By Thomas Gerbasi
It would have been the perfect way for Glen Johnson to end his often imperfect 19 year professional boxing career, to lose a bad decision to an up and comer in his final fight, then following it up by cutting off his gloves in the ring and tossing them to the canvas in disgust.
But that wouldn’t be Johnson’s style. And when he did lose a legit 10 round unanimous decision to Poland’s Andrzej Fonfara last Friday night, he knew that he had thrown the final punch in a career that brought him renown not just for the way he fought and carried himself, but for the way the business of boxing did him wrong so many times.
The final record for the native of Jamaica reads 51-17-2 with 35 knockouts, but so many of those losses could have and should have been wins if not for the ineptitude of judges that just didn’t get things right for a hard-working, blue collar fighter that should have received better treatment.
It had gotten so bad for Johnson that in 2003 he did retire on the plane ride home to Florida after yet another disputed loss, this one to the late Julio Gonzalez.
“There were a few low points,” Johnson told me in 2004. “One that stands out was coming home from the Julio Gonzalez fight. After beating him convincingly they still found a way to rob me and give it to him. On the plane coming back, I was feeling real low, and in fact I retired on the plane. My manager (Henry Foster) said, ‘man, what are you talking about? You just beat this guy. The judges don’t know what they’re looking at. They’re just ripping you off for the promoters. You have the talent and you’re one of the best light heavyweights out there. Keep doing what you’re doing and eventually you’ll break through.’ Those were thoughts that I already had in my head and to hear somebody repeat them confirmed them. So I retired on the plane and I un-retired on the plane.”
Thank the boxing Gods for that. If you were a fan of fighters who punched their time card, put on their hard hat and went to work for 10 or 12 rounds before punching back out, you loved Glen Johnson. There were no frills, none of what Floyd Mayweather calls “special effects,” but if you wanted to see someone get into his opponent’s chest and try to punch a hole through him, and not stop moving forward until the bell rang or the referee intervened, Johnson fulfilled that role to the hilt.
And finally, after a couple more rough outings in the aftermath of the Gonzalez fight, Johnson got his time in the sunshine with one of boxing’s all-time best years in 2004, as he defeated Clinton Woods for the IBF light heavyweight title, knocked out Roy Jones Jr., and finished off the year by decisioning Antonio Tarver. He was the consensus Fighter of the Year, and it was a Cinderella story to rival James J. Braddock’s. After he knocked Jones out and received the acclaim that went along with it, I asked him what he would have said if someone told him after one of his many low points that he would one day be on top of the light heavyweight division and enjoying the fruits of his labors.
“I would have said ‘Thank you, you have a great vision, and thank you for being on my team,’” he deadpanned, and then broke out in a hearty laugh. It was one of those rare stories where you not only appreciated a fighter’s performance, but rooted for him. And few didn’t root for the man who earned the moniker “The Road Warrior” the hard way. The other nickname that stuck to Johnson, “Gentleman Glen,” came a lot easier, because it was natural.
“I’m a nice person by heart and desire, and that’s coming from within me,” he said. “Sometimes you try to change your character but you go back to your comfort zone. After a while you get angry, where you have a chip on your shoulder, but that only lasts for so long. I’m a nice guy, I believe in God, and I do what I have to do. When it’s all said, all you have left is your reputation, so I’ve tried to go a good job with that.”
Always one of the most accessible boxers in the game, Johnson was always free with his time and his thoughts. He didn’t talk in clichés, and as much as it hurt to relive some of the tough times, he would, anytime he was asked. One of the toughest was when I asked him how he explained the losses that weren’t really losses to his children.
“There’s no way you can explain the politics in boxing to an eight-year-old,” mused Johnson. “There’s no way you can explain that, you just have to tell them that daddy lost, watch the disappointment on their faces and try to be a father as much as you can. You basically have to just tell them what the bottom line is and call it a day.”
2004 changed all that though. By that time, Johnson had learned his boxing lessons well, both in and out of the ring. The only man to stop him in 70 pro fights, Bernard Hopkins, gave him his PhD in the sweet science back in 1997, and knowing what usually awaited him from the judges at the end of 10 or 12 rounds filled him in on everything else.
“The most important thing I learned is that the favorite is just that – the favorite,” he said. “So if anything can possibly go to him, that’s what they’re gonna do. They’re going to look for anything they can give to him and give it to him. Even if he don’t do enough for it, they will reward him anyway. That was something I didn’t know coming in. I always believed that you came in and you fought, and if you do good, you’ll win, and if you don’t, you lost. But that’s simply not the truth. When a guy’s the favorite, it’s very difficult for him to lose.”
So Johnson went into the ring with the intention of leaving no doubt whenever he fought, and though his dream run ended in June of 2005 with a loss in the rematch to Tarver, he remained among the best light heavyweights in the world, defeating the likes of Montell Griffin, Richard Hall, and Yusaf Mack, while pushing Chad Dawson to the brink of defeat in the first of their two bouts in 2008. After another competitive title fight loss to Tavoris Cloud in 2010, Johnson made an amazing drop to 168 pounds, stopping Allan Green before back-to-back losses to Carl Froch and Lucian Bute ended his stint at super middleweight.
Eight months after the Bute fight, Johnson made his last stand against Fonfara, and it was clear that at 43, one of the most beloved fighters of this era had hit the end of the line. And in keeping with his realistic view of the sport and his place in it, he made the right call. It was time to walk away, and Johnson did just that.
Of course, whenever a high-profile fighter retires, the Hall of Fame question is the one that circulates most. But I’m not going to address that here, simply because what Glen Johnson brought to the sport went beyond titles, glossy records, and wins over all the top dogs of his era. What he brought to the game was class, determination, and that rare quantity known as hope – the idea that if you fight hard enough and persevere, the good guy can finish first. And if what he told me in 2004 still holds true to this day, he would be happy with that being the lasting image we have of him.
“A lot of the guys who know me here in Miami tell me that I’m an inspiration,” said Johnson. “One of the guys called me ‘Kid Hope’. For that I’m thankful, and if I can make a difference in one person’s life in a positive way, I would like that to be my legacy.”