By TK Stewart
Kirk Johnson, with a professional record of 36-2-1 (26) KO hails from Nova Scotia, Canada and will face Javier Mora, 19-2-1 (17) KO at the Pechanga Resort and Casino in Temecula, California on Friday, March 3rd . The bout can be seen live on FOX Sports Net stations throughout the United States
Boxing’s glamour division has become a dismal wasteland. Littered with the remnants of those that never were and those that never will be, the heavyweight division needs a savior. Kirk Johnson believes he can change the heavyweight landscape and on Friday night he’ll take the first step in what he hopes will be his path to the heavyweight championship.
Only a few short years ago, Kirk Johnson was one of the most highly touted professional heavyweight prospects in the world. Raised in the small village of North Preston, Nova Scotia he began boxing at only ten years of age. During an outstanding amateur career in which his record was 72-6, Johnson won the 1989 Junior World Amateur Championship as a heavyweight. Johnson also won three Canadian National Amateur titles and he represented Canada at the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona, Spain. Coming up short in the Olympics, Johnson lost in the quarterfinals to the eventual silver Medalist, David Izon of Nigeria.
Kirk Johnson has been through the highs and lows that the game of boxing offers. The good times have never seemed to last long enough and the bad ones for too long. Johnson got off to a great start as a professional in 1993 and won his first twenty-six fights before drawing with former Cruiserweight champion Al Cole in December 1998. Three months later, Johnson would decision the seasoned Cole in an immediate rematch, thus avenging the only blemish on his professional record.
In October 2000, Johnson fought solid contender Oleg Maskaev in a bout aired on HBO and he literally blasted Maskaev out of the ring in less than four rounds. Johnson showed all of his talents and awesome potential in knocking Maskaev out of the ring and onto the lap of a ringside photographer. At the time, Maskaev was generally regarded as the third best heavyweight in the world, yet Johnson surprised the boxing community by handing Maskaev a stunning knockout defeat.
Johnson was able to show his versatility by keeping Maskaev at long range, holding him off with sharp jabs, quick movement and snapping punches. Johnson displayed power in both hands by decking Maskaev early in the fourth round with a left hook and then out of the ring entirely with a right hand. Hall of fame trainer Emanuel Steward called the bout for HBO and he was encouraged with what he saw, "It was a very impressive fight. I was very impressed with him tonight. His eyes had so much intensity."
The Maskaev bout was a definite high point for Johnson, and nine months later he was matched with perennial contender Larry Donald in a high profile WBA heavyweight title elimination bout. Johnson used his boxing skills in an evenly matched, hard fought twelve round fight in which he overcame a badly swollen right eye to outpoint Donald. Johnson continued to ride the crest of his career wave and he called this his best fight as a pro. "I am most proud of the Larry Donald fight because I was able to box against him and take the fight to him, even though he has one of those difficult styles to go up against."
The Larry Donald victory made Johnson the number-one WBA contender and set up a July 2002 title fight with Johnny Ruiz in Las Vegas. Johnson came into the bout as the favorite with an undefeated record of 32-0-1. Johnson was seen as a young, hungry contender and before the fight he told a group of reporters that he was ready to achieve his goal. "I have been training to be champion of the world ever since I was ten years old. I wanted to be welterweight champion of the world. Unfortunately, I grew too big and I am a heavyweight. Now I have the opportunity to win the heavyweight championship of the world and I am going to do that. I’m going to go in there and do what Kirk Johnson is the best at doing. I have fast hands, I have great movements and I have great instincts in the ring. That’s my plan, just to be me. When I’m myself I always come up with one hundred percent victory."
In a rough and tumble fight against the mauling Ruiz, much of the momentum that Johnson had going for him throughout his career ground to a halt. It was a difficult bout mired in an unforgettable jumble of clinching and low blows. Ruiz is a grappler as much as a boxer and his spastic, grabbing, wrestling style gradually wore on the larger Johnson. The bout was filled with rough tactics and several of Johnson’s punches strayed low. Johnson seemed to implode as much mentally as physically, yet he would later blame his poor showing on overtraining.
By the tenth round, referee Joe Cortez had seen enough of what he perceived to be intentional fouls and disqualified Johnson for one too many low blows. It was an extremely discouraging night for Johnson and his supporters as many had tipped him to overthrow Ruiz. Johnson expressed his thoughts on the fight and tried to rationalize his first loss, "They took the fight from me. The bottom line is the last two low blows were not low blows. When I did something to Ruiz the referee warned me. I hit Ruiz on the hip and they called that a low blow. When Ruiz hit me on my hip he never called that a low blow. I had a lot of emotion. I wanted to box well. I wanted to be impressive, and sometimes when you want to impress you do not. I wanted to fight impressively so that I could fight Lennox Lewis next. I started out feeling good, but I don’t know what happened. Ruiz is always crossing under. I figured that if I could duck under and try to come up, I could catch him in the middle. But, a couple of times I strayed low and a couple of times it was borderline and the referee saw it the way he saw it. So, those things happen. It was terrible, man."
