1973. Turner had beaten Monaco in the quarter-finals the previous year and was favoured to do so again. Yet he could not get untracked over the first two rounds and lost both. A furious rally by Turner in the third round had the Garden crowd on their feet. Monaco fired back, turning it into one of the great rounds in the tournament’s history. Both were given a standing ovation at the end. Those in attendance talk about it to this day.
Turner’s amateur career was extensive. He represented the United States, travelling to Ireland, Venezuela, Canada, and Puerto Rico. One of his matches was telecast on ABC’s Wide World of Sports in the United States and resulted in Howard Cosell, who was doing the commentary, having a row with Turner’s amateur coach Joe LaGuardia. “I was boxing a southpaw,” recalls Turner. “During a commercial break between rounds Cosell kept urging me to throw right hands. He was also telling Joe how to instruct me. I didn’t mind, but Joe did. Finally he told Cosell to shut up or he would knock off his toupee. Today I can laugh about it, but at the time it was heated.”
Turner turned pro in 1975 and boxed 10 times that year. The lone blemish was a six-round draw against Randy Milton in Albany. Turner would avenge this four years later when he dropped Milton twice and stopped him in three rounds. An impressive result considering that less than a year before that, Milton had lasted into the eighth round against Leonard.
Turner was kept busy, but moved along carefully by his manager Vern DePaul, boxing in small club venues against opponents with modest records until the time was right to step up. That happened on March 25, 1977 in Milwaukee, when Johnny, by now 16-0-1, was matched against tough Tony Petronelli in a nationally televised bout. Petronelli, a stablemate of Marvin Hagler’s, had unsuccessfully challenged Wilfred Benitez for a 140lbs title in his last outing, being stopped in three rounds. He was the best and most seasoned opponent Turner had boxed to that point. In a tough and spirited 10-rounder, Turner found himself on the short end of a split decision.
Undeterred by his first setback, Turner was back in the ring a little over a month later and proceeded to win his next four before being upset on a majority 10-round decision by Larry Stanton on October 27, 1977 at Madison Square Garden. A ninth round knockdown of Turner proved to be the difference.
As amateur and pro, Turner boxed a total of 25 times inside the Madison Square Garden building, never being in a bad fight.
Turner returned to action quickly, won his next two and then on May 15, 1978 was matched with Frankie Benitez, the brother of Wilfred. The eighth round stoppage of Benitez had extra significance in Turner’s career. “I was at my best that night,” said Turner. “He did hurt me in the seventh round, but I came back to knock him out in the eighth. I was at my peak. Around that time there was talk of matching me with his brother Wilfred who was supposed to challenge Carlos Palomino for the world welterweight title. They were going to use me as a tune-up.”
At the time, Dick Young the influential sportswriter of the New York Daily News, quipped “Turner might give him [Benitez] some sour notes.”
Turner believes the stoppage of brother Frankie, Young’s remark, and one other factor led to Wilfred not going through with the match that was tentatively scheduled to take place at MSG.
“The Benitez people all came down to the Gramercy Gym to see me spar,” says Turner. “Benitez’s manager Jim Jacobs saw how good I looked and decided it was too risky a fight for them.”
The Wilfred Benitez match would wait, but Turner’s victory over Frankie would forever alter his life. In the crowd at MSG, were a pair of celebrities who were filming a movie and were impressed with what they saw from Turner. “After I stopped Benitez, Robert DeNiro and Joe Pesci came into my dressing room and asked, would I be interested in auditioning for a part in Raging Bull,” says Turner. “Of course I said yes. They asked me to go down to the Gramercy Gym that Monday to spar with DeNiro.”
What transpired in that sparring session went off script when Turner dropped the actor with a body punch. “I was nearly fired on the spot,” he laughs. “Peter Savage who was a writer and producer of the movie told me I was a wise guy. I apologised and went out of my way to make DeNiro look good after that.
“I have to give DeNiro a lot of credit. He never complained after I dropped him. He got back on his feet and was ready to have a go at it again, never asking me to ease off. He was a competitor, pretty athletic, and might have turned out to be a good fighter had he done it for real.”
