John Schulian (b. 1945)
From At the Fights: American Writers on Boxing
In 1950 Sugar Ray Robinson, the reigning welterweight champion, decided to move up to middleweight, and early the next year twenty-three-year-old Johnny “Honey Boy” Bratton assumed the vacated welterweight crown. His triumph was short-lived; within two months Bratton lost the belt to Cuban sensation Kid Gavilán.
The loss was the beginning of the end for a young boxer who had become a local hero while still a teenager. “In nine fights in 1946, Johnny earned $31,000,” a profile in Negro Digest reported. “In the first four months of 1947 he made another $21,800.” Early in his career, this Pentecostal deacon’s son was living a lifestyle beyond the dreams of most young men. “He was 17, owner of a big, black Cadillac, a sport in expensive clothes. He hired a liveried chauffeur to drive his car. . . .” He hung out with Miles Davis, who was only a year older and whose lifelong obsession with boxing originated with their friendship. (“I was crazy about Johnny Bratton,” Davis wrote in his autobiography.) Several sources estimate Bratton’s earnings during his decade-long career at $400,000.
In November 1953 Bratton barely lasted all fifteen rounds in his second attempt to regain the welterweight title from Kid Gavilán—one of the most brutal routs in the history of the sport. Many spectators were shocked that the fight hadn’t been stopped by the twelfth round. The defeat seemed to have altered Bratton permanently. He entered the ring only three more times; his last fight, with Del Flanagan in 1955, was brought to a halt because Bratton appeared "dazed and didn't know where he was." Shattered and penniless, he retired from the sport at the age of twenty-seven—and he spent the next six years in a state mental hospital.
In 1979 John Schulian located the former champion in a dilapidated hotel on the South Side of Chicago and filed the following story for Chicago Sun-Times. Bratton died in 1993 at the age of sixty-five.
It was a glorious place, the Del Prado Hotel was. If you listen closely, you can still hear the echoes of the young lovers and swaggering big leaguers who used to make its lobby so fresh, so vibrant. . . . If you don't see the full story below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!