On Dec. 18, 2004, at the Staples Center in Los Angeles, Glen Johnson outworked Antonio Tarver over 12 rounds to capture the light heavyweight championship of the world. It capped off a banner 2004 that also saw Johnson win the WBC strap against Clinton Woods in February and knock Roy Jones Jr. senseless in nine heats in September.
In every fight, Johnson had to travel far from his Miami home, and in every instance he came in as the proverbial "B-side" – the guy who comes in to fill out the marquee but not win the fight. In short, he was the "opponent."
By the end of the year, this up-and-coming, globe-trotting prizefighter earned the distinction as "The Fighter of the Year."
His reward? Another date against Tarver Saturday night at the FedEx Forum in Memphis, Tenn. He had no other choice.
"I'm going to take care of this because it was written in the contract for the rematch going into the fight," Johnson said. "I already had my mind set on two fights because I knew I was going to win and they had the clause in there if I win to give him a rematch. So I had my mind set on two fights with him. So I'm pretty stable with the route we're taking."
For years Johnson was a solid worker who was respected in the game for his durability and toughness. But acclaim from the general public was difficult to come by. In many respects, he was just as anonymous as the fellow construction workers he toiled with during the day.
But his strong year has opened some eyes.
"I believe the boxing public is recognizing my hard work and they're liking and loving what I do," said Johnson, who worked his construction job all the way up until his bout with Jones last year. "There's a lot of people that stop me and say, 'Hey, I really respect the way you fight. You go out there and no wasting time, no foolishness. You just go out and put on a real fight. We haven't seen that in a long time and we're glad to see it again.'"
Despite not working on the construction sites anymore, there is still an everyman quality to Johnson. While he is now recognized by fans, the buzz he created at the most recent Boxing Writers Association of America dinner paled in comparison to much more high-profile pugilists like Bernard Hopkins, James Toney, Oscar De La Hoya and Sugar Ray Leonard. Johnson can still walk into a room and barely cause a ripple, and he has an unassuming manner that at times makes him a beige spot on a beige wall.
He's just good-ol', friendly, Glen Johnson.
But he's a much wealthier Glen Johnson, having gone up several tax brackets in his last few bouts. After getting paid in the thousands, he now commands seven-figure paydays. Not much has changed for Johnson, though.
"You know, financially I'm a little bit more stable, but my lifestyle is pretty much the same as far as the person that I am and everything else," he said. "Life has been easier on the financial part of it. Finally, if I see something and I want it, I can buy it. In the past, I would see, want it and say, 'OK, when I get the money, I'll get it.'"
He went from layaway plans to driving cars off the lot, paid in full. With his recent success, Johnson has purchased two cars, along with two motorcycles, and his biggest investment is a new home in Miami, of which he says, "We moved to a nicer area in my judgment, depending on who you ask."
He's come a long way, since it was just a couple of years ago that Johnson was struggling to pay the rent. In many respects, he is the modern-day Jimmy Braddock.
For manager Henry Foster, Johnson is as close as you can get to Braddock, the former heavyweight champion whose story is told in the recently released movie "Cinderella Man."
"I think he's the only one I'm aware of that comes close to that kind of story," Foster said. "I really feel that he clawed his way to the top from the same degree of adversity that was portrayed in the movie and the book."
It was just a few years ago that Johnson, who was once a promising unbeaten middleweight who was derailed by Hopkins in 1997, had become classified as a "tough journeyman," a guy brought in to provide "house fighters" a tough test and another notch on their belts. And even if Johnson would do enough to win, he'd still get the short end of the stick like he did against Julio Gonzalez in January 2003.
To Foster, this is when they hit rock bottom.
"Financially, Glen's been struggling throughout his whole career in terms of boxing," Foster said. "It wasn't until 2004 that he made any money where he could stop working the construction job. He turned the corner emotionally, I think, after the Gonzalez fight. That was his low-point emotionally, where he felt that he had done his best and he had done enough to win and that it was all about the judging and all about misfortune and he was never going to get his fair share for the fruits of his labor."
The fight against Gonzalez took place on Gonzalez's home turf in Commerce, Calif. Many observers felt Johnson had done more than enough to earn a decision, but instead he dropped a majority verdict.
"On the ride back to Miami from California I convinced him – which I sincerely believed – that he not only won that fight but he showed me, since I've known him longer than anybody that's active with Glen, that he was peaking," Foster said. "He was at his prime in terms of his development as a fighter and I felt that he was the best light heavyweight. It was only a matter of getting a break, and a couple of fights later, that break did come."
And like a construction worker, Johnson rebuilt his career, brick by brick, laying a foundation that was based on hard work, punching a clock day after day with his hard hat and lunch pail in tow.
And this project wasn't dependent on reeling off a lengthy winning streak. It couldn't be, since Johnson's fights had more judging controversies than the first three seasons of "American Idol" combined.
"If that was it, the very next fight, which was a very short money rip-off draw against Daniel Judah, would have meant the death knell for the career," Foster said of an ESPN2 fight in which most viewers – even those from Brooklyn – believed Johnson got jobbed. "It was really recognizing that without any juice, we might lose a few more fights by decision until we could catch the moment where we either get a straight call or the pressure starts to result in knockouts."
But in the very next fight, Johnson's very own Cinderella story would begin. He upset Eric Harding in May 2003 for the vacant USBA title. Then in November 2003, he went to Woods' backyard in England for their first encounter and salvaged a draw for the vacant IBF light heavyweight title – another dubious decision that went against Johnson.
But 2004 was a banner year, and from Sheffield, England, to Memphis, to Los Angeles, Johnson staked his claim as the world's premier 175-pounder.
And because of that, he no longer has to moonlight.
"It's definitely easier," he said of dropping his day job.
"I mean, boxing is not easy on its own. But the fact that you don't have an extra load that you are doing, it's easier. But that could work for the downside, too. Because when you're working hard and you're in that atmosphere it can pump you to work harder. So I just have to keep that mind-set to pump myself to work hard in the boxing gym because for a long time I was very angry at people just ripping me off and not allowing me to take care of myself properly and just constantly taking my decisions and giving it to the other guy.
"That helped build up some anger which I used to my benefit."
Johnson also has more of an opportunity to see his children – he has three from three previous relationships.
"I get to spend more time, I actually get more chances to see the kids because you know how ladies are, when you're not able to pay child support they don't let you see the kids as much," he said ruefully. "You're kinda like an enemy. Back then, I couldn't afford to make child support the way I would like to. I made some enemies along the way, but now people are happier. They're never all the way happy, but they're happier now."
What's that song from Biggie Smalls? Mo' money, mo' problems?
"Exactly, exactly," Johnson said with a laugh. "Everybody feels like they should be getting more than they're getting. But at least I'm able to give something and I give what I know is right. And my heart is feeling better than before when I wasn't able to give."
Foster says his fighter is still the same guy for the most part, but he has seen a change in his boxer.
"I think despite his marvelous natural nature," Foster said, "I think the adulation and some of the phoniness that comes along with it, from so-called new-found fans or friends that haven't been around when times weren't so good but now come on the bandwagon, I think a level of cynicism has developed where there was more naiveté before."
Not that Johnson is bitter.
"I look back and said even I can't believe it," he said. "But I have also looked back and said, 'Wow, what an accomplishment.' And that's where my belief in God and my belief in hard work and just don't quit [on] yourself
come into play and I just know that it's so true because I lived it and I can stand testimony to it. It's something that will work."