Johnson finds momentum
It’s taken longer than expected but Callum Johnson’s professional boxing career is finally heading in the right direction after a stop-start four-and-a-half years. The talented light-heavyweight is a man with momentum and will engage in his seventh fight in just 13 months when he faces Bulgarian Tzvetozar Iliev at the Echo Arena, Liverpool, on Friday.
In 2010, the 29-year-old would cap off a fine amateur career consisting of over 100 bouts with a Commonwealth Games gold medal for Scotland in Delhi at 81kg (light-heavyweight), beating Northern Ireland’s Thomas McCarthy 8-1 in the final. With doubts over whether or not he should try to qualify for the 2012 London Olympic Games, the English-born Johnson decided to ditch the headguard and vest.
A unique opportunity would soon follow when Johnson would not only be backed by the promotional nous of Frank Warren, but managed by boxing icon Naseem Hamed. “I met Naz through a mutual friend and we spoke about things and went to see Frank together,” Johnson told Boxing Monthly on the way home from training.
One of British boxing’s shining and extravagant lights of the 1990s told the masses that Johnson would add a bit of ‘sparkle’ to the sport and that his newly acquired star would be world champion within three years.
Boston’s Johnson, who nicknamed himself ‘The One’ after watching The Matrix, made his light-heavyweight professional bow with a second round stoppage victory over Philip Townley on December 4, 2010, on the undercard of Ricky Burns’ first defence of his WBO World super-featherweight title against Andreas Evensen.
Despite Hamed’s ‘sparkle’ compliment Johnson’s career wouldn’t glitter immediately. Two fights in 2011 were followed by two in 2012 and just one in 2013. After a spell of inactivity, Johnson, Hamed and Warren parted ways leaving the heavy-handed prospect to amass a record of (12-0, 8 KOs).
Johnson does look back with fondness on his time with Hamed. “I’ve got good memories of Naz. Bloody hell, just meeting Naz, one of my childhood heroes then my manager… they were great memories,” he said. “Things didn’t work out. I still keep in touch with Naz now and again through the odd text and things like that. Naz is a great guy, great company and is a legend in British and world boxing. It was all pretty surreal for me. I was thinking ‘Bloody hell, what’s happening here?’ I used to stay up late at night waiting for his big fights in America.”
With just the solitary bout in 2013, a seventh round disqualification victory over John Anthony, Johnson’s love for the sport was tested. And, like many men who have wondered if boxing was for them during such times, he was close to turning his back on a sport that he had been involved in since his school days.
“I just sort of sat on the sidelines for a bit, had a year out to gather my thoughts to figure out if I wanted to do this sport or not,” said Johnson. “Having that year out, missing it, realising how much I did want to do it I got myself back in the gym and got myself fit again. And now here we are seven fights down the road and hoping to crack on.”
Since he was a young boy, boxing has consumed most of Johnson’s life. His father, who used to a bit of pad work with him in the family kitchen, and uncles had all “done a bit of boxing”. It wasn’t long before all Johnson wanted to do was spend his time in a gym rather than at school.
“I used to like P.E. at school; football, basketball whatever we were doing. If I’m honest, my school days I didn’t do too well,” he admiited. “I was a bit of a naughty kid if you like. I didn’t get on too well at school and ended up getting chucked out when I was 13-14. I wasn’t that much of a bad kid. I don’t know what it was I just wanted to be in the gym with the older lads. I don’t have great memories from school apart from my mates and that’s who I’m still good friends with now. I wasn’t such a good boy at school if I’m honest.”
The teenager would be asked to try a new school for one more shot at an education. “I went to another school to try it but I just didn’t get on I had no friends there. I just didn’t get on at that school, it was just sort of a mutual agreement that I left. I didn’t get chucked out, I just sort of left. They allowed me to leave. From then on I was just training, did a bit of work, a bit of grafting and that. So I’ve not really been in school since I was 14.”
BM asked Johnson what he thought he would be doing now if he wasn’t boxing. “I don’t know really. I’d be a grafter or do whatever I had to do to get a few quid. My background growing up I used to work on the markets with my dad and that’s what my dad still does. I’d probably be wheeling and dealing and doing whatever I had to do really.”
