Undisputed Underdog

At 40, Glen Johnson is still fighting for respect

The children stop crying.

It's the type of thing that earned Johnson the moniker "The Gentleman." Foster, his manager, prefers the nickname "Road Warrior."

In his greatest moment, Johnson knocks out Roy Jones Jr.:
Johnson puts on a good show for the crowd during his fight with Aaron Norwood.
C. Stiles
Johnson puts on a good show for the crowd during his fight with Aaron Norwood.
Johnson fights on, despite his frustrations with the bureaucracy that controls boxing.
C. Stiles
Johnson fights on, despite his frustrations with the bureaucracy that controls boxing.

Johnson was born Glengoffe Donovan Johnson on January 2, 1969, in Clarendon, Jamaica. His father wasn't a part of his life. His mother was a nurse's aide and a disciplinarian. When he was 15, they moved to Coconut Grove, where he got a construction job. In 1990, he picked up boxing at a Police Athletic League gym to lose weight.

Johnson developed a routine, working construction until about 3:30 p.m., getting to the gym at 5, working out for an hour and a half, and running until bedtime. Nothing else had ever given him the comfort of a regular routine or the satisfaction of weaving between an opponent's arms in the ring, cracking him in the cheeks and escaping untouched. As an amateur, he won 35 of his 40 fights.

Three years after he picked up the sport, Johnson turned pro. He kept his construction job while training six days a week. Johnson won his first 32 pro fights.

It was at the height of the initial rise that his girlfriend at the time gave birth to Glen Johnson Jr., who has his father's eyes. They agreed the boy would live with his mother, but the young fighter had a new responsibility. There was another mouth boxing had to feed.

After losing to middleweight champ Bernard Hopkins in 1997, Johnson dropped eight fights over the next five years, mostly in Europe. His cachet as a young talent was gone.

One day during this stretch, Johnson was driving his tired sedan south on Interstate 95, headed home. The engine died, and Johnson steered it to the shoulder. He left it there and began walking slowly down the interstate. His car was out of gas, and he couldn't afford to fill it. He had three children to support now, and he had no idea how he would get to work in the morning. He walked, tears welling in his soft brown eyes and rolling down his cheeks the whole way home. He wanted to change his life.

In 2001, Johnson met Foster, a retired heating oil salesman from New York. "When Glen came to me, he had been mismanaged in the past," Foster says. "I saw what kind of work ethic he had. I saw this guy who would take any fight. I told him I believed in him."

Foster implored Johnson to become nastier, more over-the-top at the microphone. "He just wouldn't do it," Foster says. "He said, 'That's not me, man.' " Johnson did change to a more powerful punching style, rising up the ranks again, taking fights wherever he could cash the bigger check.

In early 2003, Johnson was driving his old, beat-up Toyota in Hollywood, not far from Lion's Den Gym, when he saw Jillian and her dark penetrating eyes driving in the next lane. Johnson signaled for attention and asked her to pull over. When she asked what he did for a living, he pulled out a magazine. Turns out he was on the way home from Barnes and Noble, where he'd purchased a few copies of a boxing magazine with a story about his recent resurgence.

"I could tell he was a special kind of human being the second I met him," Jillian says, "but I still waited more than a week to call him back. I don't go dating guys I see driving along the road."

Jillian had a knack for money that Johnson never had. Jillian knew about investing and talked about starting a business together when he was done in the ring. She convinced Johnson of the value of insurance policies in case something tragic should occur — so everyone would be taken care of.

The romance bloomed. Johnson went undefeated over his next four fights, with two highly protested draws and two wins, including a unanimous decision against IBF champ Clinton Woods. For the first time in his ten-year career, Johnson was a titleholder.

A fight was scheduled against a young, undefeated Welshman named Joe Calzaghe. When that fight fell through, Foster got a call from Roy Jones Jr.'s people. To fight the legend in Memphis, Johnson would receive the biggest purse of his career: almost $1 million. Johnson finally quit his construction job and traded in his old Toyota for a Hummer H2.

Johnson, a seven-and-a-half-to-one underdog, gave Jones the worst knockout of his career. After the fight Jillian, by then his fiancée, jumped into his arms, her dress matching his white trunks and gloves. She shouted "We did it!" and kissed Johnson's forehead.

Next came Antonio Tarver at the Staples Center in Los Angeles. It was Johnson's first seven-figure purse. And when he won in a split decision, the rematch would pay 25 percent more.

The Johnson vs. Tarver fight:

Johnson and Jillian got married before his rematch with Tarver in June 2005 at the Fed Ex Forum in Memphis. Tarver beat Johnson in a unanimous decision. For the next fight, Tarver received $5 million. For his next fight, Johnson got $50,000.

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