Power proven: Callum Johnson interview
This interview was originally published in the June issue of Boxing Monthly
Callum Johnson's best form had been seen only in the gym - until he stopped Frank Buglioni in March. He tells Mark Butcher why championship success means so very much to him...
You learn the measure of a man during the dark times and how he emerges from adversity. As the writer Charles Bukowski once said, “What matters most is how well you walk through the fire.”
Following an 18-month absence blighted by injury and soul-searching, the profile of Callum Johnson had dipped so much he had become the forgotten man of the 175lbs division with rarely a passing mention.
Personal loss and a series of debilitating injuries had stilled his progress, but that situation was emphatically reversed in March when Johnson returned, refreshed, to steamroller British champion Frank Buglioni inside a solitary round.
In not only dethroning but decimating the in-form Buglioni, Johnson fulfilled a promise to late father Paul and illustrated the fight-ending power that has often been the talk of the gym, but viewed sparingly in a stop-start, seven-and-a-half year career.
At the O2 Arena, Johnson (17-0, 12 KOs) shot out like a bullet and found Buglioni, no stranger to a row, willing to trade blow for blow. A dangerous puncher, especially early, a bombs away Johnson dropped the champion before wobbling him badly to force the referee’s intervention.
“We had the intention to hit him hard and hit him early, but at the same time see how it goes. As it happened, he came out looking and I came out looking and we just met in the middle of the ring and it went off, basically,” Johnson told Boxing Monthly over the phone from his home in Boston, Lincolnshire. “It wasn’t just the fact that I won, it was how. The style I won in. We know Frank’s a great fighter and he’s tough, and he talks of never being put down as an amateur or pro, but I just went in there and, to put it bluntly, did a demolition job.
“I don’t think he under-estimated me, but he might have over-estimated himself, maybe. But at the same time there are a lot of people who haven’t seen the best of me and don’t realise how good I am.”
When referee Victor Loughlin stepped in, the elation visibly filtered through Johnson’s frame as he had fulfilled a vow to dad Paul who had always told his son this day would come. The pressure of that promise, now realised, seem to lift a weight from Johnson’s shoulders.
“It was surreal. At first, as you saw by my reaction, I just screamed and I think I started shouting out, “I’m the man” to people at ringside. I lost the plot momentarily. And then, after I calmed down, I looked around as if to say, “Has he stopped it?” because of the emotions [taking over]. Then I realised he had and it was pretty overwhelming.
“It was the pressure of the promise I made to my dad and also finally showing people I am a force and to be taken seriously,” Johnson, a fresh 32, told BM. “Since I’ve turned pro, there’s been a lot of talk about how good I am and what I am capable of, but with the way my career has gone, not many people have got to see it. It’s all right seeing it in the gym, but you have to produce it on the big stage, on the big nights. Now the British boxing public know about me, and what I can do.
“[My father] saw that potential in me from a young age. I’m just so happy that I’ve proven him right and I’m starting to deliver what he said I would always do. It just means that extra bit more. The day I buried him I made him a promise I was going to win those British and Commonwealth titles. They say once someone is not here and you make them a promise – you’ve got to keep it even more, so there was a lot of pressure on my shoulders. Now it’s lifted and it’s time to enjoy the sport and hopefully win bigger and better things. I’ve put the division on notice.”
Johnson also paid tribute to his mother June for her support during torrid times. “She’s seen her son, from a young kid, in the gym every night with his dad, travelling the country. She’s seen the downsides, the times I’ve had them bad years,” he said. “I’ve had those knockbacks since my dad’s passing and the dark times I’ve been through.
“To watch her son go through those dark times is not nice for a mother and, to see me come out and do that [against Buglioni], she’s just over the moon. I’m pleased that I’ve been able to pass her the belts and do it for her as well. My parents both sacrificed so much to give me what I needed, to do what I’m doing now. I owe my mum as much as my dad, just in a different way.”
Incredibly, this was Johnson’s only fight since he last spoke to Boxing Monthly in late 2016. After such a long hiatus, many would be forgiven for thinking that his professional potential would remain unrealised. “Early on in 2017, I was going through a lot of personal problems through the loss of my dad. After winning the Commonwealth title [WKO9 Willbeforce Shihepo in September 2016], it all came crashing down on me, reality sort of struck, if you like, and I realised he really isn’t coming back. I went through a bad few months to be honest with you,” confessed Johnson.
“Then I got myself back in the gym and had a scheduled fight for July  when I fractured my shoulder, so obviously bad luck there with an injury. Got that right and the fight with Frank, training was going well but 10 days before I tore my chest, another piece of bad luck. Then I had further issues. 2017 was a tough, tough year for me mentally, physically, and that’s where I’m probably most proud of myself. Not winning the British title, or doing it the way I did, but what I’ve actually overcome to get there.”
A fighter reborn, Johnson has just signed a new three-year contract with Joe Gallagher, a trainer, manager and support system rolled into one. After taking over training with Paul Johnson’s blessing in Callum’s second pro contest, Gallagher has honed the fighter’s undoubted talents, apparent from the amateurs where he won a Commonwealth Gold representing Scotland, and also propped him up during the tough times.
