Wednesday, January 18, 2012

The Legacy of Glen Johnson

Slow. Lumbering. One-dimensional. Athletically-limited. Predictable. Fights at one speed.  

These are not the typical adjectives that one would use to describe a one-time fighter-of-the-year and world champion, yet they all could aptly describe Glen Johnson in the ring. Many fighters, promoters, managers, trainers and handlers watched the videotapes and saw the same thing. "This guy is so beatable," they would say. "All he has is the jab and straight right hand."  

But many dismissed Johnson at their own peril. Ask Roy Jones, Antonio Tarver, Chad Dawson or Thomas Ulrich about Glen Johnson. How about some younger fighters, like Allan Green or Yusaf Mack?  Glen Johnson dented (and, in some cases, derailed) the futures of all of these fighters.
Peak Glen Johnson had crucial psychological and emotional advantages that are missed on "Tale of the Tape" comparisons and rudimentary scouting reports: heart, determination, consistency and professionalism. Johnson never beat himself. There was no out-of-the ring turmoil with him. Johnson was there to fight. If a top boxer was on his "A" game, Johnson was beatable, but if there was any slippage, Johnson would seize his opportunity.   

Essentially, Johnson was the ultimate spoiler. He lacked the top-shelf talent to stay dominant at the highest levels of the sport, but anyone beneath that level or anyone who overlooked him faced significant difficulties.

The life of boxing spoiler can be a difficult one. The spoiler often fights for short money and has little promotional or television support. He goes into a champion's hometown – often on foreign soil – as the "opponent," someone who is supposed to lose but will provide a good effort. In addition, the spoiler is often a fallback option. His number gets called when a bigger fight falls through or a more attractive name backs out because of an injury. The spoiler must stay in the gym almost all year, waiting for the phone to ring with that offer of hope and promise.  

Johnson worked construction well into his mid 30s. During this time, he was taking on some of the best light heavyweights in the world. Throughout most of his career, he was affiliated with lesser promoters, like Warriors Boxing. He fought in Germany, Italy, the U.K. and Canada. Many times he lost close fights in his opponents' backyards (Sven Ottke, Julio Cesar Gonzalez, Silvio Branco). Somehow, he even pulled a few wins out on foreign soil. 

Through it all, Johnson built up goodwill in the boxing community. He became a cause célèbre for a number of influential boxing writers because of his blue-collar attitude, his willingness to take fights on short notice and his general affability. TV networks knew that a "Glen Johnson" fight would deliver action for their viewers.  Boxing fans admired his perseverance and likability.  

Everything came together for him in 2004, when he defeated the tricky Clinton Woods in England, knocked out boxing royalty in Roy Jones and outhustled light heavyweight head honcho Antonio Tarver. For a brief moment, he was on top of the world.

Early in 2005, he was outboxed by Tarver (hey, these things happen) and it took him until 2008 until he had another title shot in America, where he faced undefeated light heavyweight titlist Chad Dawson. Johnson was robbed in the fight. His pressure and right hands caused Dawson to resort to survival tactics.  The rematch, which only occurred because Dawson was shamed into the fight, saw the champion outlast Johnson by running and playing pitty-pat. It was an embarrassing display for a top-level fighter.  

But Johnson persevered, as he always did. He got himself back into contention by knocking out Mack and acquitted himself well in a loss to Tavoris Cloud, who is almost a more athletic version of Johnson. At the age of 41, he was called into duty to help save Showtime's Super Six tournament, dropping down for his first super middleweight fight in ten years. In a final moment of glory, he knocked out Allan Green to earn a spot in the tournament's semifinals.  

Age and class finally caught up to Johnson in 2011. Despite some good moments, he was soundly outpointed by Carl Froch. In his last fight, he was dominated by titlist Lucian Bute, where for the first time since 1997, when he faced Bernard Hopkins, he was uncompetitive. Perhaps, if he fought these opponents in his prime, the outcome would have been different, but most likely, Johnson would never have gotten the opportunity. Few fighters wanted to face Johnson; they did so only because of the demands of the sanctioning bodies or television networks. 

Ultimately, few fighters possess elite skills or athleticism. Most will not win shiny Olympic medals, receive fat promotional contracts or obtain cushy network deals. But Glen Johnson demonstrates that a fighter can overcome sizable disadvantages to reach the apex of the sport. Johnson had to endure bad decisions, fight cancellations, boxers ducking him, the whims of network executives, the shunning of top promoters and a demanding full-time job to reach his summit. In addition, he wasn't blessed with natural athleticism or an abundance of boxing technique. These obstacles would cripple most fighters – and often do. 

However, Johnson is proof that boxing glory can be accomplished by hard work, the perfection of craft and a willingness to learn and get better. Most fighters can never approach the talent level of Roy Jones, but there are hundreds of fighters with better skills than Johnson had. Maybe they all won't become champions, but what if they continue their professional careers without making excuses? What if they don't blame their managers or their upbringings or the judges or their promoters? What if they set out to become the best fighters that they possibly can be, and let the chips fall where they may?

For emerging boxers, Johnson's career provides many valuable lessons: one loss, or even a series of losses, does not have to end a career; a boxer's life outside of the gym is just as important as what happens between the ropes; and the importance of always staying in shape, for a life-changing opportunity could be just a phone call away.

Johnson will retire soon. He will leave the ring as the “Road Warrior,” the former undisputed light heavyweight champion, and an inspiring figure in a sport which is in dire need of positive role models. He wasn't the flashiest fighter. He wasn't a "badass." But he was tough, durable and successful. Boxing is full of Daniel Judahs and Antonio Tarvers and Yusaf Macks – fighters who dithered through the pro ranks, extracting only a portion of their vast potential. But how many squeezed out every ounce of ability and perfected their craft to reach their best? Glen Johnson did. That’s who he was and how he will be remembered.  

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