Callum Johnson: Dedicated to dad

Mark Butcher
22/01/2017 7:53pm Commonwealth Games gold medallist Callum Johnson turned pro, he and late dad Paul targeted the double. Now, mission accomplished, Johnson tells Mark Butcher he feels he owes it to his father’s memory to keep moving forward and win more titles...

In a year framed by the sadness that comes with deep personal loss, Callum Johnson has emerged a champion.

In trying circumstances following the sudden passing of his father, the Boston, Lincolnshire box-fighter paid dad Paul the ultimate tribute.

With his highlight-reel ninth-round knockout of burly Namibian Willbeforce Shihepo, the hard-hitting light-heavyweight fulfilled a dream shared by father and son — that Callum would one day add the professional Commonwealth crown to the gold medal he earned as an amateur boxing under the Scottish flag.

September’s emotional victory, inspired by his father’s memory, brought a joy inevitably tinged with sorrow.

“Since I won the title I’ve been a little bit down, with him not being here and sharing it with me, but I’m so proud of myself for the way I dealt with what’s happened,” Johnson (16-0, 11 KOs) told Boxing Monthly over the phone after training. “Because when I first turned pro, after winning gold in the Commonwealth Games [in Delhi, 2010], it was always a target for me and my dad, to win the Commonwealth title as a pro. We always said how nice it would be to have both titles.

“To do it in memory of him is a proud moment, but it’s a very bittersweet feeling, doing it without him being here. It’s hard to come to terms with but it’s something I’ve got to deal with. I’ve got to continue on the story that we set out. He was always a big part of my boxing career, so I owe it to him to try and win more.”

It was understandably difficult for the 31-year-old to focus, but the distraction of boxing helped Johnson in coming to terms with his personal loss.

“In one sense [boxing] helped because it gave me something to focus on and all the anger and sadness that comes with losing your father,” Johnson said. “It gave me that drive, to push me a little bit harder in the gym. It was something I needed to do. I didn’t want to, I needed to do it.”

Shihepo was a rugged customer, having previously battled 12 hard rounds with two-weight world champion Arthur Abraham and never been knocked out in a 13-year career. The visitor was bullish early, employing a mixture of raw power and roughhousing, before Johnson weathered the approaching storm and adjusted using the advice of trainer/manager Joe Gallagher.

“I’ve got to give credit to Joe in the corner because the tactics and instructions he gave me were brilliant,” Johnson acknowledged. “So I listened and stayed calm. I knew I was going to get the job done. It was just a matter of time, so big credit has got to go to Joe there. I heard Joe shout: ‘Turn it over’. Chop it down — because I was reaching with the right hand and loading up with it. Just missing. So I chopped it over and it was perfect — a peach of a shot and he walked on to it. I think that particular right hand would have knocked out most people.”

Johnson, who benefits from frequent spars with British light-heavyweight champion and gym-mate Hosea Burton, added: “I cannot speak highly enough about Joe. The effort and the time he puts into his fighters and the dedication he shows is second to none. As a coach, he’s improved me and taught me so much. I owe a lot to Joe. He stuck by me through some rough times. A lot of people might have said: ‘I’ve had enough of you.’ But he stuck by me and, hopefully, we’re on the road to bigger things.”

Buoyed by his Commonwealth success, Johnson is now eyeing the European 175lbs crown that Robert Stieglitz was expected to win from Mehdi Amar as this issue went to press.

“I’d love the European title to be the next step,” he said. “I don’t want to show disrespect because that’s not the way I am, but I think I’d beat Stieglitz. If that fight could be made, I’d jump at it.

“I’d love that to happen, to be honest. How far am I from world level? Time will tell. I’ve not cracked Europe yet but if I get two or three good wins, the European title, I don’t think I’ll be too far from the likes of [WBA regular champion] Nathan Cleverly.

“I’ve only just won a title that Cleverly won [eight] years ago and he’s a two-time world champion. So for me to say I’m ready for him now would be a little bit disrespectful. But, at the same time, I don’t think I’m that far away. A bit more experience at championship level and the 12-round distance, I think I’d be ready for that.”

