Kevin Johnson: ‘I’ve fought the best punchers in the world and then they put a cruiserweight in front of me? That’s disrespectful’

Kevin Johnson became a contender under the watchful eye of Larry Holmes long before he became the gatekeeper he remains today. But not everyone is allowed through, as Yoan Pablo Hernandez discovered last month. Pete Carvell talked to one of the most colourful characters in boxing

KEVIN JOHNSON knew the
day before how it would go. “I’m going to knock him out in the late rounds,” he
tells Boxing News with a cackle from his hotel in Magdeburg. “It’s going
to be my welcome gift to the heavyweight division. I’ve fought the best
punchers in the world and then they put a cruiserweight in front of me? That’s
disrespectful.”

It had been fewer than
two months since he had lost to Mariusz Wach. Now he was facing former IBF
cruiserweight champion Yoan Pablo Hernandez.

Johnson had been in Gelsenkirchen,
Germany, for all of 2020. “I’ve been here since last year,” he explains. “I’ve
been coming over to Germany for three or four months at a time for the last
four-to-five years, but I’m stuck here because of the pandemic. I love
Gelsenkirchen, though; it reminds me of Asbury Park.”

Most of Johnson’s life is
spent on the road. The way he tells it, he has fingers in many pies across the world.
The simple question of where he lives is posed but the answer is not quite so.

“I can’t really answer
that,” he says. “I have a business in Bogota, Colombia, and another in
Santiago, Chile. Then there’s another in the Dominican Republic that I was
getting off the ground before the coronavirus started, and I import and export
tyres here in Germany. Usually, I’m in the US for a couple of weeks, then the
Dominican Republic for a month, then Colombia, then Germany. Where I live is
where my bag stays the longest.”

He is not known for
punching power. Kevin Johnson was known initially as a boxer. Now the go-to
educator of young heavyweights, Johnson the boxer became Johnson the spoiler,
the survivor. He has tricks in his arsenal to teach and confound the young guys
with. He jabs, he defends, he covers up. It helps that his arms are so long
that it seems he could scratch either knee without needing to bend.

Johnson, then, is a
gatekeeper for the heavyweight division, bobbing away at his own unique level
of expertise. Beat him, and you add a name to your record and some seasoning to
your skills. Lose, and well, your future is called into serious question.

It took a long and uneven time to get here. Johnson’s teenage years may not have been troubled, but he was. Before the age of 20, he had been in serious legal trouble twice. A meeting one day would alter the trajectory he was on.

“I got home from eighteen months in prison,” he says, “and was lost. I was out there on the blocks, selling drugs, because I didn’t know any better. A green Ford Expedition pulls up one day and it’s Daryl Dawkins, first man to break a backboard in the NBA. We go to eat, and he calls Larry Holmes, who tells him to bring me over.”

Johnson continues: “I go
to Larry’s gym and I box with his brother Mark, who’s a mixture of Larry and
James Toney. Larry says, ‘Let’s keep this kid here.’ So I trained there every
day and Larry took me under his wing.”

The jab was always there,
he says, but Holmes refined it. “He told me that it was so good that I should
never throw a body shot. I was to work the left hand, then throw the right over
the top to get them out of there. He’d go mad when I threw bodyshots.”

After beginning his career in Easton under Holmes’s guidance, Johnson had 22 wins and a draw when he got the call of his career: A match for the WBC title against Vitali Klitschko in Switzerland. Klitschko’s 10 previous wins had been by stoppage. Many thought Johnson would be the 11th.

Johnson neither won nor
came close to doing so, losing by scores of 120-108, 119-109, and 119-109. But
he went the distance, he showboated and goaded Klitschko in the final rounds
and exhibited the survival instincts that would come to define him.

“The guy couldn’t hit
me,” he said. “I thought I’d do what Lennox Lewis did and bust him up. His eye
opened in the fourth and I tried to work it…” He trails off, blaming an injury
for the loss. “It’s not that I didn’t want to. I just couldn’t.”

He won four against opponents of mixed ability, and then lost in a Prizefighter final. He dropped an eliminator to Tyson Fury straight after, won one more, and then lost three on points. Anthony Joshua made a statement by stopping him in two.

From then on, it was
mostly losses, 10 of them, with five wins smattered in-between. The biggest on
his record was Francesco Pianeta whom he stopped nearly three years ago. But
the losses began to climb and he was often on the road — Bulgaria, Poland,
Russia, Germany.

