The Fight of Their Lives Chapter 4: The Healing Power of Boxing
Chris Johnson’s final pro fight put him into a coma but a near-fatal brain injury didn’t dull his passion for boxing. In fact, he loves the sport more than ever because it’s his therapy.
Dec. 18, 2007
Shavar Henry makes the hand pads sing, boxing by numbers with Chris Johnson calling the shots.
Left jab, left uppercut.
Johnson has Shevar dip his shoulder, peek at his target, then let his arm go like a whip, curling his fist toward him.
For Johnson boxing’s an intricate game, both detailed and dangerous.
It can be deadly. Johnson knows.
He nearly died on live TV, carried from the ring, his brain bleeding after a brutal knockout.
He turned pro in the U.S. after winning bronze for Canada at the 1992 Olympics. Nine years of trading punches for money brought him a very good record (26-3-1) and a reputation as one of the smartest boxers around. But he never captured a world title, or the paydays that would have cushioned his crash-landing into retirement.
Boxers don’t have pension plans.
These days he trains a few pros but still struggles financially. He once trained in a building near his current spot, but left when rent increased. When daycare costs reached $200 a week Johnson and his wife, Natalie, withdrew their 3-year-old son, Omar. Now he spends afternoons with his parents at the gym.
Johnson risked his life boxing, but it never provided steady income until he took over the boxing studio at Premier Fitness. Johnson has reasons to be bitter with the sport that left him broken and broke, yet he can’t stay away.
Every day he arrives in his beaten-down minivan, slips on a battered pair of target mitts and teaches the skills that won amateur glory and respect as a pro, but couldn’t keep him out of intensive care.
Because, he says, boxing gave him life.
Because boxing is all he knows.
Because boxing is therapy, and the wounds boxing caused, only boxing can heal.
You know how Johnson’s fight with Antonio Tarver ends, but can’t understand how it got there.
Aug. 3, 2001, in Yakima, Wash., it’s a crossroads bout. Each man hopes to atone for a loss; a win keeps each eligible for the sport’s biggest payday – a fight with light-heavyweight champ Roy Jones Jr. Loser goes to the end of a long line of contenders.
Johnson has won 26 bouts, but both his losses have come against left-handed fighters.
Tarver’s a southpaw too, but Johnson does all the right things against him: stalks behind a solid jab; steps left and lands to the body; feints downstairs then blasts Tarver’s jaw.
Johnson’s nickname was “Mr. Showtime,” but tonight he’s more craftsman than entertainer.
He’s never watched this film but thinks something was wrong early. He remembers nothing past a round one right hand. The shot convinced him he’d wear Tarver down and win the fight.
Tarver connects too, and though he never hurts Johnson he does some damage. In the minute between rounds three and four, Johnson ages a decade.
Suddenly he’s a step slow, missing punches that should land, taking shots he should avoid. He looks tipsy, teetering after Tarver, swinging, missing. Shots glance meekly off Tarver’s arms.
It lasts four rounds. Watching live you might think Johnson’s just tired. Knowing how it ends, you suspect it’s something worse.
Somehow Johnson wakes up and wins rounds eight and nine, and enters the 10th with a chance to win the fight.
But because you know the ending, the next two minutes are nearly impossible to watch. Johnson’s slower than ever and you wonder why the referee doesn’t stop the fight. Tarver throws 38 punches. Johnson, listless, throws just two.
Then you watch Tarver land an overhand left to Johnson’s face.
Johnson’s head snaps back. He drops to his knees as if in prayer, bends forward, then topples sideways. The ref doesn’t even count, just ends the fight and helps haul Johnson to his corner.
The broadcast shows a jubilant Tarver stopping by Johnson’s corner, then shifts to hosts in a studio. Then the film cuts out.
You don’t see Johnson blacking out and leaving the ring on a stretcher. And you don’t see Johnson hospitalized with a subdural hematoma, brain bleeding caused by head trauma.
In 1982, Korean contender Duk Koo Kim died after suffering the same injury in a title fight against Ray Mancini.
Every time Johnson woke up he would pray, promising he’d never box again if God would let him live. Then he would blank out.
God did His part. Johnson recovered and eventually returned to Atlanta.
And his promise?
He pledged not to box, not to quit the sport. Why pray for life without boxing? What kind of life is that? And how could he leave boxing when he needed it most?
Show Chris Johnson a great fighter and he’ll show you a fractured man only boxing can mend.
Fighters enter the game knowing the risks are great and the rewards paltry. They’ve all heard Muhammad Ali slur his words, and Johnson’s kids know he dodged death in the ring. They also see Johnson and other fighters struggle with money, but they keep coming back to boxing, looking for something deeper than mere competition. Acceptance. Revenge. An outlet for anger.
Johnson doesn’t see people in his gym who want to box. He sees people who need to. It’s their therapy.
So when Johnson coaches he’s equal parts Angelo Dundee and Dr. Phil.
He thinks Shavar boxes in part to show up his estranged father, whom he hasn’t seen since childhood. He wants him to turn resentment into aggression. At provincials he’ll fight for the first time since breaking his hand, and he’ll move up to superheavyweight.
Johnson believes boxing gives Steve Rolls a surrogate family, convinced Rolls is insecure because he’s adopted. Rolls will need to trust his coach, and himself, to reach the Olympics.
And he’ll move to a higher weight class because his chief rival at welterweight, Adam Trupish, finished eighth at the world championships, securing a spot in Beijing.
As a kid, Johnson found self-esteem in the ring. Born in Jamaica, he moved to Kitchener at 8 years old, and says white schoolteachers labelled him stupid. One even told him he’d never amount to anything.
But when he entered Arnie Boehm’s gym he learned intelligence depends on environment. There his accent didn’t matter; he was eloquent with his fists, a straight-A student in the ring.
By 20, he had won Commonwealth Games gold and the world championship silver. He received a monthly stipend from Sport Canada and earned extra cash giving speeches to students. And the teacher who said he’d amount to nothing? She showed up one day seeking an autograph for her son.
The self-esteem issues are settled – no trainer believes in himself like Johnson does – but he needs boxing dearly.
To cure the what ifs.
What if he had stayed healthy and beaten Tarver? What if he, not Tarver, had dethroned Roy Jones? Would he have co-starred in Rocky Balboa, instead? Would he have a big house instead of a small apartment?
Johnson doesn’t have big money or a world title. Just unanswered questions and his therapy: a team of talented fighters and, with the Olympics looming, a licence to live vicariously.
Next: Shavar and Steve confront opponents and themselves at the Provincial finals
Copyright 2007 the Toronto Star