Undisputed Underdog

At 40, Glen Johnson is still fighting for respect

He's at the gym before the owner, and he must wait by the door, watching morning traffic along a rust-colored stretch of highway 441 in Hollywood. The gym doesn't have a sign up, just a windowed storefront in a wearisome yellow commercial strip across the street from a struggling car dealership. Once inside, he wraps bright gold tape around his fists – each the size of a sledgehammer – and steps into the ring at the far corner of the dark gym. He bounces around, trying to warm his nearly 40-year-old legs.

It's early November. Thin, dusty rays of morning sun shoot from small windows in the back of the gym, sprawling out across the ring, interrupted only by the shifting white boots of Glen Johnson. Fellow Jamaican Bob Marley plays through a speaker as his warm-up builds. His feet move quicker and quicker. He ducks punches from his nameless, faceless opponent and returns a succession of quick blows.

Glen Johnson hits the gym six days a week. He's fighting to feed his family.
C. Stiles
Glen Johnson hits the gym six days a week. He's fighting to feed his family.
As Johnson cools down after a day of training, trainer Trevor McKenzie unties his gloves and towels off his head.
C. Stiles
As Johnson cools down after a day of training, trainer Trevor McKenzie unties his gloves and towels off his head.
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.
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.

As he moves around the ring, he tries to focus his mind on the moment — the same way he would when he swung a hammer on construction sites across South Florida. He tries not to think about his wife, Jillian Johnson, and the three kids he's trying to support. He doesn't dwell on the years of frustration and heartbreak he's had moving up and down the ranks of boxing as "the other guy" in the ring, the second name on the marquee. He tries not to feel desperate.

Soon, sweat begins to bead on his forehead and roll down, off his brow, and through the bits of gray stubble showing on his chin. His eyes stay fixed on the invisible boxer in the darkness, a ghost it seems only Johnson can see.

Before long, escaping into the regular rhythms and routines of pugilistic preparation, he achieves a Zen-like focus. He gains momentum. His fists snap the thick air, and he lets out a deep, rattling bark with each punch.

Next month, Johnson turns 40. He knows all about the old boxing cliché of the geriatric fighter who can't let go of the glory days. He's honest about why he's still fighting: to make as much money as he can before his body gives out.

Johnson is training for his 62nd professional fight. He's a light heavyweight five-foot 11, 185 pounds — not as quick as he used to be but hardly a soft old man. He usually works out near his house in Kendall, but he's in Broward today because he'll be doing two brief radio interviews later to promote the fight.

Despite winning the vast majority of his matches and at one point holding a world title, "Glen Johnson" never became a household name. In a culture full of oversized characters and over-the-top showmanship, Johnson has no shtick. He doesn't have a criminal record. Even his name, Glen, is pedestrian and forgettable. He's a polite former construction worker with the work ethic of a 1950s TV dad. His manager, Henry Foster, calls him a "lunch pail champ."

Around the boxing community, Johnson is known as a fighter who's had more than his share of rough breaks in the business. He's spent most of his 15-year career as the guy taking on the boxer the crowd came to see, accumulating a career record of 48 wins (33 by knockout) and 12 losses, with two draws. The list of champions he's squared off against reads like a who's who of the past two decades of boxing.

The fight Johnson is training for at the gym in Hollywood won't pay much and won't even be on TV. It'll take place down the road at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino, and he'll fight a no name with a bad record. But the WBO, one of boxing's sanctioning bodies, will be hosting a convention in South Florida the week of the November 11 fight. It will give the old boxer an audience full of promoters, managers, and champions past and present. Most might think it will be a good way to go out, but Johnson sees it as his way up.


Roy Jones Jr., the favorite son of boxing fans, is still quivering in the center of the ring at the Fed Ex Forum in Memphis on September 25, 2004. Over him stands a man most people in the crowd had never heard of before that fight, the sweaty, snarling Glen Johnson.

Roy Jones Jr. — who isn't accustomed to losing — had brought his 12-year-old twin sons. The general rule in boxing is to keep the kids at home. On the off chance something tragic happens, nobody wants a child to see his or her father die in the ring. Johnson says he never takes his kids to watch him fight.

And as Johnson exits the ring that night, he spots Jones' sons, both crying, stunned by the image of their unconscious father. Johnson pauses in front of them, the blood of the fallen champion still on his gloves. The kids look terrified. "Your father did this to a lot of guys, and they're all all right," Johnson says in his deep, gentle voice. "He's going to be OK too."

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 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.

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:

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.

For the main event, Aaron Norwood enters the ring with just a trainer. He wears a gray hooded sweatshirt cut off at the sleeves. His teeth are slightly crooked, and he doesn't look at the audience. At the news conference a day before the fight, Norwood told reporters that he wasn't scared of Johnson. In a strong Mississippi accent, he said: "I know lots of guys are afraid of him." His eyes were open wide as he spoke, like a child trying to convince Santa Claus he's been good. "I know lots of guys duck him and've been duckin' him for years. But I'm not that kind of fighter. They can put me in there with anyone. I ain't scared."

Johnson enters the ring to reggae music. He wears a slick white boxing robe that matches his trunks. To the small crowd at the Hard Rock, the man who clocked Jones and Tarver and should've beaten Dawson is a hero.

