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.

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.

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Michael J. Mooney