The Fight of Their Lives, Chapter 1: Shadow Boxing
Dec. 15, 2007
In the first instalment of a six-part series boxing trainer Chris Johnson and his young proteges learn that boxing’s not just about beating the guy across the ring: It’s about conquering the opponent within.
A Battle Against the Opponent Within
Behind a partition fighters from his gym, Chris Johnson’s Fighting Alliance, skip rope and shadow box. The crowd keeps gathering. Parents here to cheer for kids. Girls here to root for boyfriends. Grey-haired men old enough to remember when boxing mattered.
A TV news crew arrives and Johnson paces more.
If he’s nervous, it’s not because of the audience. He’s used to bigger stages. Johnson was one of Canada’s most decorated amateur boxers, winning 230 bouts and a bronze medal at the 1992 Olympics.
It’s the occasion – CJFA Day at the CHIN Picnic. Today’s the largest event his fledgling boxing club has ever hosted. More importantly, for him and some of his fighters, it’s a first step toward the 2008 Olympics.
But in the coming months Johnson and his protégés will face plenty of obstacles. One Olympic hopeful is still dealing with the lingering effects of a split-second decision, while another battles self-doubt. Johnson will have to reconcile the sport he loves with the business he abhors, and all will learn that boxing’s not just about beating the guy across the ring.
It’s about conquering the opponent within.
Chris Johnson talks big and dreams even bigger, and right now he’s in year two of a seven-year plan to rejuvenate boxing in Canada and make himself a top trainer in the world.
Between 1984 and 1996, Canadian boxers won nine Olympic medals, including Johnson’s bronze in Barcelona. But in the last two Olympics, no Canadian has reached a semifinal. In this year’s world championships only one Canadian will make the top eight.
Johnson aims to change all that single-handedly.
Some folks on the amateur boxing scene think he’s a loudmouth – he’s already been disciplined for shouting down Boxing Ontario’s president – but nobody doubts his boxing knowledge. His students range from beginners to the IBF super bantamweight world champion, Steve Molitor.
Johnson believes that by 2012, Canada will again be an amateur boxing heavy hitter – with CJFA fighters leading the way to the podium, then to pro careers. He thinks Shevar Henry will be ready even sooner. He’s the heavyweight who’ll headline today’s show.
The one that’ll start just as soon as someone locates the gloves.
As Johnson searches, a conversation wafts over from a pair of women nearby. Neither cared for boxing before today.
“I don’t like violence,” one woman says.
But they both stay for the show.
Backstage, Shavar (Superstar) Henry rips punches at an invisible opponent. Beads of sweat form on his forehead.
He’s been back in the gym for seven months, the muscle on his 6-foot-1, 215-pound frame finally re-emerging. Last year he was among Canada’s best amateurs. By the end of November he intends to claim top spot for his own.
While a pair of novice heavyweights flail at each other in the ring, Shavar, a silver medallist at the 2004 national junior championships, lies down, closes his eyes and goes over today’s goals: put on a show; prove to skeptics he can win nationals; do both without damaging his fragile right hand.
Today he’s fighting hurt, but the knock on Shavar is that he’s soft.
In a sport of scarred faces, Shavar has a smooth complexion and a smile that can sell toothpaste. Instead of cauliflower ears, Shevar sports earrings the shape of ladybugs. And while other fighters check their technique in the gym’s full-length mirror, Shevar pauses his shadow boxing to flex his biceps.
Johnson has spent two years stoking the kid’s killer instinct, but sometimes he thinks it’s just not there.
* * * *
Chris Johnson has spent most of his 35 years in the ring. Boxing isn’t just a sport to him – it’s who he is. It’s art and science, passion, craft and calling. Six years ago, Johnson nearly died in his last pro bout, but even a brain injury couldn’t keep him away from the sport.
Ironically, his gym’s profile is higher than ever. In two weeks Molitor will defend his world title on national TV, and today’s the biggest showcase Johnson’s amateurs have ever had. But the truth is, Johnson’s fighters are homeless.
In May, rising rents forced them from their space in a central Mississauga community centre. Chris has temporarily moved his troupe to a nearby fitness club, but that deal expires soon.
Between training a world champ, grooming teenage prospects, generating revenue and finding a space to do it, Johnson’s frazzled.
His athletes believe in him. Assistant coach Shawn McWilliams even has the CFJA logo tattooed on his left calf. And Johnson’s determined. Between Shavar and his teenage fighters, he thinks he has at least seven future Olympians under his roof. But without a place to train them, he’s building big dreams on shaky ground.
Sparse applause bubbles up from the crowd when the ring announcer introduces Shavar.
His mom, Laverne Davy, clasps her hands and averts his eyes. Next to her, Shevar’s stepfather, Percy Hutchinson, leans against the railing and watches nonchalantly. He believes in Shavar’s skills but doesn’t want him fighting yet. Shevar swears he alone made the decision, but Percy suspects Johnson’s Olympic ambitions swayed his son to return too soon.
In his corner, Shavar looks like the consummate heavyweight in the Evander Holyfield mold – sleekly muscled, undersized but explosive.
Across the ring his opponent, Windsor’s Don Willis, looks like a caramel-coloured punching bag. He’s got next to no muscle tone and more tattoos than teeth.
The buzzer sounds and Shavar shuffles to ring centre. It doesn’t matter that he still can’t make a fist with his right hand. His left works fine. Let the exhibition begin.
At 18, Shavar had only been boxing a year when he reached the gold-medal match of the 2004 national junior championships. He lost in the final, but barely 20 bouts into his career he was already an early favourite to make the 2008 Olympics.
Last September, those plans crumbled with a single punch.
