5. September 20, 1986 — Market Square Arena, Indianapolis — Marvin Johnson KO 13 Jean-Marie Emebe
Setting the Scene: Seven months earlier the 32-year-old Johnson — now nicknamed “Pops” for his elder statesman standing — became the first man to win a 175-pound belt three times by stopping Leslie Stewart on cuts. But Johnson had one more goal in mind: Making a successful title defense. That’s because the no-nonsense Johnson chose to fight Matthew Franklin and Eddie Gregory after dethroning Mate Parlov and Victor Galindez respectively instead of the usual mandatory stiffs. Johnson-Emebe was originally scheduled to take place three months earlier in Bermuda but was postponed and moved to Johnson’s home arena.
Emebe, a Cameroon native, was rated second by the WBA and first by the WBC and he got there largely on the strength of a 10-round nod over perennial contender Johnny Davis. The tightly-muscled West African carried a dangerous punch and a reservoir of willpower that could exploit Johnson’s late fades.
What Happened: Johnson came out with his patented rush but he quickly discovered that the taller Emebe had the upper body strength and cardiovascular conditioning to hang with Johnson in the trenches. Worse yet for Johnson, Emebe’s sledgehammer punches — especially to the body — moved him more than his moved Emebe. Also, the challenger mixed in shoulders, elbows, low blows and hold-and-hit tactics to further tire Johnson. After six rounds Emebe was on top and appeared poised to wear “Pops” out in the later rounds.
The first fortunate turn for Johnson happened midway through the eighth when an accidental butt cut Emebe’s left eye. While the crimson bothered Emebe, it inspired Johnson. Going against his history, Johnson found a second wind and it eventually left Emebe choking in his dust. Though Emebe continued to throw thunderous shots, the tenacious Johnson fought like a demon that refused to be stopped. Johnson’s furious volleys sliced Emebe’s other eye in the 10th and soon the champ landed lefts with impunity. While the challenger looked able to last the distance, referee Luis Pabon determined the blood from Emebe’s eyes presented too big of a danger. At 1:41 of round 13, Pabon stepped in and raised Johnson’s arm, ending a most extraordinary war.