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Glen Johnson’s life on the road

Glen Johnson
Glen Johnson tells Craig Scott how a series of setbacks taught him how to rule the world

DRENCHED in sweat, former IBF light-heavyweight champion Glen Johnson hammers the sizzling concrete pavements with the same youthful aplomb that accompanied him from Clarendon, Jamaica to South Florida almost 40 years ago. This routine continues daily, and his heart continues beating. Now aged 51, the body still works — some parts of it, anyway.

He answers my call with that familiar, Caribbean lilt; relaxed and ready to relive his incredible career in depth for Boxing News. Johnson was infamously dubbed the “Road Warrior” throughout his professional career, remembered for fearlessly challenging some of his generation’s greatest champions. But it was all purely by chance.

After continually delaying his retirement, the proud ex-professional from Middlesex County still runs regularly, seeking solace on the sidewalk. He explains: “The darkest period of my career, I’d say it was when I knew it was coming to an end. That’s always the toughest part, when you see the end is near and your brain doesn’t want to leave, but everything else says, ‘It’s time to go.’ Your skills are diminishing. Your energy, everything inside that’s becoming an old person is manifesting itself.

“I think the biggest part is just accepting age. Nobody likes to be old, right? You’re past your prime, or your best athletic years. That’s hard to accept. Being an athlete, you feel so powerful and you feel different than a regular person. So then, for your brain to now accept that you’re old and say, ‘I can’t do this no more’, it takes some getting used to. It takes time to process.”

The quiet man from Jamaica wasn’t one for staking outrageous claims of feeling “stronger than ever” and he stopped shy of calling out current champions for ridiculous, dangerous paydays. It wasn’t his style. If Johnson had experienced a battle with denial after hanging up his gloves, I got the impression he’d already emerged the victor. He never set out to take on the world, but he certainly wasn’t afraid of it either.

The 77-fight veteran, 54-21-2 (37), took me back to life on the Island, spending his childhood with his grandparents in Clarendon while his mum settled in the busy suburbs of New York City. When the teenage Johnson joined her, he was knocked for six by the vast differences in culture. That strong accent washed over his peers, forcing him to alter his approach when studying for exams, and later looking for work.

“Everything we did in Jamaica was outside with our friends; running around, swimming and jumping in rivers,” he explained. “Then you move to a strange country and you sound funny — everybody sounds different. When I started going to school it was another tough transition, because now I’m learning all of these things that are new to me. It was a struggle in those early days, but I adjusted to the system. As a kid you just want to fit in.

“I started boxing when I got to the States. I was [already] 20 years old and it was after I had started working in construction. The real reason that I ended up in a boxing gym was because I wanted to lose weight. The boxing gym was free and ‘free’ fitted into my budget. I went in there just to lose some weight and the coach asked me if I wanted to be an amateur boxer. I said, ‘If you think I could be an amateur boxer then I will give it a try.’

“My chest was on fire; my heart and my breathing, too. I was like, ‘This is impossible. There’s no way any human being can do this.’ Then I fought and won my first amateur fight. I was like an addict after that — I was hooked. I was searching for greatness. I always wanted to be great at something, so everything that I was doing, I put 100 per cent into it. I was learning boxing and I thought that was my vehicle to have that better life.”

Debuting as a professional boxer in 1993, Johnson embarked on an often-unthinkable career between the ropes, buoyed solely by the encouragement he’d received from his coaches. His tenure as both an amateur and professional was the result of that same, casual response: “If you think I can do it, I’ll give it a shot”. I asked Glen what he thought his life would have meant without boxing. He answered with a prolonged silence.

After amassing 32 straight wins — 20 by knockout — he would eventually run into trouble. Facing middleweight king and feared, former prison inmate Bernard Hopkins, Johnson suffered his first punishing defeat, learning more in just under 32 minutes than in his previous 32 contests. The “Road Warrior” discussed in detail squaring off against one of the sport’s coldest figures on that humid, Summer evening in Indio, California.

“As a young guy I wasn’t intimidated by anyone because I never thought anyone could beat me,” Johnson laughed, still oozing the confidence of a young challenger. “I wasn’t intimidated at any point. Bernard Hopkins beat the crap out of me. But that was just another learning process, really. I had to go back to the gym, train harder and become more mentally strong.

“I fought him when I was a middleweight. Obviously coming up I was put into fights where I was the A-side most of the time. So I didn’t have a lot of challenges. When I got to Bernard, he was boxing on a different level than I’ve ever, even seen it. I’ve never seen that in sparring, never saw it in the amateurs, and never saw it in any competitive fight. There was nothing I could do with him. Everything I was doing, it seemed like he already read my mind. I was totally outclassed.”