Shavar never wanted to deck the guy. He’s a boxer but never a street fighter, and he wasn’t about to start now. Not at 2 a.m. at Yonge and Gerrard, and not six weeks from the provincials.
But the guy who had just stumbled into Shavar’s path wasn’t giving him a choice. He sized up Shavar, four inches shorter and 20 pounds lighter, and figured he could finish whatever he started. So he hurled an n-bomb at Shavar and his friends.
His friends roughed up the guy, but Shavar shrugged it off. Another drunk with beer muscles. Not worth it.
But the guy walked up to Shevar and said it again.
He spat the words one last time, and followed the slur with an overhand right.
If he had it to do over again, Shavar would hit him with a palm or an elbow, but when he saw that punch he reacted the way he’d been trained. He dipped left and fired his own right hand straight down the pipe.
The punch didn’t sound normal when it landed. Shavar heard things crack. Bones. Teeth.
Then he watched as the drunk crumpled to the sidewalk, blood oozing from his nose and ears.
Driving away he noticed the damage to his own hand: skin peeled back to the bone; a pair of shattered knuckles.
He had surgery that night, but it didn’t prevent an infection. Over the next two weeks his hand swelled before doctors finally figured out the problem and operated again.
Police later found the man in hospital but he refused to press charges.
Over the next three months, Shavar’s physique softened as depression anchored him to his couch. He missed the provincial championships. He underwent daily therapy but the thick web of scar tissue still gummed up his knuckles. Unsure he would box again, he hit the nightclubs and started drinking. Nothing hard – that’s not his style – but no amount of Smirnoff Ice could dull the pain and regret.
By January, he knew the only way to ease his depression over not boxing was to box again. Even if he only had one hand.
But he would need seven months and another surgery before he could make a fist and today, fighting for the first time in 10 months, he’s not sure how many punches that hand will withstand. He’ll ration them wisely. The fist has to take him to Beijing.
Willis looks soft, but he’s quick and tricky. He fires three times. Shavar brushes the punches away like dandruff.
A minute into the exhibition the pattern’s clear. Shavar makes Willis miss, then rakes him with lefts.
At ringside, Percy folds his arms and shakes his head.
“He hasn’t used it,” he mutters. He means the right hand.
Shavar lands two jabs and a hook.
Pop, pop, PAP!
“Still hasn’t used it.”
He’s disgusted when the round ends, and even Laverne can’t soothe him.
“It’s just an exhibition,” she says.
He calls out to Shavar.
“Let’s throw some punches,” he says. “Don’t be worried.”
As round two begins, a teenager standing nearby leans in.
“His hand,” the kid says.
“Then he shouldn’t be in there!”
And then it happens.
Shavar throws a left hook, then pivots and drives his right hand between Willis’s gloves, hitting him flush in the face. The crowd gasps. Willis looks stunned.
The buzzer sounds. Two rounds, one right hand.
In round three, Shavar resumes raking Willis with his good hand.
Shavar pursues Willis, then pauses, pondering the quickest way to do the most damage. He taps Willis on his forehead with a right hand, then rips a left hook into his ribs.
There’s no winner in this exhibition, but it’s easy to tell who got the better of it. Willis staggers from the ring, bruised and breathing heavily while Shavar, unmarked, bops over to his parents.
Percy’s impressed, but he’s adamant: no more boxing until his hand heals.
“You need it to close,” he says.
Shavar, hands on hips, says nothing.
“How does it feel?”
It’s throbbing, and he won’t make a real fist for weeks, but nobody needs to know that today. So he shrugs, and with a tender right hand gives his dad the “so-so” signal. As long as those straight rights hurt his opponents more than they hurt him, he’ll suck it up and keep throwing them.
Chris Johnson believes all boxers are searching for their fathers.
Shavar has Percy, but hasn’t seen his biological father since childhood. They don’t speak besides Dad’s birthday phone calls, and even those don’t come every year.
Shepherding kids through a savage sport, Johnson takes his father-figure role seriously. His 3-year-old son, Omar, accompanies him everywhere, and if a kid needs more than a coach, he’s not afraid to open his heart – or his home.
Three years ago he opened his heart to Steve Rolls, a quiet kid from Chatham. And last summer he opened his home to Carlton Angus, an angry teen from Jane and Eddystone who became Chris’s foster son after a stint in a group home.
Chris saw future champions in both of them. Rolls was long-limbed and fluid, cunning and quick. Carlton fought like young Sugar Ray Leonard, blending speed and power, craft and charisma.
Neither knows his parents. Carlton’s mother died when he was a toddler in Jamaica, while Steve was given up for adoption soon after birth. Chris did what he could to make each feel like his son.
And both cracked under the weight of his tough love. He rode Steve hard, figuring a sensitive kid needed thick skin to survive. But Steve didn’t want Johnson’s discipline, and two years ago he left, seeking a trainer with a softer touch.
Carlton flourished, staying in school and out of trouble, but eventually he rebelled. Last November he ran away from home.
Neither one disappeared completely. Rolls won a provincial title last year. Carlton continues to drift in and out of jail and the gym, calling Chris for bail money.
As today’s showcase ends, Johnson hasn’t heard from either in months, but he’s sure both will return. They always do. Boxing’s funny that way. It offers few happy endings – Johnson ended his career on a stretcher, unsure whether he’d survive the night – but people can’t leave it alone. The sport pulls them back, like gravity.
So Johnson won’t chase them. When they’re ready to fight, they’ll come back.
By the end of the summer, as the last chance to qualify for Beijing draws closer, one of them will.
Next: As Shavar continues to frustrate Johnson, a prodigal boxer returns
Copyright 2007 Toronto Star