He was someone that
promoters rely on for name value and as a test for prospects. He became, as
Steve Bunce once wrote, “…the custodian of the ancient art of journeyman
boxing, the ghost of the great men that taught the finest heavyweights in
history how to be real boxers.”

It is out of love that he
fights on at nearly 41, he says. It’s something you hear a lot from those who
may have gotten everything from a sport that they ever will.

“I love three things in
this world,” Johnson says. “They’re my boxing, my real estate, and my family.
You don’t shake love. Fighting bums is nothing, but I just love fighting the
best of the best. When God tells me to hang them up, I will. But he hasn’t told
me that yet so I’m still here.”

His latest opponent had
defected from Cuba to Germany, built up a 29-1 (14) record between 2005 and 2014,
won the IBF cruiserweight title, and then defended it four times before
retiring. Hernandez was testing the waters at heavyweight with a fight against
Johnson. He would enter the periphery of the division with a win. Hernandez is
tall, at 6’4”, for a cruiserweight, but the jump between divisions has always
been a difficult one. After Evander Holyfield, who did it with some ease and
success, there is a long and sad list of those did not. Hernandez had been tall
and angular in the lower division and, like Johnson, he was known primarily as
one who moved well but not for his power. Even so, he was widely expected to
defeat the ageing Johnson.

The heat that had swept
across Germany for weeks was finally started to break. The fight was held at
the open-air Seebuehne and the cool breeze from across the lake drifted into the
arena.

Johnson came into the
ring and waited, his face stern. The crowd booed. He looked in great shape, and
his body was flat and solid, and he looked fitter than in some earlier, more
high-profile fights. But he looked dry, as if he had come to the ring without
building up a sweat.

The first round began and
Johnson tucked up, his left hand low, his shoulders high, his right glove to
his chin. He shuffled towards Hernandez and deflected jabs. But while there was
little that got through, and he covered up well, occasional looping lefts from
Hernandez penetrated. And while they were few and most were blocked, this was
still Germany, and they would be scored against him.

Hernandez went over for
the first time in the second, a slip. He got up and moved, and tried to stay
away, step to the outside, and throw the cross. It was a good strategy that should
have worked well. There was a fear that the would become one between a man who
knew the moves and one who could only remember them.

There was little in the
third, apart from Hernandez’s movement and Johnson’s barging into him, but
things began to change in the fourth. Hernandez went down twice, legitimately
the second time and when he got up, things had shifted.

Somehow, there was a cut
above Johnson’s eye. It seemed to be on the eyelid, the doctor was called in,
and Johnson went into the next round with a glob of grease on it that Hernandez
would aim hooks at. It was hard not to root for Johnson at this point; he was
on foreign soil, at least nominally, and winning when he had been slated to
lose. But the cut threatened to change things.

In the sixth, Hernandez
faltered again, and he went into a corner where Johnson swung at him, and he
bent and dipped, and then they moved off again.

A left hook finished it
in the seventh, and Hernandez went to the floor, where he lay face-down as if scrutinising
the canvas for a lost contact lens. The referee began to count, and it seemed
to stretch out into minutes. You thought that maybe it would be long and
Hernandez would get up and continue. But he did not, and so it was waved off
and no one took that seriously at first, because we all expected him to get
back up. Everyone except Johnson, who had made his prediction. And in this, he
was right.

Johnson went down on his
own knees in a corner. He had beaten Hernandez, and fairly. A cruiserweight’s
ambitions had been leached. Johnson had never been regarded as a powerful
puncher amongst the heavyweights, but he was still a heavyweight. Hernandez was
not.

Johnson was bullish a few
days after the fight. Over the phone, he relived the bout. “It was just a waiting
game,” he said. “It was different to other fights because he’s a southpaw and I
couldn’t use the jab. But you hang in there and take the punishment while you
wait for the opportunity. I got cut, but you can’t fall apart when that
happens. We lost a couple of rounds, but you give those things up before you
explode. And when I do, I do.”

He claimed that there had
been a barrage of emails in those few days, and that he was assessing all the
options. Retirement had been on his mind and, in a way, it still was. “I’m
going to hang the gloves up,” he said, “before my body hangs up on me. Some
people do that at the point when things start to go, but I’ve still got
everything. I’m not going to hang around because that’s when you get hurt. All
the people that got hurt got hurt later in their careers.”

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