By Anthony Evans: On September 25 at the brand new FedEx Forum in Memphis, Tennessee, IBF light heavyweight champion Glengoffe Johnson pic by Mr Will
will walk the aisle as a world champion for the first time. He'll then fight in a high-stakes contest against the man who, for over decade, was regarded as the world's greatest practitioner of the Sweet Science; Roy Jones Junior.
Jones is coming off a shattering second round knockout defeat to Antonio Tarver, but still starts a big favourite against the defending champion. But facing the former pound-for-pound king holds no fear for Johnson, because, as trainer Orlando Cuellar and manager Henry Foster point out, their 35-year-old champion is 'a road warrior' who has fought almost his entire world-class career as an underdog in the other guy's backyard.
As hardcore fans will know, Johnson's 51-fight record of 40-9-2 (27) is punctuated by decisions that were alternatively dodgy, disingenuous and diabolical. The road Johnson had to take to the top of the mountain would have broken many a fighter, but despite the many disappointments, he never let the journeyman mentality creep into his psychological make-up.
That must have taken fierce determination but outside of the ring Johnson is a friendly, laid-back fellow. Born in Clarendon, Jamaica in 1969 Glengoffe (pronounced 'Glen-gof' and not 'Glen-goffy' or even 'Glen-coffee' as I've heard it) Johnson moved to be with his mother in Miami, Florida when he was 14 and has resided there ever since.
"I love America and I'm an American citizen," he said from his Miami training camp. "But I'm Jamaican all the way. My accent hasn't changed in the 21 years I've lived in America because I don't want it to. I know where I am from."
Turing pro aged 24 with up-and-coming promoter Dan Goossen in 1993 he went unbeaten in 32 contents, earning a shot against WBC middleweight champion Bernard Hopkins in July 1997. For the only time in his life, though, Johnson was outclassed and ultimately stopped in 11 rounds.
"Everything I tried he could shut it down," Johnson recalls of the sole stoppage loss of his career. "I can say honestly I have never experienced anything in boxing like what Bernard did. He knew too much. He's a great fighter and I didn't know enough back then. It's no disgrace to lose in a fight like that."
However, a close points loss to former Roy Jones victim Merqui Sosa - while also no disgrace - was sufficient for Goossen to elect to cut his losses and end his promotional deal. Instantly consigned to 'opponent' status, 'Gentleman' Glenn looked a fighter in freefall when he next went down a 10 round majority loser to Joseph Kiwanuka (a half-decent contender but one coming off two major losses).
"It was a tough time in my career," Johnson recalls. "I know a lot of people thought I was now going to be a (journeyman loser) but I wasn't going to let that happen. At least, it wouldn't happen because I stopped giving the sport my full effort. I never once came into a fight out of shape or without a gameplan or anything like that, even the fights I had to take a short notice. Even thought the perception was that I was a journeyman, I refused to let myself become that."
Johnson was thrown a career lifeline by promoter Sugar Ray Leonard, who signed him to a multi-fight deal. However, Johnson found himself on the business end of a four-fight losing streak to Sven Ottke (an IBF 168lbs title fight) Syd Vanderpool, Silvio Branco, and Omar Sheika. At least three of those losses should have gone into the record books as comfortable wins for the Jamaican-America - including the Ottke fight in Germany (where else?).
"I won those fights," Johnson said. "But I wasn't any promoter's golden boy, I wasn't the big TV star so the judges scored ever round I didn't dominate to the house fighter. That's what most these judges do - they score what they expected to see, not what they see. I don't know how they can sleep at night."
Manager Foster, who had known Johnson from the Miami gyms for a decade, said: "Before he signed with Ray Leonard Glen asked me to manage him but I didn't think I could commit fully at that time. But as I watched Glen continually get farmed out to hometown decisions and have no protection against these disgraceful situations in Europe I knew I had to become involved and try and help the guy. It was a travesty a fighter of Glen's talent was having to go through his career like that."
Now with seven losses on his tally, Johnson was typecast as 'the opponent'.
"But, in strange way, that's what got my career back to where it should be," the 175lbs (12stone 7lbs) champion said. "First I got a call to fight Toks Owoh (who was touted as a serious contender in his native England back in 2000) and knocked him out and shortly after went to Germany and knocked (WBO No.1 light heavy) Thomas Ulrich out."
The win brought Goossen back on board and while the father of three was shafted a few more times by the judges - including a mystifying 'draw' against Daniel Judah with Judah himself admitted he'd lost - he eventually was rewarded with a shot at the IBF title vacated by Antonio Tarver. Of course, hometown hero Clinton Woods was given a debatable draw in Sheffield, England last November but Johnson put it well beyond doubt in February's rematch.
A scheduled fight with WBO super-middleweight champ Joe Calzaghe fell through in June but then came the $1million offer to fight Jones, who is looking to pick up a title before (one hopes) he goes back to the table with Tarver.
Glen Johnson knows the script but is unlikely to accept his role in the final act of Roy's movie. In fact, Johnson is planning to end Jones's career in September.
"We're both experienced fighters," Johnson began. "I've seen everything and he's seen everything so we'll both go in there doing our thing. I've not changed anything specifically for Roy other than training with sparring partners who are lighter than me to get used to Roy's speed. But, other than that, I don't care what he is doing; as long as I'm 100% and the judges do their job right I can go and win this fight."
The IBF champion said his years as a road warrior have taught him a bitter lessons, but valuable ones.
"Listen, there's a lot of money in a Roy Jones v Antonio Tarver fight if Roy gets by me," Johnson said. "A lot of people will make a lot of money from that third fight and a lot of people will therefore want Roy to beat me. This is the reality of life. So I've got the mindset that if I don't dominate the round, I've lost it. That's what the experiences of my career have shown me. If there are three close rounds in a fight, I know not one of them will be score for Glen Johnson.
"With Roy, even though I'm now the champion, I don't want to believe it's now a level playing field. If it is level now, great, but I will still fight Roy like I am the challenger fighting him in his front room."
(Originally published in a different form by Boxing Monthly magazine.)