Undisputed Underdog

At 40, Glen Johnson is still fighting for respect

Johnson spent three years scraping his way back up to a title fight. His camp was relieved in April of this year, when Johnson landed a fight against 25-year-old undefeated WBC champion "Bad" Chad Dawson in Tampa. All of his goals were within reach — the belt, the guaranteed money. He would finally have the option of retiring from boxing and maybe even have enough to start the business with Jillian.

When the ring announcer declared all three judges had scored the fight in favor of Dawson, Johnson was devastated. In a post-fight interview, with an indignant quiver in his soft Jamaican voice, he said: "I cannot believe at my age, at 39, [the judges] would rip me off like this for a talented young guy that has the world in his hands. I'm on my last leg, working for my future, trying to pay my bills just like he does. But I work hard! And I win the fight! And I deserve it!"

Johnson’s post-fight interview:
Henry Foster retired from the heating oil business before becoming a boxing manager.
C. Stiles
Henry Foster retired from the heating oil business before becoming a boxing manager.

The audience booed the judge's decision. In a Showtime viewer's poll that night, 80 percent said Johnson was the fighter of the night — not just in his bout against Dawson but the best boxer on the entire card.

Jillian and Johnson's trainers tried to calm him, rubbing his shoulders and the back of his head. "America needs to protest what's going on in boxing," Johnson said. "It's not about boxing and using your skills and winning the fight. It's about politics and who you know."

Dawson immediately declined a rematch.

At the time, Johnson wanted to boycott the sport. He released a series of videos on YouTube. With a lump in his throat, Johnson told viewers, "You are the consumers, the people of boxing. If you don't buy it, they can't sell it." He called upon the biggest names in the sport to defy the judges' decision and schedule a fight with him, since Dawson won't.

Johnson’s post on YouTube after the Dawson fight.

But no fights are scheduled.

Johnson and Foster sit down for lunch in the food court of the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino. Foster, whom Johnson calls "Mr. Foster," has a steaming plate of Cuban meats, onions, and rice. Johnson, whom Foster calls "Champ," has roasted chicken, lettuce with no dressing, and water. There are only four days left before the fight, and it's harder to make it down to 175 pounds these days. He has to run more to keep the weight off his legs.

Foster asks Johnson if he's taken his wife to any good concerts recently. Johnson says he wanted to see some of the reggae shows at Ribfest in Homestead, but "I couldn't afford the temptation of all those ribs."

They talk about gospel shows. Talk turns to Erma Franklin, the soul-singing sister of Aretha Franklin. In addition to never escaping the enormous shadow cast by the success of her younger sister, Erma's biggest song, the original recording of "Piece of My Heart," was forgotten when it was recorded by Janis Joplin a year later.

"So you're a professional singer, and you're trying to make a career out of it, and you're not even the most famous singer in your family," Foster says. "And it's not even close. And the only thing close to a hit you ever had is famous as done by someone else."

"It would be hard always being in second," Johnson says. "But what can you do?"

Johnson knows the Sisyphean struggles of unjust anonymity. With no big names willing to schedule a fight without a title at stake and no titleholders available for an older Jamaican with nothing to lose, Johnson will fight journeyman Aaron Norwood, a last-second fill-in on the ticket. Theirs will be the main event in what promoters are billing as "a really affordable night out in a time when we know everyone's suffering."

Foster goes over options Johnson might have after handling "this," never once mentioning the opponent by name. A third fight with Antonio Tarver, Foster says, would be the most marketable. A very old-looking Roy Jones Jr. was just done in by Joe Calzaghe a few nights ago in Madison Square Garden, so Jones — who will still draw a big crowd on name alone — might be easier to work a deal with. "The biggest money is obviously going to be with Calzaghe," Foster says. "He's undefeated."

Johnson nods.

"But now Calzaghe is talking about possibly retiring. Going out on top."

Johnson shakes his head. "He hasn't experienced that moment that everybody must face," the soft-spoken fighter says, "when you realize that, yes, this man in front of me is going to beat me. I had that moment. Everyone has that moment. My favorite thing to do is to be there to give him that moment and see him realize."

"And you will, Champ."

As the undercard fighters of the night battle in the ring, Johnson sits alone in his dressing room. Foster works his way around the arena, shaking hands with Seminoles, promoters, and acquaintances from the boxing world. It's a world of ring announcers in tuxedos with pants that aren't long enough and bright red bow ties. Guys in designer T-shirts sitting in the VIP section heckle the beat-up fighters as they walk out of the ring. Rednecks behind them call out to the ring girls, getting lewder with each round of drinks.

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