The extent of that faith saw Gallagher put Johnson forward as a potential opponent for Bernard Hopkins’ last fight, a challenge eventually offered and taken with dramatic effect by Joe Smith Jr. in December 2016. “It’s hard to think something like [a Hopkins fight] will actually happen, but that’s the belief Joe’s got in me,” said Johnson. “When he mentioned Hopkins to me and [asked] would I be interested. I was like, “Yeah, of course, I would!” I don’t say a lot and shout about this and that, but I’ve a lot of confidence in my own ability. I would get in there with anybody and believe I can give a good account of myself with a chance of winning. Joe’s taught me so much as a professional. He has turned me into arguably the best [175lbs] fighter in Britain so I can’t thank him enough.”
Johnson has a reputation for his heavy hands and would like to test that power next against the world-rated Dominic Boesel, the reigning European champion, who hails from Germany. “Short-term, I’d like to challenge for the European title. Or maybe someone like Karo Murat, the IBO champion who vacated the European title a while back. Those kind of guys are the next step from where I am, just below the world scene,” said Johnson. “Ideally, I’d have [Boesel] next because imagine having the British, Commonwealth and European belts around my waist? It doesn’t happen that often and the thought is pretty mind-blowing. I’d be very confident I can win that fight.”
At elite world level, it’s a perilous division with no soft touches. With Sergey Kovalev, Dmitry Bivol, Artur Beterbiev, Adonis Stevenson, Badou Jack and Oleksandr Gvozdyk among a daunting roll call of robust champions and high echelon contenders.
“It’s arguably the toughest division out there. British level to world level is a big, big jump,” admitted Johnson. “Frank was regarded as the best in Britain and at a stage where he was going to the next level, but you saw the difference between us on that night. So I’m not too far away.
“You’ve probably got to rate Kovalev as the best because he’s been there a bit longer. Bivol looks the part, looks the business. Beterbiev is a monster, another monster. He’s got the best pedigree in the amateurs. I’m used to fighting those kind of people [in the amateurs]. I beat the Russian champion, European champion and have been in with some of the best in the world. I’ve lost some and won some, but I can mix it with those kind of guys, I know that.
“I can punch really hard and honestly believe I can knock out any light-heavyweight if they have a fight. I’ve got a puncher’s chance, if nothing else. I also believe I’ve got the skills and ability to get in position to get my shots off. They are great fighters, and I’m not saying that I’m as good as them or can beat them yet, I’m just saying I do have that power. While I’m in there, I’ve got a chance against anybody.”
Johnson’s British and Commonwealth title victories are a lasting tribute to his father’s legacy, and the Boston light-heavy will be fighting in his memory to the last bell. “I miss him dearly and it kills me every day. On the positive, I try to look at the relationship we had and the things we shared together,” he mused. “I’ve got some great memories that will last me a lifetime. Sometimes, I forget he’s even passed. I feel that he’s still here because I talk about him like he is. I’m lucky I had the father I had and the relationship we had, but at the same time it makes it a lot tougher because I now miss that.
“One of my dad’s good friends said to me shortly after his funeral, “The biggest memorial that your dad will ever have is you” and that’s what drives me on, to keep pushing harder, keep achieving, because while I’m doing these things, it’s all in memory of my dad. He will never be forgotten while I’m still [fighting] and that’s what drives me and gives me that extra motivation, on the days I don’t feel like doing it. I think, “I’ve got to” because I’ve still got things to do for him.
“We started the story together, we started the journey together,” added Johnson. “We’re not going to be able to finish it together, but I always feel like he’s there spiritually. I’m finishing it the best way I can for us, the way he always knew I would. By proving him right.”
As the June issue of Boxing Monthly went to press, promoter Eddie Hearn made the surprise revelation that Callum Johnson had become the IBF’s mandatory challenger at 175lbs and that negotiations with representatives of champion Artur Beterbiev were underway. Johnson’s shift in fortune had taken another remarkable turn.
“I heard about it about five minutes before Eddie tweeted it! The reaction was surprise, excited, happy and then shit scared as well!” Johnson told BM. “There is nothing to lose at all. I know the odds are stacked against me. I’m going to be a massive underdog. I know how good he is. But what have I got to lose, really? I’ve got everything to gain, so there’s no pressure. All I can do is announce myself to the world. Worst case [scenario], I’m in the position I’m in now. I’ll be quietly confident, as I always am. I know what I’m up against and it’s [a] ‘mission impossible’, but everything seems impossible until someone does it.”
With the fight currently scheduled for October in Chicago, Johnson is under no illusions about the size of the task ahead. “I don’t believe there is any hype with Beterbiev – he deserves the [credit] he gets. He’s been a world amateur champion, a professional world champion and the beast that everybody says he is, but I’ve been in with Russian beasts before and I’ve beat them in the amateurs,” said Johnson who is training in anticipation of a coming fight date. “We’re all only human – we’ve all got a chin and we can all be hurt. With the power I carry, I can hurt anybody.
“I see him as very similar to myself. He’s about my height. We’re both compact fighters, both very powerful. He’s got great skills, obviously, winning the world amateur title. I think stylistically he’s the perfect [fit] for myself, to get my work off. I don’t see him as being an awkward fighter. I see him as being very good, very strong, very powerful, the monster he is, but I believe it will be a great fight. I think we might set some fireworks off with our styles.
“We’ll see what happens ... It’s a long way off at the minute. Less than six months ago, I was lying in a hospital bed, crying down the phone to my mum, thinking my career might be over. Now I’ve won the British title [in style] and been made mandatory for the world title. It just shows if you keep believing, never give up hope and put the work in, dreams can come true and I’m living proof of it.”