AND PERSONAL WITH ANTONIO JOHNSON
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
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
"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
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
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."