By March 2003, Johnson had tumbled from the number one contender to number eight and the doubts regarding his abilities were frequently written about in the American press. However, despite the criticism, Johnson stormed back from the Ruiz debacle with a vengeance and he put himself back into prominence with two quick knockout wins, one coming against fringe contender Lou Savarese. In a March 2003 bout reminiscent of the Maskaev fight, Johnson showed his long dormant quickness and explosive power by brutally knocking Savarese out in the fourth round. It was a complete performance, and within weeks a June 2003 fight with world heavyweight champion Lennox Lewis, who had beaten back every other serious challenge, was signed to take place in Los Angeles.
At the time, Lewis was the dominant heavyweight champion in boxing. His hall of fame trainer, Emanuel Steward, was nervous in the weeks before the fight. Many gave Johnson no chance against Lewis, ostensibly because of his poor showing against Ruiz, but Steward saw it differently. "It’s kind of interesting to see all the negative publicity people have been giving him, from some of the American reporters at least. Kirk is a very balanced fighter. He boxes, he punches and he has a good amateur background. But Kirk is explosive, that’s what mostly makes him dangerous to me. Being in boxing, I know what he can do. He has very fast hands and is fundamentally very sound. I’ve always been very, very high on Kirk. The most dangerous opponent we could have is Kirk Johnson. He’s solid and he has good punching power."
The Lennox Lewis bout would never happen. Just days before the fight, Johnson had to withdraw because of a torn chest muscle. In an instant, the opportunity of a lifetime vanished. It was a devastating setback for Johnson and his many supporters. It was a fight with Lewis that Kirk Johnson had always dreamed of and maintained that he wanted. The fact that Lewis had lived his teen years in Canada and had won the gold medal for Canada in the 1988 Seoul Olympics had made this bout a natural and very attractive for Johnson. It would have given the winner Canadian bragging rights.
With Johnson pulling out of the Lewis fight, the opportunity was then offered to giant Vitali Klitschko of the Ukraine. Klitschko put up a career best performance and took advantage of a Lennox Lewis that had trained for a different opponent. Klitschko was ahead on the scorecards after six rounds, yet he suffered a hideous gash over his left eye. The fight was stopped and subsequently awarded to Lewis allowing him to retain his title. The Klitschko bout would be Lewis’ last as he would retire less than a year later as heavyweight champion.
In December 2003, at New York’s Madison Square Garden, Johnson was rated as the number five contender and he was matched against Vitali Klitschko who was elevated to the number one contender based on his strong showing against Lewis only six months earlier. The winner of this bout would be in line for a title shot at the still active Lewis.
Johnson showed up in terrible physical shape at a career high 260 pounds. It was rumored that his weight had approached nearly 300 pounds in the months before the bout. He had visible stretch marks on his body from the massive weight gain. Johnson was widely criticized for being in such poor condition and appearing so out of shape for such an important and high profile fight. It was pointed out that in Johnson’s second pro bout he scaled a trim 215 pounds. Johnson attempted to deflect the criticism surrounding his weight, "This time I’m not over-trained. This weight will help me have more stamina."
Johnson entered the ring to the sound of Michael Jackson’s "Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough". It turned out that Johnson should have stopped himself at the buffet table because in this bout he was in no condition physically or mentally to face a peaking Klitschko.
The giant from the Ukraine was five inches taller than the 6’2" Johnson and enjoyed a reach advantage that allowed him to control Johnson from the outside with his left jab and set up his damaging power shots. Johnson showed none of the quickness or explosive power that had marked his best wins. The extra pounds of blubber Johnson packed around his midsection dulled his reflexes and slowed his movement. Klitschko pinned Johnson in a corner of the ring late in the second round, bloodied his face, and literally clubbed him to the floor on two occasions before the referee had to rescue him from further battering. Johnson landed only nine pathetic punches. HBO’s Jim Lampley called it, "Unrestrained destruction" while his counterpart Larry Merchant commented less diplomatically on Johnson’s effort, "That whale was just harpooned."
In a fourteen-year professional career, Kirk Johnson has had some of the best in the boxing business looking out for his best interests. All of them have had the same goal of getting Johnson a piece of the heavyweight crown. Through it all and at Johnson’s side since the very beginning has been his father Gary. The list of folks that have assisted him over the years reads like a "Who’s Who" of boxing. Before the Ruiz bout, Johnson signed a promotional agreement with Dino Duva of Duva Boxing who had won a fierce bidding war for the right to promote Johnson’s future bouts. Duva was so sure that Johnson was going to be the next heavyweight champion of the world that just before Johnson’s bout with Ruiz, he decided to stake the future of his company on Johnson by putting his money where his mouth was. Duva signed Johnson to a $1.1 million promotional agreement. "We’ve always believed in Kirk Johnson. He’s a legitimate number one contender", said Duva.
