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Reggie Johnson on fighting Roy Jones Jr and James Toney at their peak, and the jail term that ended his plans for a comeback

Reggie Johnson
Reggie Johnson took on some of the best fighters of his era, winning belts and plaudits along the way. He speaks Oliver Fennell

REGGIE JOHNSON is a people person. He loves boxing. Yes, he loved winning (doing so 44 times in a 52-fight pro career) and he loves his belts. But most of all, he loved the people he met, especially when fighting overseas. “A lot of fighters just go in, fight, get paid, and get out,” says Johnson of the typical approach to boxing on the road. “We don’t roll like that. Every place I’ve been to, we hung out with the people.”

The Houston native, now 55, is best known for the belts he won at middleweight and light-heavyweight, for sharing a ring with legends such as Roy Jones Jnr, James Toney and Antonio Tarver, and for wins over the likes of Steve Collins, Lamar Parks, William Guthrie, Chris Johnson and Julio César González. But the man known as “Sweet” is most effusive when talking about the people he met.

“Man, I love Argentina,” he says of a country in which he went 0-3. But it’s not the sporting setbacks he remembers it for, it’s the personal gains.

“We went up into the mountains and hung with the poor people,” he says. “These people were like ‘he’s fighting our guy [Jorge Castro], why is he coming up here to us?’ But I loved them and by the time I left, they were my fans too.”

Johnson also had “six or seven” international fights as an amateur, including boxing in front of the king of Thailand as a 16-year-old. As a pro, he fought all over the US, and in Spain, Italy and in South Africa in 1988 – during apartheid. “I was just a young man, excited about boxing. I didn’t even know what apartheid meant,” he said. “Later, I did learn all about it because they [the sanctioning bodies] suspended me for going over there.

“I was there about a month and a half. I had a great time, despite apartheid. I was a kid, acting like the second coming of Muhammad Ali. I’d eat in restaurants and the black waiters would be calling me ‘mister’ and ‘sir’ and I’d be acting like Ali, telling them [impersonates Ali’s accent] ‘come on now, don’t be calling me mister, you older than me!’”

One place Johnson never fought, but is yearning to visit, is the British Isles. Specifically, he is seeking a reunion with his old foe, Steve Collins, whom he beat on points in New Jersey in 1992. “Irish Steve Collins was a tough, tough fighter,” he says. “We were two hungry fighters moving forwards, trying to become [WBA] champion of the world; two guys getting a second chance. The fight was beautiful, and I’ll tell you this – if I ever go to war, I want Irish Steve Collins standing next to me.”

Nowadays, Johnson is a coach at Gator Boxing in Dickinson, Texas, and has set up the Champions Forever Tour, which aims to gather a group of retired ex-champs – the roster so far comprises Johnson, Riddick Bowe, Iran Barkley and Christy Martin – and take them around the world to meet fans. It is through this that Johnson hopes to renew acquaintances with Collins. “We had everything in place a couple of years ago and were looking at coming to the UK last year, but coronavirus stopped it all,” he says. “Hopefully we can come next year. I haven’t seen Irish Steve Collins since we fought but I always think about him and would love to meet him in Ireland or the UK in front of the fans.”

Given recent trends, it’s important to note that when Johnson talks of meeting Collins again, he means over dinner, not in the ring – although he understands why his 50-something contemporaries are lacing up the gloves again. “It’s hard for any guy who’s financially short to say no,” he says. “If you do an exhibition and you’re making more money than guys doing real fights, if you can make $2-3million doing that, you’d be a fool not to. But also, you be a fool to do it if you’re not healthy.”

Thankfully Johnson, despite enjoying good health – “I haven’t stayed in a hospital since I was born” – is not tempted, even if his career did not end on his terms.

His February 2008 win over Julio César González in Lake Charles, Louisiana, was the last time he fought, but it wasn’t intended to be a swansong – it was supposed to be a comeback. “I wanted to do what George Foreman did, but at light-heavyweight,” says Johnson of his fellow Texan, who at the time was still the sport’s oldest-ever champion (Bernard Hopkins would supplant him in 2011).

González was one of the better wins on Johnson’s record, all the more impressive for coming aged 41 and after a two-and-a-half-year layoff. But while the result hinted at a renaissance, the comeback came to a sudden halt when Johnson was charged four months later with stealing from a charity, and then jailed in 2010.

“Now, I want to talk about that,” he says. “I’m like Ali, I’m willing to take a stand and to die for certain things. If I’d signed some papers [to confess], I would have gone home, but I wouldn’t sign those papers because I’m an innocent man.”

Johnson was convicted of taking $120,000 from Houston Area Urban League, a black empowerment charity, to run a boxing camp that never happened. “I was going to do a summer programme working with kids,” he says. “There are summer camps for basketball, baseball, football, soccer, and it was my idea to do a boxing summer camp, because nobody had done one.

“We talked about doing it that summer [2008] but I was getting ready to fight Glen Johnson so I said I might be tied up. If not this summer, then next summer.”

The looming Glen Johnson contest – though ultimately postponed – did indeed rule Reggie out of hosting any summer camps, and that was when he was arrested for theft. But Johnson insists he was paid for the following summer, which he would have honoured, not for services he then failed to provide.

“I’ve got hard evidence that they refused to show in court,” he says. “I’ve got the [receipt for the] cheque right here. The date is on the cheque, it says October. Summertime was over. The cheque was payment in advance for next summer.”

