By Thomas Gerbasi
Thank God for cross country flights. If not, Glen Johnson may have walked away from the sport that mistreated him, slapped him around, and disrespected him countless times. And he would have been justified in doing so, having been on the wrong end of hometown, promoter-influenced, and just plain inept judging.
The year was 2003, and as he left Southern California after a controversial majority decision loss to local favorite Julio Cesar Gonzalez, he retired on the plane home to Florida. He had just turned 34, had lost six of his last eight bouts, and the light at the end of the tunnel simply didn’t exist.
If he was traveling from New York or Chicago to Florida, that would have been the end of the story. But with hours to kill, his longtime manager, Henry Foster, had the time he required to convince Johnson that he had what it took to make it to the top and that all he needed to do was keep working.
By the end of the flight, Johnson had unretired. On Saturday, eight years, a world light heavyweight title, and wins over Antonio Tarver and Roy Jones Jr. later, Johnson, 42, will attempt to win a world title in the super middleweight division when he faces Carl Froch in Showtime’s Super Six semifinals.
What a crazy ride it’s been.
“It looked bleak at times, but God is a good one and I was put in this position where I can really write a new chapter,” Johnson told BoxingScene. “We’re excited, driven, we just turned over a new page and a new leaf, and we’re looking forward to it.”
If you’re not a fan of Glen Johnson – the fighter and the man – you shouldn’t call yourself a boxing fan. One of the game’s good guys, he epitomizes the values you want to see an athlete in any sport display: class, work ethic, dedication to his craft, and willingness to test himself against all comers. That’s Johnson in a nutshell. But his biggest and best attribute may just be his stubbornness. Even when boxing turned its back on him, he wouldn’t go away (with the exception of a couple hours on a plane ride).
“I had a dream and I have goals and expectations of myself, things that I want to accomplish, and I just couldn’t walk away from it and not give myself all the opportunities that were there,” he said. “I had to make sure that I shake every tree and push on every door that I came across to make sure that I did all that I could do to accomplish all that I can accomplish. We came across this door and this door opened and now we’re jumping through it.”
This door had the number 168 on it. It was a chance to drop from the division where he made most of his noise over the course of an 18 year career, light heavyweight, to a place he hadn’t seen since the year 2000. The prize? A spot in the Super Six tournament where, if he beat Allan Green, in November of 2010, he would get the opportunity to move forward into the semifinals.
Johnson accepted the offer, made the weight cut, and then went on to stop Green in eight rounds. Now he gets WBC super middleweight boss Froch.
“Carl is a tough fighter, there’s no doubt of that,” said Johnson of the Brit, who has gone 3-1 in the tournament, beating Jermain Taylor, Andre Dirrell, and Arthur Abraham, with his only loss coming against Mikkel Kessler. “He’s a two-time world champion, so he’s gotta have some skills. He showed in his last fight that he can box a little bit, so you’ve got to respect those things and you’ve got to respect his will to win. There’s no quit in the guy and those are things that you can’t measure.”
No one should know that better than Johnson, who is still going strong at 42, an age that used to be a death sentence for a prizefighter. But as 46-year old Bernard Hopkins showed last month in taking the light heavyweight title from Jean Pascal, 40 may be the new 20 in the fight game.
“I was very excited for him and I’m happy that he was able to go out there and make us all proud,” said Johnson of Hopkins, who actually stopped him in a 1997 middleweight title bout. “I think everybody over 30 has to be excited about seeing guys our age doing the things we’re doing. And it’s not just guys in their 20s and teenagers looking forward to having a great life and doing great athletic stuff. I believe that enough of us over 30 have dreams and some aspirations of being something more than we are right now and I’m just extremely excited that we can still do what we are doing at a high level. It’s not just about doing it, but doing it at the highest level.”
So what’s the secret?
“Technique is a big part of it,” said Johnson. “You have to have technique and you have to pay attention to detail if you want longevity. When you’re young you can do a lot of stuff off athleticism, and you can do a lot of stuff just off speed and energy. But if you don’t pay attention to detail and pay attention to technique, when you get older and everything slows down on you a bit, those holes start opening up on you and they become so big and people can take advantage of them. But if you pay attention to detail and you don’t have a lot of holes in your game, you can get longevity out of it.”
For those of us over 40, guys like Johnson and Hopkins are heroes. But that may not be a good thing for guys past their sell-by date who think they can replicate the feats of boxing’s elder statesmen. So “The Road Warrior” is quick to point out that while it’s good to feel happy for the over 40 club, you may not want to try it at home.
“You have to be able to do it,” he laughs. “It’s not just about doing it at our age, but you gotta have the skills to do it. Once you have the skill and the will to do it, then you can go do it and you can accomplish it because that’s what it takes. Not everybody over 30 can say, well, I’m gonna run a marathon and go play football or basketball, or enter a race or be a boxer or anything else. But if you’ve already worked those skills to perfection and age caught up to you but those skills are sharp and you have all the things that it takes to get you over the top and continue to do it on a high level, by all means I believe we should be able to accomplish those goals. Why should we leave it to the young guys who don’t have what it takes and let them try to push us out of the way?”
Say it loud Glen.
And he probably will on Saturday night. Sure, Froch is the favorite, and rightfully so given his recent performances, but after years of struggle that not only made him stronger but also gave him a hard, protective shell, how could you ever count Johnson out? You can’t, simply because you know he’s going to show up and fight, and in a fight, anything can happen, even an unlikely second world championship. The question is, would this one be more meaningful than the first?
“I know how difficult it is to win a title, so I have to appreciate it so much each time you do win one,” he said. “I don’t know if it’s gonna be more, but I certainly know it can’t be less. (Laughs)”