'Road Warrior' rides off into sunset
July, 14, 2012
By Jason Langendorf | ESPN.com
CHICAGO -- It was bound to end here.
No, Glen Johnson wasn't destined to call it a career in Chicago, and it's not that 24-year-old hometown fighter Andrzej Fonfara was precisely the fighter meant to send the former light heavyweight champ into retirement. But the cramped, sparsely appointed locker room that Johnson occupied as he reflected on his brilliantly workmanlike (and occasionally just brilliant) career after Friday's unanimous decision loss was strangely fitting.
In boxing, endings are almost never awash in glory. They're ugly or bloody. Sometimes embarrassing or shameful. A fighter's swan song isn't a battle cry, but a whimper.
Yet it was none of those things for Johnson (51-17-2, 35 KOs), who gave a solid account of himself against a determined opponent who had a height advantage, throaty crowd support and the energy of a kid 20 years Johnson's junior. But the UIC Pavilion isn't the Garden, and Fonfara (22-2, 12 KOs) isn't a prime Roy Jones Jr. or Antonio Tarver. For "The Road Warrior," it seemed right that he finished propped on a folding chair tucked in the corner of a glorified walk-in closet in some other guy's hometown arena, with Johnson's sullen, silent crew assembled a few paces away while the fighter matter-of-factly critiqued his final ring performance.
Now, this seems an appropriate time to mention some personal feelings. In this line of work, you're taught that athletes should be treated like your kids: You don't play favorites. But you'd have to be made of stone not to have a soft spot for Johnson. He fought anyone, anywhere. He took bouts on short notice. He's been up, down, up again, down again and then up. And now down again. None of it fazes him. Johnson's honesty and thoughtfulness are often expressed through a toothy smile. In a business where B.S. is the business and self-delusion is a job skill, Johnson offered the smooth candor of a Magic 8-Ball.
"I'm fine with the decision," Johnson said when asked about the 99-91, 97-93 (twice) scores in favor of Fonfara. "I think I fought pretty good, but I can't argue with it. I think he won."
Johnson wasn't necessarily outboxed. And at no point over 10 rounds did he seem to start rehearsing that retirement speech in his mind. In fact, after appearing a little sluggish and perhaps puzzled about how to get around Fonfara's jab in the first few rounds, Johnson started to turn the fight. He began timing that long left in Round 4, ducking and then hammering Fonfara's midsection.
Johnson never had his opponent in trouble -- Fonfara acknowledged two of Johnson's biggest shots with a smile and a retaliatory flurry of his own -- but after seven rounds, the fight seemed to be a toss-up. By then, though, Johnson was breathing through his mouth, and in the eighth he threw an off-balance punch that seemed to carry him halfway across the ring and required two beats too long to recover his footing. To hear him tell it, Johnson, 43, just ran out of time.
"I decided to get a little more aggressive," he said of his approach in the middle rounds, "but I just couldn't keep it up. I know how to win that fight. It's just that I wasn't able to be consistent. Every time I would go at it in a particular way, to do what I needed to win, I would need a break. And then when I would take a break, he would come on again. I needed to maintain it and be consistent, like I did when I was younger. But Father Time caught up. I still know what to do, but I just don't have what it takes to maintain it."
Fonfara was respectful enough in victory, calling Johnson "a warrior" and giving props to his opponent for game efforts in recent battles with Carl Froch and Lucian Bute. But when pressed, he was as candid about Johnson's performance as Johnson was himself.
"He's an easy boxer," Fonfara said. "He was like, jab, jab, right hand and left body. That's it, you know? And I prepared for that. And I know he doesn't have [other] combinations or have something else."
Fonfara might have held on to that last thought if he had considered Johnson's elbow injuries -- torn ligaments in both joints -- that were discovered after the Bute fight. Or if he were aware of the number of oily decisions that had gone against Johnson over the years, including an April 2000 defeat against Silvio Branco in Padua, Italy. ("I thought I fought and won clearly," Johnson said. "Ray Charles could see it.")
And one wonders whether Fonfara knew that Johnson -- who arrived in Miami from his native Jamaica at age 15 -- was a late starter in boxing, learned on the job as a pro, worked construction jobs deep into his fighting career to pay the bills or that he practically willed himself to three separate acts as a contender.
The 2004 fighter of the year challenged for world titles at middleweight (losing to Bernard Hopkins in 1997), super middleweight (falling to Sven Ottke in 1999), light heavyweight (stunning Jones by KO and beating Tarver by split decision in his career year) and again at 168 pounds (getting outgunned by Froch in the Super Six last June).
But Fonfara, born in Warsaw and fighting out of Chicago (whose Polish community had his back Friday), was clearly more excited for his win than deliberately indelicate when discussing a man whom earlier in the week he had called "a legend."
And what about Johnson's take on Fonfara?
"It's hard for me to judge," he said. "I think he's a good fighter, solid, he's got a good chin, he's strong. But me not being what I was, I don't know if that's a good measuring stick. I can say he's better than what I had to be, so that should count for something."
The better man won. No excuses. Hats off. On to the next challenge. That's Johnson.
But what exactly will Johnson's next challenge be? He mentioned some of the usual paths for ex-pugs: trainer, TV analyst and, less typical, concert promoter.
"I have a few options," he said. "I'm not for sure 100 percent which way I'll go. But there are some things out there I'd like to do."
As fight fans, let's just be glad Johnson liked doing boxing's dirty work -- going on the road, standing in the pocket and slugging away -- for as long as he did, all while carrying himself as one of the sport's few true gentlemen.