The Golden Viking
The story of Ole Klemetsen (2002)
Video presentation from Norwegian Broadcasting.
Translation by Katherine Stewart-Kreisman
"We boxers understand lies. What is a feint?
What is a left hook after a jab? What is an opening?
What is it to think one thing and do another?"
Jose Torres, former light heavyweight world champion
As a seven year-old in the summer of 1959, I found myself at my maternal grandparents’ in Sweden. The sports-mad Swedes were preoccupied with the upcoming heavyweight boxing World Championship. The Swedes’ Ingo – Ingemar Johansson – was to meet Floyd Patterson. Large sections of the population, among them my grandfather, sat by the wireless and followed the fight from five o’clock in the morning. Ingo won by knockout and Sweden exploded in scenes of glee.
“The right!” declared Grandpa significantly.
A year later Ingo lay on the canvass, knocked out. The photograph appeared in all the newspapers. Grandpa’s sorrow weighed heavily on him.
Ingo’s title fights were inspiring, although I never watched any of them. Twice Sweden was as hit by earthquakes. What kind of sport is boxing? I wondered.
In Norway there has never been great interest in boxing; the sport provokes strong emotional reactions. Boxing certainly does that and, to a great degree, so does one man: Ole Klemetsen.
Over the years most Norwegians have learned about and understood something of the phenomenon that is “Team Klemetsen”. But from which sources? How many really know Ole Klemetsen? In this account we go behind the facade and tell the whole story; about the "bad guy" of the damned sport. Who still has created big headlines - just like Ingo.
Ole Klemetsen’s career is so comprehensive and spectacular that the quantity of material available could fill a tome twice the size of this one. But such a brick as that would still not be adequate. I have therefore, as in other historical writing, focused on only a portion of his story. This story is different from "the objective historical wrtings": Several times in the text I have allowed Ole to think and reason subjectively. The text sequence is written by me but is based in detailed conversations. I sought also to procure Ole’s own subjective experience of events. The reason is simple: In all that has been said and written about “Circus Klemetsen” during Ole’s tumultuous boxing career, there is one person who has in fact not often spoken about it; Ole Klemetsen himself. Now it is his turn. Here is the story.
The Alexandra Palace, 4th of October 1997.
Ole Klemetsen stands in his dressing room, wrapping bandages around his hands. Papa John helps him. First the left hand. Ole wiggles his fingers around the white material. The half index finger sticks out into the air. But this does not hinder his boxing – does not hamper his style.
Then the right hand. The moist material caresses his knuckles; he stretches out an arm. The trainer Ivor de Lima puts on the gloves, tightens the laces. Ole straightens up, a white T-shirt hanging about his shoulders. He takes a deep breath. He feels it is important to control his angst. If you are afraid, you are finished; the body stiffens, harnesses energy. You cannot move freely, dance. But why should I be afraid of Crawford? he thinks. I am on form and I know him and his blustering style – tricky.
The opponent is Crawford Ashley, reigning light heavyweight European Champion. Not since he met the Congolese Mohamed Joe Siluvangi in 1996 has Ole stood on the threshold of a more decisive fight. He is well prepared, well trained, and moves easily. It’s all for the title of the Light Heavyweight Champion in the EBU, The European Boxing Union.
Ole hears the voice on the tannoy system announcing the result of the previous bout. He notices the rumble building up in the arena.
“Ready?” asks Ivor.
Ole nods quickly and looks at John, the unstoppable chief of Team Klemetsen. John is alert and pent up but doesn’t bat an eyelid with Ole. They go out into the empty corridor; their feet making a whispering sound on the concrete.
The corridor opens out into the arena. Their small convoy moves out into the light where camera lenses stir. Ole slowly smiles. Like a bellowing animal the crowd awakens. He tries to make eye contact with Elisabeth and Mama Wenche but the floodlights blind him.
Ole, Ivor and John make their progress toward the red corner, climbing into the ring. In his peripheral vision Ole sees Crawford Ashley. He makes a swinging movement, flexes his shoulders, one – two. The speaker introduces the boxers and the audience roars. The referee approaches them, exchanges a few words. John helps Ole to remove his T-shirt as the referee calls the boxers to him. He asks for a “fair fight”. Ole moves toward Crawford, they touch gloves. Crawford looks him in the eye. He sees a boy.