It was off to Hollywood for nine weeks. Turner was cast in the role of Laurent Dauthuille, who LaMotta – behind on points – had stopped with only 13 seconds left. Turner would be tasked with duplicating the thrilling finish, meaning he would be on the receiving end of a bombardment of blows before landing on his back via the bottom ropes. Although the scenes were staged it was tough physical work with a great deal of repetition and a degree of risk.
During the shooting of one of the scenes the Dali that was supposed to ease Turner’s fall broke and he landed hard on his back. There was fear among the crew that he had gotten seriously injured before Johnny alleviated it by getting up. Later in life, Turner developed back trouble he attributes to the fall.
Turner enjoyed the time spent in LaMotta’s company. “We stayed at the same hotel. Jake was in a great mood because they were making a movie about him,” says Turner. “He would come downstairs and ask who was paying for dinner. I was getting a thousand dollars a week for my role in the movie which does not sound like much, but in 1979 was a decent payday. We would buy LaMotta dinner and he would tell us stories.
“I had offers to stay in Hollywood and pursue an acting career, but it wasn’t for me. I was at my peak as a fighter and there was talk of matching me with Leonard.”
That talk intensified when Turner stopped his next eight opponents, but then inexplicably was halted in two rounds by journeyman Santiago Valdez. In Valdez’s next match he would be iced by Hearns in one round.
Turner quickly rebounded, winning three straight over the next three months, which finally got him the big match he craved against Wilfred Benitez.
“The year before I was at my peak. I lived and breathed boxing. There were no outside distractions. Mentally I was ready. I know Benitez is a great boxer, but I really thought I would beat him. I was so mentally ready at that time.”
On March 16, 1980 in Miami, Turner was not ready. He squared off against Benitez in an afternoon contest that was nationally televised on the CBS Sports Spectacular program in the United States. It was Benitez’s first match since losing the world welterweight title to Leonard less than four months before. “I had lost the fight mentally before I even got into the ring” says Turner. “Angelo Dundee, who was doing the commentary for the fight, told me to pull out when he saw what they were trying to do. They held the weigh-in three days before because Benitez was having trouble making weight. My problem was that I could not gain weight. If you watch the fight again you can hear Dundee saying it looks like a middleweight against a welterweight.”
Turner hurt the former champion with a right hand early in the fight, but for the most part Benitez dominated and was comfortably ahead on points when Turner was pulled out due to cuts at 2-57 of the ninth.
Turner bounced back somewhat from the Benitez setback in winning his next three. Of special satisfaction was his sixth round stoppage of Alfonso Haymon on September 10, 1980 in Scranton. The prior year Haymon had gone the 10-round distance with Hearns. “After the fight he told reporters I punched just as hard as Hearns did,” says Turner.
The Haymon victory was the last hurrah. Turner was 5-2-1 the rest of the way. A waning desire and the realization that he would never become a world champion convinced him to hang the gloves up in 1984 at the age of 30.
Like so many before him, Turner was initially lost without the sport he had dedicated his life to. Boxing was the only full time job he had ever known.
Turner took the test to become a New York City Sanitation worker, but failed the physical because of a bad back resulting from the fall while filming Raging Bull. Although the back would periodically bother him, Turner felt he could handle the rigors of the job. It could not be harder than his days in the ring, Johnny surmised.
Turner put in a call to Dr Edwin Campbell, the head physician of the New York State Athletic Commission. As luck would have it, that same day there was a fight show at MSG. Campbell spoke to Young about it. Young then wrote a story in the newspaper criticicing the sanitation department. Days later, Turner was retested, passed, and soon embarked on a 30-year career with them.
“I don’t know where I’d be without that job,” says a grateful Turner. “It provided me with a pension and health benefits.”
Turner, 69, resides in Staten Island with his lovely wife Roseann. The couple has two daughters and three grandchildren, not to mention a ton of fond memories from Johnny’s years in the ring.