Callum Johnson: A lockdown blueprint?

Social media plays a major role in the framework and direction of modern-day sport. Of course, the advantages as to its beneficial use to the individual, team or organisation are interpretive, but there’s no denying that its inclusion has benefitted most in some way (when used correctly) and will continue to shape the landscape of sport in years to come.

Live streams, open communication, profile building and the portrayal of a personality to aid the sale of tickets are all opportunistic tools at the disposal of today’s boxer. Twitter in particular has been known to be a more than capable boxing promoter when it comes to making fights and stoking rivalries too!

There is more than a hint of positive irony in the fact that Callum Johnson-one of boxing’s most unassuming characters, who rarely makes any kind of foray into the Twitter snipe-wars that congest the feeds of the sport’s most ardent followers-will arguably exit this period of undetermined time with an elevated profile and a cluster of new and appreciative fans as a result of social media.

It probably did not feel like that was going to be the case when his worst fears came to fruition and a lockdown, complete with the abolition of any boxing events taking place was put in place.

With only one fight in 2019 against Sean Monaghan, Johnson was looking forward to putting an injury-ravaged period behind him with a scheduled bout in May for the EBU European light heavyweight title against Igor Mikhalkin in Manchester.

Johnson deliberated carefully before honestly offering his initial feelings surrounding the sudden halt to future plans. “It’s frustrating, it’s very frustrating. Especially for boxers and somebody like myself who, I haven’t got that long left, my time is running out, I’ve still not achieved like I know I should have done and know I can do, so it can be worrying as well, but at the same time, for me the way I look at it is, we’re in a situation that I can’t control, I can’t control it and I can’t do anything about it. The only thing I can control is what I do and the way I think, the way I feel and the way I act, so as long as I can control that the best way I can, which I feel I am doing, that’s all I can do.

“It’s no good worrying about what I can’t control, that’s what I say to everybody, ‘if you can’t control it, don’t worry about it, if you can control it, change it’.

“When we got put into lockdown, I thought, this is not good, I kind of had a little chat with myself, it was like ‘listen you’re either going to have to deal with it and keep yourself right and do what you can, or let it ruin you’ basically."

It is an acknowledging nod to the ever-looming subject of mental health and the issues it presents. These, however, are not just aimless chunks of wisdom, bestowed on people in the hope of eradicating their problems with a few words of encouragement. It is more than that, Johnson, who has suffered hardship himself in recent years, has successfully found a way to proactively spread positivity via inclusive training sessions and interactive challenges. He could have just trained alone but instead has identified an opportunity to harness a community feel to proceedings, inviting fans and the public to become involved in live training sessions and fundraising attempts.

It is the kind of access that should be appreciated and applauded. I am sure if asked, most people especially growing up would have loved that kind of insightful perspective from a professional athlete.

The interaction on social media has been successful on multiple levels, including benefits to Johnson’s own well-being. He explained the circumstances surrounding the initial fundraising event, “Obviously, I was keeping in shape anyway, but I saw my mate (his mate being friend and Royal Marine Ryan Richardson) was doing the fundraising. People were donating a fiver and running 5k and people who were donating a tenner were running 10k. What he was going to do was for every £100 he would run 10k, so for example, if he raised £500, he would have to run 50k.

“I messaged him, and I said I’ll donate £100 and I’ll do a 100k virtual bike ride on Zwift. I’ll advertise it and see if we can get a bit of interest in it for you. We did that and it kind of just blew up.”

The bike ride (which had over 700 riders, including British Olympic swimmer Adam Peaty) was the start of a succession of challenges that included a four-mile tyre flip and the successful completion of 1200 burpees in one hour.

The challenges raised over £20,000 for The NHS. A fantastic achievement, but maybe the biggest reward was the cumulative effect he was having on others, which in turn ensured he kept himself motivated and set the correct example to others.

The infectious interest that was generated through the events, meant Johnson felt compelled to continue, he added, “I enjoyed the buzz around it, I enjoyed the interest around it so I thought, I might as well do it next Wednesday and that’s how it went. I got people on my Facebook suggesting challenges and every Wednesday I did one, I think I’ve done five now.

“After the fundraising, I’ve kept on with the challenges because it keeps me active and it also benefits me. I’ve been doing some live circuit sessions for people to join in with as well which again motivates me because again, if I’m going to inspire and motivate people to train, I have to put a shift in myself.

“When you’re in your garage, it’s a bit lonely, that’s where social media is good, you can flick it on, people can watch, you can feel like you’re not on your own as such, you can talk to people whilst you’re doing it.

“Not only that, let’s be honest, it’s not every day people can get to watch a top-level athlete train. It gives people who are interested in boxing and sport in general, an idea of how a professional athlete does train.”