Jillian is seated ringside, looking stoic. She doesn't get nervous at fights anymore.

The fight starts like most of Johnson's fights, with him feeling out his opponent, letting the other guy swing and cover, looking for an early hole. Soon, though, Johnson goes to work. He raises his forearms over his face, deflecting the fists flying in his direction. Then, like a tank in battle deliberately lining up a target and moving into position, he squares his shoulders with Norwood's and unloads a stream of snapping blows. Johnson lets out loud barks as his fists lash his opponent. At the end of the first round, Norwood is already lumbering back to his corner.

Jillian applauds politely.

With the same blue-collar persistency that has marked Johnson's career, he methodically stalks his opponent. By the beginning of the fourth round, Norwood is missing as many punches as he's blocking. He's barely attacking, crouched low, throwing soft jabs that seem to deflect off Johnson's glistening head. Then, as Norwood turns right to escape a combination, Johnson gets one clean shot at Norwood's left cheek. It has the same dull sound as a football being punted. A gelatinous mass of blood and spit disgorges from Norwood's mouth, arches over the ropes, and splatters on the cement in front of the first row, where it remains as the referee wraps his arms around the dazed fighter and signals to Johnson that the fight is over.

Johnson's corner jumps into the ring in celebration. Jillian stands by the stairs in her husband's corner, waiting for him. She gives a knowing nod.

Norwood stands over the stool on his side of the ring, still looking confused.

In his dressing room, Jillian says she was never concerned about her husband's opponent. "I don't worry about the other fighters anymore. At this point, it's like we're fighting the judges out there."

"He put on the fantastic display of boxing everyone in the world knew he would," Foster says. "If Joe Calzaghe won't fight Glen now, he's just —"

Norwood is at the door. He has showered and dressed. His face is already swelling.

Norwood passes Foster and Jillian and the trainers. Johnson had just removed his trunks and stands in his white briefs. Norwood extends his hand. "I just want to..." he sounds like he still has a fist in his mouth. "I just want to thank you for the fight, sir. It's been an honor."


A few days after the fight, Johnson and Jillian sit at a Hooter's in Pembroke Pines, discussing the direction of his career. There's no word on a next fight. "We've got a five-year plan and a ten-year plan," says Jillian, who is taking graduate business classes at Nova Southeastern University. "But the vehicle to get there is the boxing."

Johnson is quiet. Jillian speaks with the prepared, determined vernacular of a corporate executive. She's petite with smooth skin and a command of any conversation she's participating in. "With the fights not coming the way they're supposed to, it obviously slows down the process," she says. "It doesn't stop it; it just slows it down. You have to get around obstacles, and that's just an obstacle."

"There's only so much you can do," Johnson says. "I train six days a week, even when I don't have a fight scheduled. I try to knock out anyone they put in front of me. What else can I do? You can't do what your mind tells you to do, because there are laws against that."

He watches the replays of his fights, but he has to turn the sound off. He says he's tired of listening to the announcers favor the other guy. "For whatever reason, I just don't have the same market value as some of these other guys," he says.

He mentions the poster made up for his fight with Roy Jones Jr. He spotted it in the elevator of the hotel in Memphis. The image was of Jones punching a bag with the words Glen Johnson on it. Sand poured out a hole in the bottom.

"That's the disrespect he gets," Jillian says.

But Johnson can't complain much about his lifestyle. He puts his time in at the gym, but when he's not training, he likes to watch a lot of DVDs and take Jillian out to the movies. Her favorite movie is The Lion King; his is Hitman. They ride Jet Skis and ATVs. They wear designer clothes; that night Johnson wore a sharp, brown suede coat. And they drive nice cars.

He pays child support for his two young daughters and has just filed for full-time custody of Glen Jr., who's now 13. Johnson says he agreed with the boy's mother that a young man should live with a positive male influence. "It's important for me to show him how a man is supposed to live," he says.

They also talk about all the things he could do after his career ends. He and Jillian plan to get into entertainment promotions. "Not just musical promotions," he says.

"The entire spectrum of music entertainment, Caribbean, gospel shows," Jillian adds.

"And comedy shows too," he says. "And I've thought about a nightclub or some place to take all the people you're promoting." He says he'd like to be able to live comfortably off his investments, and he needs to make enough in the ring "so that I can have some income that's liquidated where I can tap into now and then if I need to."

Foster has asked him to train a young prospect he's bringing down from South Dakota, but Johnson is hesitant.

"I just don't want to work so hard with a kid and train so hard and be ready and have everything just" — he clenches his huge right hand — "I don't think I can take the heartbreak. There is so much heartbreak in boxing. It takes so much out of you."

There is quiet as he thinks about what he's just said. Then he continues thinking aloud. "Maybe I could promote or something where I don't have as much at stake emotionally."

He says he can't sleep without a television on. He says the silence of night opens up a floodgate of thoughts that overwhelm him.

Why keep fighting? Why keep going in a corrupt political sport that eats old boxers alive? Why starve yourself and run until your knees and ankles swell and ache?

"These are my options," he says. "I can either do this or go back to working construction."

Though he doesn't have a fight scheduled, Johnson is back at the gym the next morning.

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