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UP CLOSE AND PERSONAL WITH ANTONIO JOHNSON
10. 17.12

Video and Story by Ray Kilgore

 

 

Ever since he took up boxing at the age of nine, 154-pounder Antonio Johnson has known he was going to be a knockout by his standards. As a youth, the 28-year-old, whose record is (9-1-1, 4 KOs) compiled over 200 amateur fights. His skills are reportedly so good, he was afforded the opportunity to travel outside of his birthplace of Minnesota-something many inner city kids with limited resources weren't able to do-to compete in tournaments.
A prerequisite for any aspiring boxer is the ability to come into contact with different styles in order to improve. Johnson met this requirement, but with success comes expectations, sometimes too high.

"He had pure talent," said a local boxing coach who wished to remain anonymous. "But he squared it away, which was so sad." Many thought Johnson was going to be Minnesota's next hit, but to their dismay, many say he never reached his potential and cited his lack of ring activity as proof. Johnson turned professional in 2005, but he would go without fighting forsix months at a time. At best, some considered Johnson to be an enigma whose passion for the sport had long since dwindled. Throughout the finger-pointing, name calling, rolling of the eyes and Monday morning quarterbacks, Johnson has had one constant fan in his corner: Antonio Johnson. And his powerful self-love inspires him to turn inward and give performances like that he put on several Saturdays ago.

Saturday, September 23, 2012, Location: Crowne Plaza Hotel, Johnson's dressing room.
Johnson is headlining in his first main event tonight against Marcus Thompkins (5-8-1, 2 KO's). In the co-main event, currentMinnesota Middleweight Champion, "Golden" Caleb Truax (19-1-1, 10 KO's) has made a successful return after losing in a gallant effort to former Middleweight Champion Jermaine Taylor in April of this year. Truax, 29, needed only 1:57 of the first round to dismantle Mickey Scarborough (6-5, 6 KO's).
Now that Truax has done his job, Johnson is up next, and the tension in the dressing room is noticeable. The dress room door is closed tightly; there's no music in the background, no hint of Johnson feeling a tad of satisfaction that he's the show stopper for the first time in his career.
Outside of world-renowned boxer Bernard Hopkins, there's no other boxer who loves to talk and chat as much as Johnson. He's quick-witted, has strong feelings on many topics, and he isn't concerned with saying the politically correct thing to appease.
Tonight he's mum. His ready smile is gone, and the Johnson who three hours earlier spent time shaking hands with people in the hotel is no where to be found.

"Once you learn the system and master it…no one can touch you. And that's how I feel right now," Johnson says, leading up the fight. "I know what I got to do. Let's not get nervous. It took me a while to realize to use your tools, bro. What you do on that night [during the fight] reflects what you've done weeks before. It's a cold game," he says.

His mood is far from chilly. He's pacing in circles, his head down. His face is intense as little beads of sweat trickle down his nose. His body looks more concise, complete, and re-defined than when I interviewed him weeks before the fight.
In this moment, Johnson looks like he knows he's of two minds about his foe. "You got to have a mindset that says: 'I don't care what you do to me, I ain't going anywhere. I am like a Ferrari. You don't put any kind of gas in there, you put the best: that high octane shit." Truax makes his way back to the dressing room. He offers Johnson words of encouragement, and Johnson utters a few in return.

If Johnson has no interest in talking, his trainer Bob VanSyckle does. "When are we going out?" the trainer asks the gentleman from the commission. Team Johnson has been waiting for over 15 minutes, since Truax left the ring. "I don't know," replies the man, at which point VanSyckle rises from his chair and heads toward his opponent's door just in time to meet Thompkins, who is exiting the door to make his way to the ring.
Finally, Johnson, who bounces on his feet throwing feinting blows at the air, emerges to the sounds of cheering fans. At this point, they can't see the fighter, but they know the fighter is moments away.
The DJ blasts Johnson's ring music. Some rap tone. If the goal of a rapper is to put together lyrics in an effortless rhythm, it's a boxer's job to show why making his own beat, regardless of whether it makes sense, marching to the tempo of his own pace, is the best course of action during a fight. Johnson does this with no problems.
He moves a few inches toward the door, where the awaiting crowd will see him for the first time. But before he emerges, he pauses momentarily, as if to send the message that this moment, this time, and this sport is in his DNA, and no matter what Tompkins does, it will not be enough. "I don't give a fuck what you hit me with, it's a mindset. I am taking it [the blow] and eating it."