Johnson turned pro back in December 2010 and Naseem Hamed managed him for a time. His career has been a slow-burning one, but now it’s finally catching fire.

“It feels good. It’s been a long time coming,” the Matchroom-promoted Johnson said.
“It’s taken longer than I first expected. But now it’s here I do feel like a champion and I’m proud to be one. I don’t want to stop there, though. I want to get bigger and better titles.

“I think I’ve got a little bit of everything. I can box. I can fight. I’ve got good skills. I don’t think people have seen the best of me. I can really box, but I feel like I’ve got good power and I’m obviously strong. I tend to use that rather than the silky boxing skills, but believe me when the silky boxing skills are needed they will be there.”

Trainer/manager Joe Gallagher believes his Commonwealth light-heavyweight champion Callum Johnson has the tools to reach a higher level.

“Callum has very good ringcraft and judgement of distance,” Gallagher told Boxing Monthly.

“He can fight on the front foot, box on the back foot. He’s got a style where he can box like a George Groves or another style where he can fight on the front foot and go head or body. Callum just needs a couple of better opponents, calibre-wise, to keep him switched on for every second of every round. He’ll get that by stepping up to European level against the likes of Robert Stieglitz. That will sharpen his tools for the big fight on the big stage. Punching-ability wise, he’s got the power, but he can develop a bit more technique and ringcraft.”

This year has been an especially testing one for Johnson given the passing of his father, but the Mancunian trainer and the brotherhood of boxers at Gallagher’s Gym remained steadfastly in the fighter’s corner.

“[Paul] wasn’t just his dad, he was his best friend, he was his coach, he was everything to Callum,” Gallagher said. “Callum had to look after his mum, his sisters. It was very hard for him, but once he got his head together I was keen to get him to the gym and involved around [boxing] people who still cared for him, believed in him and wanted him to fulfil that dream he always had of winning the Commonwealth Games gold and the Commonwealth title.

“I didn’t want him to slip away. I put an arm around him, nurtured him through it and gave him a couple of fights without his dad there so, when he had a title fight, he’d already gone through those emotions. I said to Callum: ‘Everything you’re doing, your dad is smiling down all the time. Just remember that — he’d be so proud of you and I am as well’.

“I asked [promoter] Eddie Hearn to stick Callum on the [Anthony Crolla vs Ismael Barroso] show to bring him back because there were four stablemates on the card and it would be better having a team around him.

“If you watch Callum’s ring walk, the Smith brothers, Crolla, Quigg, Burton, Cardle, everyone was there to support him and let him know: ‘We’re all behind you’.

“Callum wanted to punch holes in somebody and [comeback opponent] Richard Horton [a TKO1 loser] later said to me: ‘Jesus Christ. He can whack’. Callum used his pent-up frustration and anger and we got it out of his system again with the next kid [Norbert Szekeres, another one-round blowout win]. It was very important because we didn’t want that in his system going into a title fight and him boxing on anger. We wanted him to box with a brain.

“He was very emotional in the ring. He had a little sob in the dressing room but the lads were there to comfort him. They played a big part in helping him through all the times he was [feeling] down in the gym training and having little breakdowns. It’s a hard business, but in the gymnasium he is very fortunate to be around fighters [who win and lose] together.”

Gallagher is keen to push his man forward in 2017 with Nathan Cleverly, another Matchroom-promoted fighter, a viable target later next year.

“Callum has a great amateur pedigree and he’s sparring good kids in the gym all the time,” Gallagher said. “He’s passed his first acid test with flying colours and in brutal fashion. We’re looking at a Commonwealth title defence early in the year, another fight around March and the likes of Cleverly after that. They’re both under the same promotional banner — it’s a good fight, a TV-friendly fight.

“I know Cleverly has mixed in higher class, but Callum is a very mature fighter. He hits very hard and I wouldn’t rule out him causing the upset. I have huge belief in him. When Bernard Hopkins was looking for an opponent for December, I phoned Eddie Hearn and said I’d put Callum in with Hopkins. That’s the faith I have in him. Cleverly is a very good fighter and it’s a tough ask, but I think that by summer next year Callum Johnson will be ready.”