Boxing is a sport full of contradictions. Two opponents hit out at each other, both wanting to put the other out of the fight. It is raw and reckless – many would not even call boxing a sport. But it is also full of beauty, occasionally even gentleness; after a bout the boxers hug each other and express thanks for the fight. Every boxer will see something of himself in his opponent; a foe with the same wishes and dreams as himself – a reflection that makes the fight possible. But that is brutal no fighter will deny.
In this sport of contradictions Ole Klemetsen fought for over fifteen years, the last nine as a professional. No other Norwegian boxer has had a longer or more spectacular career.
What is it that moved a Norwegian kid from a secure home in Stavanger to throw himself into professional boxing, the world’s toughest sport, which has actually been forbidden in Norway? Who is Ole Klemetsen, really?
His father’s family came originally from Vik in the Sogn area but moved to Stavanger in the 1920s. John Klemetsen’s father was named Alf, and his mother Judith - also known as Tulla. They had four children but only three survived to adulthood: Kari, Roald and John. John was born in 1938. Alf worked as a musician, carnival worker, fisherman, construction worker and artisan. Tulla kept house while Alf worked all around the country. He also managed to read a great deal. He schooled himself in politics, studied Marxism and by the 1920s was a member of Norway’s Communist Party in Stavanger. After the Second World War he set himself up as an entrepreneur while maintaining his political agendum: to aid the weaker in society. In time that agendum would come to influence John strongly.
Alf was for his whole life an adventurer and Jack of all trades and arts. The stories of his bravado as an acrobat, boxer and musician are still kept alive in the family Klemetsen.
John was infected by his father’s lust for experiences and adventure and went to sea early. He sailed out for three years and followed in his father’s political footsteps, too, becoming a member of the Norwegian Communist Party. In the 1970s he had problems with politics: he and Alf each had their own entrepreneur achievements but continued to participate in the May Day parades. John Klemetsen marched through the streets with demands for higher wages for the employed masses – which stood on the pavements and laughed!
Like Alf, John was also a musician. In the 1960s he lived quite well off his music and toured around Norway with his popular Johnny Band. The band played mostly for dances along the coastal area from Stavanger to Oslo and also made records. Their biggest hit was “Ola Was From Sandefjord”, which turned silver in 1966. John was a dynamic orchestra leader. He honoured three principles: musicians should always be sober on stage, they should be dressed in Johnny Band’s white jackets, and looking at the clock while performing was forbidden. Band members who appeared bored created bad atmospheres and John would have none of that.
On one tour in 1966 he met the well-known fakir, El Jucan, in Oslo. To John’s great surprise, Einar Olsen (El Jucan’s real name) told him that they were family. John didn’t take it seriously because at that time everyone wanted to be one of his relatives. John mentioned the episode to his fiancée, Wenche. Neither of them thought to investigate the information, but El Jucan’s apparent knowledge of the Klemetsen family stayed in John’s mind as an unanswered question.
Wenche Auran had two siblings. Wenche’s father, Ole, came from Skatval in Northern Trondelag and came as a seaman to Stavanger. Her mother, Edel, worked at Christian Bjelland & Company and Ole would always wave to the sweet girl in the window and catch up with her outside the factory gates after work hours.
Wenche was born in 1943 and grew up in Straen. There lived six families in a little house and their flat was comprised of only two rooms and a kitchen. At fifteen she saw a photograph of John at the home of one of his nieces, Torill Gro. John was almost six years older than Wenche and still at sea at that point. Wenche was much taken with the charmer John Klemetsen – she fell in love with his picture. Her feelings were no less strong when Torill told her that John would soon return from the sea. Wenche went home and waited. When John finally came swaggering down the gangway in white trousers and white shoes he obviously didn’t notice little Wenche, standing back in awe. She was not the only young lady who waited for him. John had come home as a big adventurer with his sailor’s bag full of Elvis records and rock and roll. Slowly but surely Wenche eventually managed to manoeuvre herself into a better position and they got to know each other through dance. Both Wenche and John were good dancers and after a while Wenche became his preferred partner. After a couple of years they became engaged. Wenche went to modelling school whilst still employed in the Consul factory. John played at dances with Johnny Band and pursued his entrepreneurial goals together with his father. In their free time Wenche and John danced seven days a week. They learned swing and became Rogaland’s own champions.
