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Johnson deserves top honors in '04

Glen Johnson, the man who is dubbed "The Road Warrior," has had quite a
2004.

In February, he defeated Clinton Woods on Woods' home turf of
Sheffield, England, to capture the vacant IBF light heavyweight crown. Then,
after an aborted fight against Joe Calzaghe -- where he was set to go
overseas again and defend his title -- he faced Roy Jones Jr. as the
proverbial comeback "opponent" in Memphis, Tenn. He didn't go by the
script and instead starched Jones in nine rounds.

To top it off, this past weekend he was in Los Angeles at the Staples
Center, where he outhustled Antonio Tarver in an entertaining scrap to win
recognition as the game's premier 175-pounder.

Mel Gibson's got nothing on this guy.

And with this trio of wins, all of which came on either enemy territory or
as the heavy underdog versus high-profile fighters, Johnson has earned the
distinction as 2004's "Fighter of the Year."

In what was a close, competitive bout, Johnson won a razor-thin split
decision on the basis of his aggression, consistency and body-punching.
Judges Melvina Lathan and Chuck Giampa both had Johnson winning by the score
of 115-113, and Marty Denkin saw it the other way at 116-112.

"I expected it to be a tough fight," Johnson said afterwards. "It was a
tough fight. It was a good fight. I believe the public got what they wanted,
and I'm looking forward to doing it again."

For Johnson, his pressure was the key. There were many close rounds, but in
the game of professional boxing, to many judges, it's who's pressing the
fight that is often the determining factor in who gets the nod in a close
frame. While Tarver did land the harder and sharper individual punches,
Johnson fought more of every round and consistently came forward.

"I always try to enforce my will. I wanted to come and throw a lot of body
shots and I have to be close to do those things," he explained. "So I
definitely had to step up close to him and put on the pressure."

And on the occasions that Tarver was able to unleash his rapier-like left,
Johnson took them well.

"He never hurt me," he said. "He threw some left hands, most of them were
blocked, but some of them did rock me back because I didn't have my legs up
under me. But they never hurt me at any time."

During the homestretch of this tight, pitched battle, both trainers were
like jockeys, going to the whip, trying to coax just a little bit more out
of their thoroughbreds as they raced neck and neck to the finish line.

"I was telling Glen that it was crucial we take the last three rounds
because I felt that the fight was getting close," said Orlando Cuellar, who
has overseen the revival of Johnson's career, alongside manager Henry
Foster. "And I told him, 'Glen, you gotta give me the last three rounds. I
need them because the fight's too close.' I said, 'If you give me the last
three rounds, we got this.'

"I said, 'Give me one round at a time, give me your heart for three minutes
and then when you come back in between the rounds, I'll bring you back.'
I'll take care of you; I'll refresh you. But I need three minutes, Glen,
give me your heart. If you give me this, we'll get the fight."

Which is precisely what happened.

On both Lathan's and Giampa's scorecards, Tarver held a one-point lead
going into the "championship rounds" at 86-85. Johnson proceeded to win
rounds 10, 11 and 12 on their cards to win the fight.

It was a close -- but not controversial -- decision. There was a division
ringside as to who won the fight, and many, including the HBO broadcast
crew, tabbed Tarver as the victor.

"If you look at the entire fight, I thought he landed the cleaner, harder
shots with the left hands and won seven out of the 12 rounds. I had it
115-113," said Harold Lederman, HBO's "unofficial" official.

He disagreed with Lathan and Giampa on two particular rounds.

"I thought round four was a clear Tarver round; round 12, I think
Antonio Tarver sucked it up and definitely won the round," opined Lederman.

In that final round, Tarver rocked Johnson early on and dominated the
first 90 seconds before succumbing to exhaustion. If Tarver had been
given that round, the fight would have become a majority draw.

But I guess you can call it a "karmatic decision" because if there was ever
a guy who deserved a close nod it was Johnson, who's been held up more than
a 7-11 at three in the morning.

As the cards were being read by Michael Buffer, Foster had an uneasy feeling.

"They announced the first score (Denkin's 116-112, in favor of Tarver) and
that was so off the wall, that I thought we were really going to get
jobbed," he admitted. "I do want to say that when Marty Denkin judges a
fight, he ought to watch it."

Even if you had Tarver up (like I did, by one point) you got the feel that Johnson deserved the fight. He captured the drama of the event,
fought harder for longer stretches, and by the end of the night he was
playing the role of the Lakers, as the LA crowd was squarely behind him..

"Glen was hurting him, throwing the more convincing blows to the body; he
took the early rounds," said Cuellar, who like his boxer has burst onto the
scene in '04. "Basically he was swarming him, pressing him, he's throwing
volume, he was stepping and punching, he did what he had to do to win and
their was justice in that decision. It went to the right man."

And it seemed to go to the man who treated his visit to Los Angeles as a
business trip and nothing else. More than one source will tell you that
while Tarver may have seemed focused -- and he did say all the right things
leading up to the fight -- that he treated this more as a field trip,
gallivanting around town, enjoying himself just a bit too much during fight
week.

He seemed winded early on, his legs not having the foundation to hold his
ground against the oncoming charges of Johnson, his jab so limp that it
needed Levitra. The same focus and determination that he had before his
two meetings with Jones seemed absent on this night.

His own trainer expressed disappointment in his boxer's outing.

"I think that he gave away too many of the early rounds and he started
looking for the one punch," stated Buddy McGirt. The respected trainer also
feels that his fighter didn't do nearly a good enough job of drawing the
proverbial line in the sand and making Johnson pay for coming forward.

"Yeah," he agreed, "when he stood his ground, you saw what happened."

Tarver, who says he hurt his left hand in either the fourth or fifth round,
came into the bout thinking of bigger and better things and a long-term deal
with HBO. Now, the only thing on his mind is avenging another loss.

"I'm pretty good in my rematches, 2-0 with two knockouts," he told the
gathered media. "I think we gave the people what they wanted; I never
underestimated his ability, but I felt I did enough to win the fight. I
finished strong, he is the 'Road Warrior' and he put the pressure on, but I
was dressed down in defense. He landed some shots, (but) I think I stayed
busy enough to win a lot of those rounds."

And it looks like Johnson-Tarver II is a distinct possibility since a
rematch clause was in the contract.

"I'm looking to do it again," Tarver continued. "I lost to Eric Harding,
came back and knocked him out. I had a controversial loss to Roy Jones,
knocked him out. So three times is a charm. Of course I want a rematch."

And a return bout has no business being west of the Florida panhandle. Having a fighter from
Tampa (Tarver) and one from Miami (Johnson) boxing each other at the Staples
Center was like FSU and Miami playing each other at the Los Angeles
Coliseum. The rematch belongs at either the Tampa Ice Palace or the American
Airlines Arena in Florida or somewhere in the southeast.

The crowd at the Staples Center was sparse. The announced crowd was a
little over 9,000 -- with many of the tickets given away according to various
sources -- and the whole upper deck of the arena was covered up with
curtains, which gave it the feel of a WNBA game. Those who came to the fight
saw a good one; the problem was that in a city that is notorious for having
late-arriving crowds had a "never arriving" one on this night.

But Johnson, who flies back home 3,000 miles east -- is now the King of
Miami. With the Hurricanes going Peach Bowlin', the Dolphins stuck in a haze
of Ricky Williams' smoke, the Marlins failing to make the playoffs this
past year and the Heat still unproven in the postseason, it's Johnson who
rules South Florida.

"Hey, it's great, it's great!" he said with a wide grin, "I'm glad Shaq
is there; he's doing his thing. The Heat is also making a stand in Miami."

True, but they haven't conquered the world like this guy.