This initial defeat was shortly followed with a further two losses; watching the hands of Merqui Sosa (December 1997) and Joseph Kiwanuka (August 1998) being raised after contentious judges’ scorecards. The learning continued, and eventually Johnson would string together four meaningful victories, leading to another shot at a world belt. This time it was German IBF super-middleweight champion, Sven Ottke (November 1999), who would topple Clarendon’s great hope on points, before sending him hurling into another tailspin, resulting in four consecutive defeats.

Six fights spread over three years led Glen Johnson back to the away corner, challenging for a world title for the third time, again largely unfancied. But it was this night in Hillsborough Leisure Centre, Sheffield that would change the course of the Jamaican’s career for good, despite only fighting to a split draw for the vacant IBF light-heavyweight strap with Clinton Woods. The pair met again only three months later and this would be the travelling man’s crowning triumph. At last he was champion, winning unanimously on points, again in Woods’ backyard.

“It was certainly a big relief, because over the years, many times people said I couldn’t ever be a world champion, or [told me] I wasn’t going to make it. When I walked into the gym at 20 years old, there were boys at eight that were way better than I was. After losing and going through some ups and downs, you have to be strong. So when it finally happened, it was a big relief to say, ‘Okay, I proved myself right and I proved all of the people who said I couldn’t do it wrong.’

“People knew that I was robbed in many of those losses. So I would take that glory for myself because I know I whooped this guy, even though they gave him the decision. He’s the A-side guy and that’s the way the game is played. Times when I would get beat legitimately, those were my most crushing because that makes you feel like somebody was better than you out there. It’s tough fighting the politics, but it’s a lot easier than knowing the person is better than you and just beat your ass.”

The 35-year-old Johnson, proudly draped in his red, championship belt, would continue upsetting the odds after conquering the 175lbs division unexpectedly, “beating the asses” of his peers on some of his biggest nights. He famously handed the great Roy Jones Jnr his second legitimate defeat, stopping the American favourite during the ninth round of his first defence in September 2004.

Beating the pound-for-pound great was Glen’s highest-profile contest, and one he remembers fondly even now, explaining: “I was supposed to fight Joe Calzaghe but he pulled out of the fight. I told my manager, ‘Screw Joe Calzaghe, let’s move on.’ Then he came to me with the opportunity to fight Roy Jones. I remember some years before that, I was having a discussion with my friends and I was telling them, ‘If I get a chance to fight Roy Jones, I’ll beat him.’ And they laughed at me. I couldn’t believe they were my friends (laughs).

“He made a poster with my name on it [and stuck it] on the punch bag. He hit the bag and every time, sand was draining out of it. I found that to be so disrespectful. When I stepped inside the ring just before the fight was about to start, one of his boys walked over to me and said, ‘Hey man, just hand over the belt. You know you lost that.’ That’s why I came out like that. If I was going to be knocked out, I’m like, ‘F**k it, knock me the f**k out because I’m coming at you’.”

After leaving Roy Jones Jnr rigid on the canvas, Glen Johnson would go on to add victories over Antonio Tarver, Montell Griffin, Yusaf Mack and Allan Green. But defeats were almost as common as the victories. Tarver beat him in their rematch, so too Woods in their third scrap and he also came up short against the likes of Chad Dawson, Tavoris Cloud, Carl Froch, Lucian Bute, George Groves and Ilunga Makabu.

After suffering his final defeat at the hands of Turkish fringe contender, Avni Yildirim in 2015, the Road Warrior was forced to admit he’d run out of gas. The body that had carried him further than most imagined possible was beyond repair. His brain remains sharp, and despite battling the best for over two decades, he was only stopped twice. But it was the speed of his opponents’ punches that posed unanswerable questions. Days passed and months followed. Glen Johnson was always on the road — he still is. But it just isn’t enough anymore.

His passion now lies in training fighters, still basing himself in Florida, and he’d recently grabbed column inches in the United Kingdom after briefly working with Brixton cruiserweight, Isaac Chamberlain. Their relationship has been put on hold, but the Clarendon-native hopes they’ll soon be reunited, with Chamberlain’s future unsure. Passing on his knowledge to the next generation had become his new addiction, replacing the buzz of trying to solve boxing’s trickiest puzzles.

He told me that his one hope was to be remembered as “the fighter who’d fight anyone, anywhere, anytime.”

Glen’s career spanned decades, losing consecutive fights, suffering painful defeat when competing for major championships and ultimately struggling to strip himself from the sport after tasting unfathomable success. He searched for greatness, even shaking its hand in a fleeting moment, and now chases his next success up and down the streets of South Florida, defying the age that had previously plagued him. It is just a number, after all.

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