Naturally, the 2009 camp didn’t happen either, as Johnson remained incarcerated as he awaited trial. He was convicted in October 2010, and then released in December 2011. “I was in county jail for three years and six months,” he says. “The day I got out, I was 228lbs. I started training, but I pretty much knew boxing was over. I knew I would still be a part of it, but not participating. I just got into working with fighters.”

Johnson had long since amassed an impressive resume, having fulfilled the prediction of his first coach following his very first spar.
“My uncle was an amateur fighter and he took me to the gym one day,” says Johnson. “I took off real well and before long I got into the ring, sparring. Everyone was excited watching me handle these kids with much more experience. The coach, the late James Carter, said ‘Man, you could become champion of the world.’”

It was with that goal in mind that Johnson turned pro at just 17, after losing in the 1984 Olympic trials to Frank Tate.

The coronation envisioned by coach Carter would come at the second attempt, against Collins, but Johnson feels it should have happened 10 months earlier in Las Vegas, against James Toney. He dropped Toney in the second round and pushed the middleweight supremo to the wire, but was adjudged a split-decision loser.

“I fell to the canvas when they announced that decision, and I got up with tears in my eyes,” says Johnson. “To this day I’ll tell anyone that I won. It made me ask myself ‘do I really want this?’ Stuff like that hurts, but it can do one of two things – make you quit, or inspire you.

“At the end of the day, I love boxing, so I wasn’t gonna quit. I saw it as an opportunity to prove people wrong.”

Johnson would go on to claim a belt against Collins and make three defences before another “political loss” in October 1993 ended his reign, with John David Jackson taking a close but unanimous decision in Buenos Aires – the first of those three fruitless trips to Argentina.

“It was strange, two Americans fighting in Argentina,” he says. “I later found out he had a deal where if he won, he’d come back and fight the guy [Jorge Castro] in Argentina. As you can see, that history had already written itself.

“Then Jackson decided he didn’t want to fight Castro over there, so he was stripped. That’s why me and Castro fought for the title.”

Two back-to-back controversial split decision losses to Castro precipitated a 21-month layoff while Johnson regrouped. When he returned, he intended to make a run at super-middleweight, but opportunity knocked a division up.

William Guthrie was a new 175lbs titleholder; a big puncher with unblemished 24-0 (21) stats being touted as a credible threat to Roy Jones Jnr. Johnson, a hitherto middleweight who’d lost three of his previous five bouts, looked like ideal first-defence material.

“I was preparing to fight at 168 but then the phone rang,” says Johnson. “They called Curtis [Cokes, Johnson’s then-trainer and former world welterweight champion] and asked him if he had anyone who could fight Will Guthrie. He said Reggie Johnson, they said ‘man, get out of here, Reggie Johnson is a middleweight!’”

Even so, the fight was made for February 1998 in Uncasville, and it was the bigger man, the knockout artist, who ended up unconscious. Johnson pitched a hellacious southpaw right hook that travelled a full 180 degrees via Guthrie’s chin. The terrifying fifth-round KO earned Johnson a new start, and Guthrie a hospital visit.

“I was worried about William,” says Johnson of seeing Guthrie being stretchered out of the ring, “because I don’t want to take somebody’s life doing what I love to do. When the bell rings, I’m just there to do a job, and I always prayed that in doing that job, not only myself but my opponent comes out unhurt.

“But he was OK. I got a knock on my hotel door at 9.30 the next morning. It was Will Guthrie, and he said, ‘I just came by to congratulate you, and to let you know I’m all right. I’m gonna fight my way back and would love to have a rematch’.”

Instead, Johnson got the Jones Jnr match that Guthrie was previously being steered towards. Two further victories led to a highly anticipated battle on June 5, 1999. “Man, this guy, he was so gifted,” says Johnson of the boxer viewed as the sport’s pound-for-pound leader at the time. “He was by far the best I ever fought – a master, a great fighter.”

This was evident in Jones winning every round against a man who, though understandably an underdog, was very highly regarded himself. But Johnson says the one-sided scorecards were due to getting his tactics wrong. “We’d sparred before. I caught him with a good shot and wobbled him, so I knew his chin was suspect,” he says. “So our gameplan was being aggressive, but this was fighting Roy on his own terms. One guy said to me, if I’d played chess instead of checkers, I would have had a better fight.”

Johnson would thereafter remain in contention until a points defeat to Antonio Tarver in 2002. It was another split decision, but one he has no problems with. “Ninety percent of the time, a man knows if he won or lost. It was fair. I was even surprised it was a split decision. Some people tell me I won, but I correct them. You gotta keep it real.”

Only two more fights remained in Johnson’s career – both wins – before his legal troubles turned his comeback into an epilogue.

He has not been turned off charity work, though. In fact, it underpins the spirit of the Champions Forever Tour. Specifically, it aims to support anti-bullying causes, to fund the creation and maintenance of boxing gyms in deprived areas, and to give retired fighters both a purpose and an income. And it will also give Johnson a chance to indulge two of his passions – travelling and meeting people.

“I don’t care what colour your skin is, what country you’re from, what language you speak,” he says. “I just want to get to you know you, because we’re all part of the same race – the human race.

“By bringing people together, this world tour is really going to take off and make the world a better place.”

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