By Tris Dixon
“As a 12-year-old kid we would be out on the streets putting four coats down making a ring and we used to pretend we were walking to the ring and fighting for a world title, like we were in Rocky. Now I’m doing it for real.”
The fictional Rocky, like Boston light-heavyweight Callum Johnson, was an underdog and one of his greatest challenges was to take on a machine from the Eastern Bloc who was deemed an unbeatable destroyer.
Johnson, the IBF mandatory challenger and current British and Commonwealth champion, travels to Chicago or New York to take on Artur Beterbiev, the 12-0 (12) Russian who fights out of Quebec and who entered the pros with a fearsome reputation. It is one that has grown since turning professional. Now Johnson is in his crosshairs but the Brit is unflinching.
It is a fight he wants.
“I genuinely believe I can win,” he said. “It’s a fight for a world title and I’ve wanted that since I put on a pair of gloves. Listen, I know it’s a fight I can probably lose as well, but this is what I’m in the game for. I’m going to be testing myself against the very best and we will see what happens come October 6.
But, again, I’m in the game to get as far as I can, be in the best fights I can and I’ve been given this opportunity, so why not?”
Promoter Eddie Hearn broke the news to Johnson that he had been installed as the IBF’s number one, and he then realised Beterbiev was in play.
“It was excitement, really,” he said of his initial reaction. “As soon as Eddie sent me the e-mail from the IBF saying they’d made me mandatory it was excitement. “It was a bit like, ‘Oh shit, this is really happening,’ and it took me about half a second to decide I wanted the fight and that was before anything was discussed. I believe I’ve got the capabilities to cause a massive upset.”
There are two fighters in this contest with stellar amateur credentials. Johnson won around 100 of 120 amateur bouts, fought for Scotland for six years and won a Commonwealth Games gold medal.
He and the champion could have faced one another years ago in an international tournament, though their paths never crossed.
“I was in the amateurs at the same time as him so I’ve seen lots of him,” Johnson explained. “We never met in the amateurs or were at the same tournament but if we had have done I could have boxed him, so I would have boxed him then and I’d box him now – so now I’m just getting paid for it. He’s an exceptional talent, I’m a fan of his, he’s a beast and everyone’s saying he is. But would he have done a better job on Frank [Buglioni] than I did? Probably not. I’m sure he’d do a job on Frank don’t get me wrong, but until I actually get in the ring with him people are saying, ‘Oh, this and that,’ but they don’t know. They don’t know what I’m capable of. They’ve seen 90 seconds of me [beating Buglioni], they don’t actually know what I can do. Me, [trainer] Joe [Gallagher] and the lads in gym know what I can do and they all believe in me and Joe believes in me. Let’s go. Let’s see what happens.”
Johnson, while determined and ambitious, remains realistic. He understands he’s the second favourite in a two-horse race but he’s embracing the role.
“In fairness you’ve got to put the percentages in his favour because he is the world champion and he is what he is, but like I say, don’t be surprised if I pull it off,” he countered. “People don’t know what I’m capable of but I think in this fight we will see it. Win, lose or draw I think people will really stand up and realise what I can do.”
Callum, who in the last 18 months has banked just half a round of action since a September 2016 win over Willbeforce Shihepo, turned over with high expectations. Things went rapidly downhill. Politics, injuries, you name it.
“From the start, right from the first day [it did not go right] but sometimes things just don’t work out the way you want them to or the way you expect them to and that’s the case,” he admits. “But at the same time I stayed positive as best I could and we’re here now. I’ve got my shot and it’s better late than never.”
Those in the UK fight trade raved about Johnson’s potential. The amateur wins were backed up with sparring stories. Johnson was ‘a can’t miss’ prospect who, well, went missing.
Still, eight years on he has found himself and believes he has never been as good as he is as part of the bustling Joe Gallagher stable.
“I’m loads better now,” he said. “I’m better than I was then. I’m stronger now, I’m bigger now, I’m more experienced now. It was out of sight out of mind and I think that’s what happened and I think that’s what happened before the Frank [Buglioni] fight. But I’ve reminded a lot of people. I’ve been through some tough times but at the end of the day what I’ve been through and where I’m from I’m winning anyway. With what I’m doing I’m winning. I’ve already done so much more than anyone would have dreamed.”
Those dreams, the ones he now lives, were a shared vision with his father Paul, who died of a heart attack in 2016.
The big win over Buglioni, in a sub-two minute shootout in March, has eased the pressure on Johnson. He was a prospect who had not delivered on his potential, an underachiever who had not made the most of his talent or power. Then it all changed. Capturing the British title took the burden away. He had fulfilled his father’s hopes, dreams and done what they had always planned.