Saturday, August, 22,, 2012: Location: Element Boxing Gym, Johnson's training site
When I approached Johnson for an interview, I was expecting a different outcome. I brought my customary 15 to 25 interview questions, knowing that if I was lucky, only a handful of them would be answered.
Frankly I expected to be in and out within 30 minutes. The plan was simple: talk with Johnson about the fight, get him to give bold predictions, jot down some observations and out the door.
However, what I discovered over the course of our three-hour interview was that Johnson, who become a father for the first time with the birth of his young daughter in August of this year, wasn't abrasive, raw, insensitive, nor was he willing to give juicy quotes to enhance a story for me or my readers. If Johnson was going to talk, it was all on the record (which he made it clear to me at one point when I stopped the recorder, assuming that he didn't want certain things published). This site approached him, and the boxer wasn't going to hide behind a false self.
I also found Johnson to be clever. So much so that at various points during our interview, he shadow boxed, jump rope or did some cardio work while conducting the interview-which I was completely unprepared for, since all of my interviews have been done in the more traditional way. In fact, for the whole interview, Johnson stood inside the ring. The place he's called his sanctuary, his master site, his safe haven, all that hasn't come easy for him. "I've never been given any [real] praise [in boxing] as long as I remember," the fighter said. "I just keep quiet and do the things I do under the radar. I've prepared myself so when I cross that road; it's not like 'whoo.'"

Johnson had a difficult childhood on the East side of St. Paul. And while his grandparents offered the young Johnson as much guidance as they could, he longed for the emotional connection with his parents that never materialized. In an effort to comes to terms with his situation, Johnson made choices. "I can't lie. I am no angel. But at the end of the day, I know better. I have to do better," he said. "I've seen the other side. The Bible says: 'He who esteem high of himself, let him be low. He who is low, let him be first.'" And that's what boxing did for Johnson at the time. It provided a struggling kid with an identity and gave him a reason to feel on top of the world.

Boxing fell into Johnson's lap in a somewhat odd way. He befriended two brothers by the name of Allen and Jason Litzau, who, like Johnson, struggled growing up.
The boys, Johnson and the Litzaus, who have been referred to as the Three Musketeers, had many things in common: one of them was that all of them were using their fists to solve problems, which oddly paid off one day. Johnson and the Litzaus got into a street fight with some other boys, when an older man (Louis Sanchez, a boxing coach) drove by and challenged the wayward youth to take up boxing. After some time, they did, and from there, boxing has become apart of Johnson's culture, so much that he throws himself into the sport almost recklessly.

"I was scared," Johnson recalled. "It's a very humbling thing to do. To step into that ring with another man with no animosity or anger and fight him, and in some cases, lose…My will to win sometimes overpowers everything at times. Now I know the fight isn't won that night [of the event], but what is done the weeks leading up to it."

Johnson's commitment afforded him the opportunity to travel to different cities. As the fighter improved his skills, the opportunities got better. He was invited to join former world champion Stevie Johnson's training camp as a sparring partner, and Johnson says James Prince, a former manger to many big name fighters, took an interest in promoting him at one point.
But it was--or is--Johnson's developing friendship with current world champion Andre Ward, dating back to the time when the two were amateurs, that Johnson valued the most.

But despite the opportunities and connections, Johnson's unruly ways cost him in the end. Stevie Johnson dismissed him from camp, and Johnson wasn't able to hang out with his mentor as often, since Ward was leaving the country for his chance at a gold medal. Prince released him from his contract as well. In the meantime, Ward's career took off, as well as that of Johnson's one-time good friends Allen and Jason, who scored big-fighting on HBO, Showtime and ESPN.

"I am not Jason or Andre Ward. I might not ever be a world champion even with all the talent I have….I had 16 fights that I should have had but didn't. I fully expected to be a super star right now, but that's not the way God wanted it and right now and I am fine with it. That's not going to define me. I haven't failed. There are great things ahead."
And moving forward is what Johnson is doing, with a new overall perspective. "I am vibrant, smart, articulate, and compassionate in and out of the ring, and that's what I love. I want to be able to leave the ring the guy I came in. I want to walk, speak and interact the same way I do now."

His goal is to fight several more times this year and next and re-evaluate his career at that time. But in the meantime, he's taking advantage of every opportunity he has had to learn in the sport thus far. "I am blessed that God has allowed me to be around so that I can pick their brains [Andre Ward and the late former world champion Diego Corrales, with whom Johnson said he had many conversations]. I am mentally starting to use my imagination [for fights now], creativeness to visualize those moments in the gym," he said. "To prepare as if I am about to fight the Julio Cesar Chavez Juniors or Sergio Martinezes, and Roy Jones's." And Johnson used Thompkins as the testing ground to prove his convictions.

Johnson verses Thompkins, Round one and Beyond:
"If you're going to have this loser-like mentality, you are going to have it. There's nothing you can do come fight night if you haven't prepared the weeks before." And at the start of round one, Johnson brought a no-nonsense attitude as he tore into Thompkins early, knocking his foe down and teeing off on him at will. Thompkins survived the round. He was game but manhandled all night behind Johnson's jabs, overhand rights and better skills. "I am a young 28," Johnson said. "There's no excuse. I have all of the equipment." Although Johnson got the "W," in the end his biggest victory is for fans, friends, supporters and especially the critics to remember one thing: "I rather you look at me for the man I am, not because of what I do. I rather that you look up to me and not know my story, than for you to know my story and look up to me," he said. "God has given me every tool in the world. This didn't just start when I started boxing. I knew I was going to be a special person."