Johnson’s early career bouts were brilliantly plotted and charted by Johnny Bos, who has been known for decades as perhaps the premier matchmaker in the sport. Johnson’s bouts have been featured prominently in Canada on The Sports Network and in the United States on CBS, HBO, FOX, ESPN and USA networks. Johnson has also had the benefit of working under the watchful eyes of the most astute trainers to be found in the sport of boxing. Johnson has had guidance from Teddy Atlas, Jimmy Glenn and hall of fame trainer Lou Duva. He has sparred and been in training camp with the likes of four-time world heavyweight titlist Evander Holyfield. The trainer Johnson has worked with the most is Texan Curtis Cokes, who is enshrined in the International Boxing Hall of Fame for his own achievements as a welterweight champion in the 1960’s.
Cokes has always seen the ability and potential in Johnson, "Back in ‘93 when he first came to Dallas to train, I saw that he had a lot of speed and he wanted to be a champion. Even in the beginning, when he had his first pro fight, he was working toward being a world champion. I told him, I said Kirk, I don’t train you just for a fight. I’m training you to be a world champion. So we started from day one trying to be a world champion and we are finally going to get that pretty soon."
After the Klitschko defeat in December 2003, Kirk Johnson hit rock bottom. He was widely panned in the American press as just another hopeful who wasted his natural talent and ate his way out of title contention. Just weeks after the Klitschko fight it was revealed that Johnson had been waging a five year long battle with the Halifax, Nova Scotia police department in which he had accused them of racism. It was learned that during the years from 1993-1998, when Johnson would be at home visiting with his parents in Nova Scotia, that he been pulled over by the police an amazing 28 times. It culminated with an episode on Easter Sunday 1998 when Johnson and his cousin, Earl Fraser, were pulled over by a white police officer and five police cars. Johnson’s cousin was behind the wheel of Johnson’s black Ford Mustang that had Texas license plates. Johnson’s car was impounded and he was cited for driving an unregistered and uninsured motor vehicle, despite the fact that he had proof of registration and insurance for the vehicle being registered and insured in Texas.
Johnson’s complaint eventually made it all the way to the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission and it made national headlines in Canada. After a nine day long inquiry it was determined that Kirk Johnson had been discriminated against by the Halifax police department solely because he was black. The win was as sweet as any he had tasted in the ring and because of it Kirk Johnson was able to close the book on a painful chapter of his life. "This victory is very important," Johnson said. "I’m disappointed that it took five long years for justice to be served." Johnson was happy that his case had already made conditions for blacks in Nova Scotia better, "When the police stop us now, they’re giving us a real reason for stopping us. So already it has made some type of change."
Aside from having to admit they were wrong in pulling Johnson over without a valid reason, the police department had to apologize to Johnson and his family for the "humiliating, stressful, and painful" experience. Johnson was also awarded ten thousand dollars for damage to his reputation.
Over the past two years, Johnson has only seen action in two bouts. He faced durable, heavyweight trial horse Gilbert Martinez in 2004 and stopped him on a cut after eight rounds. The fight was bittersweet, as although Johnson won the bout handily, he suffered another setback when he broke his right hand in the second round. He showed heart and grit by fending off the determined Martinez with just one hand. Johnson’s weight was down to 242 pounds and he displayed some of the old form and versatility that made him a top contender. The broken hand would limit him to just the one bout in 2004.
In June 2005, Johnson returned against sub par opponent Yanqui Diaz. The end result was another victory, but it was frustratingly halted due to an unintentional clash of heads at the end of the fifth round. Diaz suffered a nasty gash on his brow and his cornermen deemed him unable to continue. Johnson looked sloppy and overanxious in the bout and missed many shots that were thrown wide and off the mark. At 246 pounds it was the second heaviest weight of his career.
Friday night on FOX Sports Net stations will be the start of what will likely be Kirk Johnson’s last run at a championship. Another injury that sets him back several months could spell the end to a career that has been off the tracks for nearly three years. At age 33, Johnson is nowhere to be found in the heavyweight ratings and he is rarely mentioned in the same sentence with the marquee names of the division. The years have passed quickly.
James Toney, the top rated heavyweight contender who is preparing to face WBC titlist Hasim Rahman on March 18th in Atlantic City was recently asked about Kirk Johnson’s viability as a future heavyweight contender. The mercurial Toney usually spews animosity and insults when asked to comment on fighters in his own division, but Toney was strangely complimentary regarding Johnson, surely recognizing a capable fighter when he sees one, "I think Kirk Johnson still can fight. It’s just a matter of time to get himself motivated and to get the right fights. But you know, hey, only time will tell."
TK Stewart works for the Bangor Daily News in Bangor, Maine. You can reach him at [email protected]