It was clear when BM spoke to Johnson that, with hindsight, he wished he had made an attempt to qualify for the London 2012 Olympics. Ifs and buts surrounded his mind as to whether he should or not at the time. “You make your choice at the time and there’s nothing you can do to change it,” as he put it.
Despite the seemingly mild regret, Johnson does look back on Delhi 2010 with nothing but pride. Deciding to compete on behalf of Scotland, thanks to his grandmother hailing from Springburn in Glasgow and being overlooked time and time again by England, they are memories of success, friendship and camaraderie… and a vuvuzuela, too!
The musical menace from the South Africa 2010 World Cup was being bellowed from the mouth of fellow squad member Stephen Simmons. The attempt at ‘Flower of Scotland’ is one that Johnson remembers vividly to this day.
“I remember it well. The last 10-20 seconds of the last round in the final I could just hear this vuvuzuela going off. I knew by then I’d won so I was playing along with it in my head. It was madness really.”
“It’s the best memories of my life apart from, obviously, my boy being born,” he said of the whole medal winning experience. “I was watching the Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games and it brought back so many memories. You feel a bit gutted and a bit sad that you’re not doing it again. You feel happy because you were there and you did do it. It’s a strange one. The memories from India are fantastic and the gold medal just topped it off. Spending time with the lads and the coaches, we were a real good team and we spent a couple of years together in camps travelling the world and fighting and we bonded well. I’ll cherish those memories for a long time.”
Looking towards the future, Johnson knows that the remainder of 2015 and the whole of 2016 could be the defining years of his career. Before the end of this year it is possible that he will have fought for either the British or Commonwealth light-heavyweight titles. But Johnson is a realist at the same time and, unlike some other undefeated prospects, he is ignoring any aspirations of world title glory at the moment.
“Would I want to fight [Sergey] Kovalev? Not really,” he joked. “If I did find myself in that position and making a good few quid for it then I’d take my hiding no problem! I’ve got to get past Britain first. My ambition is to get to world level but I’m a long way off that. That’s where I want to be though. With the best, fighting the best and to get as much money as I can. That’s what we do it for. I’d love to see myself up there with the best light-heavyweights.”
Joining him with domestic title success, he believes, will be fellow undefeated light-heavyweight prospect, and friend and team-mate, Hosea Burton (12-0, 5 KOs). Both trained by Joe Gallagher, Johnson insists they will never fight one another.
“He’s not a rival to me,” Johnson insisted. “At the end of the day we’re friends, gym mates and team mates. Don’t get me wrong, the spars are competitive and you’d pay to see them but not once has it ever crossed my mind. The best light-heavyweight in the country other than myself is Hosea Burton. I think me and Hosea are the two best in the country, whether we prove that remains to be seen. I’m sure we both will.”
The friendship and togetherness of the prolific Gallagher’s Gym makes day-to-day work easier for Johnson. He likens it to his amateur days. The Smith brothers, Anthony Crolla, Marcus Morrison, Scott Quigg, Hosea Burton and Scotty Cardle aren’t just gym mates and training partners to him, they are like his best mates as well.
“I knew a lot of them anyway through the amateurs. That team what we’ve got, and that atmosphere in the gym, it’s nice to go to the gym. You’re not going in on your own and you’re not, excuse my language, going in with a dickhead. You’re going in to train with your friends and people you like. Can’t ask for anything better to be honest.”
Johnson, the man who represented Scotland despite being born in England, and Cardle, the man who represented England at amateur level and who has more of a Scottish accent than some who have lived north of the border their entire life! You can imagine their conversations.
“We do have jokes about it because we’ve got an English speaking Jock and a Scottish speaking Englishman! It’s weird, we’re back to front. We have jokes about it all the time,” laughed Johnson.
On a more serious note, Johnson is looking to continue the title trend at Gallagher’s by not only knocking on the doors of domestic level but kicking them down as well. But he wants people to know that, despite his reputation for power, he is no one-trick pony and will prove that in time.
“I’ve been lucky enough to have natural power, speed and strength. You can have all the power and strength in the world, but if you don’t have the technique or the speed and don’t box correctly then the power won’t be there,” said Johnson.
“Once the fights get bigger, longer and people do start standing up to me, you’ll start to see the very best of me and the skills I’ve got. A lot of people think I’m just a powerful puncher, a crash bang wallop type of kid and they couldn’t be more wrong. I’ve got a lot to my arsenal.”