“It’s a massive amount of pressure off,” Johnson, 17-0 (12), continued. “Before my dad passed, he was obviously my coach all through my career and he’s always been involved in my training, even as a pro he was always involved. I felt before he had passed I’d underachieved and that I’d achieved nothing, and he never saw me [achieve]. And it kills me everyday that he never saw me do the things I’m doing now – which he knew I would do. But when he did pass I promised him the day I buried him that I was going to go out and do it. Still, it wasn’t happening for me. I was getting injuries and everything else and it did get to the point where I was thinking, ‘Am I ever going to do it? Am I ever going to fulfil my promise to him?’ And there was masses and masses of pressure on me, but that pressure’s gone and I know he’s happy with what I’ve done in my career so everything else is just a bonus. I’ve done what I said I’d do.”
Johnson’s recent bout of inactivity came through injuries rather than anything more sinister. And those injuries came at the end of training camps, so he maintains that he’s been progressing over the last two years despite the lack of fight night prep.
“I think a lot of people didn’t know the story and they thought my head had gone or I wasn’t in a good mental state but it wasn’t actually the case at that time,” he said. “It was just injuries, but we’re over that now and I showed people last time what I can do and that I can fight. We were saying all along, me and my team and the lads in the gym, that I would smash Frank, and that’s why there was no problem that I hadn’t fought. I had been in the gym and had full camps, I just got injuries at the end that kept me from competing but I was sharp in the gym and I thought, ‘If I’m sharp in the gym I can be sharp in the ring’ and that’s the mentality I had. I just knew that Frank wasn’t on my level.”
Now the odds say that Johnson is not on Beterbiev’s level but Callum pays them no mind.
“It doesn’t bother me but – and I know it’s a different kettle of fish altogether – there was a lot of people saying similar things about fighting Frank with the 18 month layoff. ‘Oh, he’s crazy for fighting Frank. He should have a couple of warm up fights blah blah blah. He’s got no chance…’ And yeah, we’re talking about a different animal but at the same time I was a different animal to Frank. Yeah, I know I’m up against it and I know the odds are stacked against me but it’s what I’m in the game for. These are the cards I’ve been dealt. If it was poker you can’t start changing your cards and I don’t want to change my cards. I’m going to go with the cards I’ve got, play them the best I can and I honestly believe on my day I can knock anyone out, so we will see what happens.”
And if it does not there is always a plan B.
Domestically, the light-heavyweight division is booming and there is the opportunity for money fights, grudge matches and rivalries. Johnson can see that.
“My focus is on this one and if I win that means the world’s my oyster, it sort of blows me into orbit,” he said, knowing a big win will capture international attention.
“With the UK scene, I probably wouldn’t be looking at unless anyone from the UK starts knocking on my door. It all depends how this one goes but there are some big fights in the UK to be made now and in the future. It’s looking exciting. I’m in the last stage of my career now. I think I’ve got three or four years left in me and I’m excited about it. I think my career is finally starting.
“I don’t look at it and see who might be my biggest rival or think ‘I’d like to fight him’. Whoever is there, you know, because if you get a good rivalry it’s good for us both anyway. Obviously there’s talk of Anthony Yarde, there’s [Joshua] Buatsi who’s coming up through the ranks, Buglioni keeps shouting that he wants a rematch. If he gets himself in a position to fight me again, who knows what’s going to happen down the line? It’s hard to say. Eighteen months ago people thought I was finished and they’d never see me again and my days in the ring were over. Now I’m going to America to fight for a world title. It’s my childhood dream.”
The ring won’t be marked by four items of clothing but, like the old days, Callum is sure his father will be watching on. Yet this is boxing and so the critics will be watching, too.
“People say these bad, negative things and they’ll call me silly names for taking a chance and challenging myself but at the end of the day I’m living my childhood dream and the people that say these things are probably not living theirs,” he said of being damned for either being too brave or too cowardly in the modern social media era.
“Worst case scenario I get beat, I’m still British champion, I can still have those big domestic fights and crack on again, go [for the] European [title] and go for the world again. I think people look at this and will think, ‘Wow, he can fight. He’s the real deal.’ Win lose or draw, he [Beterbiev] will know he’s been in a fight.
“Everything that happened before is in the past and I don’t really think about it anymore. My career starts now and this is the time where I can fulfil my potential and try to earn a few quid while I’m doing it. This is the beginning for me.”