John Klemetsen was a man of temperament; more than once his spontaneous decisions had surprising repercussions. While John and Wenche continued their romance they saved enough to build a house. The idea was to rent out the house in order to put a down payment on a loan. American oil people had begun to show up in Stavanger in the 1960s, providing a market for those wanting to rent out houses and flats. John and Wenche made a deal with an American couple interested in renting the newly built house in Hinna. The Americans haggled hard about the price, and when the wife tramped around on the newly laid parquet floor in stiletto heels, it was just too much for John, who declared, “There is no lease agreement, the deal is off!”
He then turned to Wenche, saying, “Come on, now we’re getting married!”
And that was that.
In 1967 they arranged a big wedding in Stavanger’s Cathedral and moved into the new house immediately afterward, along with John’s brother Roald and his wife.
In many respects, John Klemetsen followed in Alf’s footsteps. But at one point he decided to do things differently: even though Alf behaved like a strong head of the Klemetsen clan he was no typical family man. He was, to put it bluntly, seldom at home. Alf was too often on the road and John grew up missing his father, so he swore this was not something he wished his own children to experience. John decided early on that as a father he would form a closer bond with his children than Alf had managed to make.
John continued to play with Johnny Band and travelled quite a lot. In the spring of 1970 Wenche was expecting a child. On the 3rd of May she was admitted to the maternity wing. John was on stage at the Osean Hotel in Stavanger, performing dance music. Suddenly the thought struck him: Wenche is lying in the maternity ward about to have our first baby! What the hell am I doing here?
At that moment he put down his guitar and hurried to the hospital. That was the end of Johnny Band.
On the 3rd of May 1970 John Junior was born and then just over a year later, on 30th of August 1971 Ole came into the world.
A consequence of John’s social and political engagement was that since beginning to play with Johnny Band he had always performed gratis at Christmas and handed out presents at Stavanger’s homeless shelter. When Little John and Ole were old enough they accompanied him. This was a tradition that Ole had participated in for as long as he can recall. One of these gift-giving excursions stayed in his mind as being a very special experience for so young a lad. After they had given out the gifts to one of Stavanger’s originals, Strong-Gjert, they progressed on their rounds.
We knocked on the next door. No one answered. Papa looked at us in surprise and opened the door. In a yellow room with white curtains lay a man in bed, breathing weakly. His face was wrinkled and sunken. Slowly he opened his eyes and looked at us with a blank expression.
“The boys and I have brought you Christmas presents” whispered Papa. The face in the bed lit up. Papa bent down and took out a package. I looked again at the face of the bedridden man. It seemed quite far away. He hadn’t shaved. There was something not right there. Was it something about his breathing? I swayed as if reacting to an unseen punch, then averted my gaze towards Little-John. Papa looked up, put down the elf-paper wrapped gift. He approached the head of the bed and placed his hand on the man’s brow. He stood for a moment before going into the bathroom. Out he came again with a mirror. I stared as if bewitched by the pallid face. Papa held the mirror over it and then inspected the polished surface. He became very quiet.
“I think he has gone to sleep,” said he. His good-natured tone was blown away. The words rang through the room, heavy and clear.
I tried to look at the man through the mirror, as if the blank glass hid a secret. I held my hands over the face, hardly dared look. Papa held the mirror in his hands; the image of the grizzled face toward the man himself. At that moment Papa lifted it away. The image of the man turned and then disappeared. In the mirror I saw just something white.
Papa took us by the shoulders and led us toward the door. I sneaked a peek at the man. He just lingered there as if floating.
We stood out in the entrance. Something had happened. It felt like something had just gone.
There was snow at Christmas, anyway. Late in the afternoon when we were about to eat came the first flakes.
“It’s snowing!” yelled Little-John, running to the window and putting his brow against the glass.
I stood beside him and thought about the dead man in the bed. I looked up at the snowflakes that floated down and down, settling like a sheet of white paper. I wanted to weep, to swoon. It was not fair. Could a life just fade away so easily?
When we unwrapped the Christmas presents there were pairs of boxing gloves for Little John and me.
“Boxing gloves?” I said looking quizzically at Papa.