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John Thomas, 83; Los Angeles Boxer, Referee

Times Staff Writer

John Thomas, a prominent Los Angeles lightweight boxer who fought 61 matches and then became a referee for more than two decades, has died.

Thomas succumbed to prostate cancer on Jan. 4 at a hospice in Los Angeles. He was 83.

In an eight-year career that began in 1940, Thomas’ biggest victory was a 1944 unanimous decision over Henry Armstrong, a champion in three weight classes and considered among the top pound-for-pound fighters of all time.

Although Thomas fought many of the top lightweight boxers of his era, compiling a 53-7 record with one draw, he never got a title shot at a time when there were only eight weight divisions and only one recognized champion in each of those divisions.

Thomas was recognized, however, for his smooth boxing style that confounded and frustrated opponents, many of whom were unable to land a solid punch. He scored only 18 knockouts in his career, choosing to outbox his opponents rather than trying to slug with them.

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Wrote Jim Murray in The Times: “He was as smooth as a dance act. Watching him fight, someone once said, was like watching syrup poured over a waffle. In his prime, he could have fought in top hat and tails without either getting mussed.”

The victory over Armstrong, a rematch at the Olympic Auditorium in Los Angeles, was particularly satisfying for Thomas because three months earlier, in April 1944, Armstrong had beaten Thomas.

In the first fight, Thomas was knocked down twice by Armstrong, but got up and battled his way back into the match, ultimately losing on a split decision.

Shortly after beating Armstrong, Thomas nearly had his title shot. He was scheduled to fight Juan Zurita for the lightweight championship, but, when Zurita was hurt in training camp, the fight was postponed. By the time Zurita was ready to return to the ring, Thomas was in the Army. So Zurita fought Ike Williams, who won on a second-round technical knockout.

“He should have fought me,” Thomas later told The Times. “I would have let him go 10.”

Thomas retired from fighting after Enrique Bolanos had knocked him out in the fourth round of a 1947 match. Bolanos also had beaten Thomas earlier, on a TKO, and those were the only fights Thomas lost by knockout.

But Thomas stayed with the sport, becoming a referee in 1954. He was only the second African American licensed to referee in California, and went on to work about 2,000 matches before retiring in 1975.

“He was in the same kind of shape as a referee as he was when he fought,” matchmaker Don Chargin said. “Everybody used to marvel at how he would glide across the ring.”

Respected as both a fighter and referee, Thomas stayed away from the controversy that so often accompanies boxing, with the exception of a 1970 match between welterweights Gil King and Crispen Benitez.

It appeared that King had won when he knocked Benitez through the ropes onto the ring apron in the second round.

But after starting the 10-count, Thomas abruptly stopped and pulled Benitez back through the ropes before resuming the count. Given the extra time and help, Benitez got up and went on to win the fight, knocking King out in the fifth round.

Referees may not help a fighter who has been knocked down but, Chargin recalled, “John thought Benitez had slipped, rather than being knocked down, so he helped him back into the ring.”

Thomas is survived by his wife, Kathryn; a daughter, Diane Thomas; two grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.


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