Again, there is a reinforced message that the inclusivity is what is imperative here. It is more of a metaphorical helping hand to those who may seek some interaction and companionship or even motivational help with combating mental health issues. A very prevalent and present issue with the current proceedings surely leading to further mental health ramifications in months to come.

Exercise has always been the best medicine for the Boston based light heavyweight and as a professional sportsman who is often asked for advice on coping mechanisms or tips, his answer is always the same. “I’ve trained all of my life. Physical exercise is the best medication for anybody mentally. It’s something that a lot of people should do more of, there’s a lot of people out there who struggle mentally, it’s well known and talked about more than it ever has been.

“You’ll never, ever regret a good session in the gym. Get in the gym, go for a run, go for a bike ride, anything that challenges you physically, it will help you mentally.”

As the chat meanders along comfortably, my alertness is checked by the slight change in tone. A sharpened focus is detected as we veer towards the possibility of fighting again. I enquire about the prospect of him being ‘fight-ready’ whenever that time may come. Johnson-one of many successful fighters from Joe Gallagher’s gym-greeted the question with unerring assertiveness, “I will be ready, as soon as I get that call, it’s not like I’m gonna say once things resume I need 6, 8, 10 weeks to get ready, I’m ready, I’m ready now.

“If I got a call today saying, ‘you’re fighting in 2 weeks’ time’, I’d say yes. I’m genuinely ready, I’ll fight anyone in the world on 2- or 3-weeks’ notice, that’s how ready I am.”

The confidence is not misplaced, neither is it arrogance or in any way bombastic, it is actually tempered by a mild self-deprecating frustration that he could have already achieved more.

A harsh self-assessment given that following his father’s passing in 2016 he subsequently found himself locked away from the world for weeks after. Success has arrived at a relatively late stage of his career with Johnson conceding, "My career has not been ideal, it's been far from it and I still feel I'm a massive underachiever at the minute, but we still have time to turn it around." Attempting to explain why-despite the poignant moment and elation of securing the British title-it was never going to be enough to 'settle' with that achievement.

"Winning the British title, to be honest, it was nice because of the circumstances and my dad never saw me win any titles as a pro and he said I would, so to go and do it was nice. I also enjoyed the British title because of what I had to overcome to get back in the ring, obviously, I had 18 months out the ring and that was the worst time of my life, but how can I put it? I'm far better than British level. I always knew I would be British champion, my dream was always to be a world champion."

Two years later Johnson won the British and Commonwealth titles in emphatic fashion before challenging for the IBF world title against revered puncher Artur Beterbiev, flooring the Russian star during a valiant but fruitless attempt. However, his career progress has been hampered with injuries and despite the pride in winning those titles, he knows that with the talent he possesses, that he has always been capable of at least a British title. So, age will not be a factor in determining whether he goes on to world honours. He expanded saying, “I’m fitter and stronger than I’ve ever been. People make a big thing about age, as soon as you hit your thirties, everyone’s talking about age, age, age, but you look at many fighters who are 37, 38, 39 and they’re still world champions.

“If they can do it, why can’t I? I feel a million dollars to be honest, I’ve never felt so good. I do think that’s down to the way I’ve been living, including during this lockdown."

Plenty of talk has ensued about who the British pugilist will face in the future with fellow Brit Joshua Buatsi mooted as a potential opponent. A fight that was almost in the works a few years previously for the British title.

Both fighters appear to be on a collision course should the trajectory of their progress continue. With Anthony Yarde also on the domestic scene, it is a division with genuine depth, but pressed on how he would have fared against Sergei Kovalev, the fighter nicknamed ‘The One’ admitted, without wishing to appear disparaging with regard to the efforts of Anthony Yarde, that he would have beaten the Russian. “He was very, very good wasn't he, but the Kovalev of now? I would put my life on it. For the amount of fights Yarde has had and the amount of amateur fights, he’s done well, he’s a top, top fighter don't get me wrong, but I think it was that experience that he lacked.”

Every fight will take on a huge amount of significance at this stage of his Johnson’s career and as pragmatic and honest as ever, at 34-years-old, he is acutely aware that every fight from now will either be for the prestige a title brings or the clinical and cold fact of a financially viable proposition. "

Whatever happens in the coming months or even years,, a moment of clarity sums up how he would feel about his achievements should he come through his tough test against Mikhalkin, “If someone said to me when I came into boxing, you’ll be British, Commonwealth and European champion, you’ll fight for a world title and you’ll probably get another world title shot, I’d have said really? Will I?”.

What Callum Johnson has achieved in the ring so far is commendable, some of the obstacles and life challenges he has faced though are arguably worthier of celebration than the extrinsic rewards. I'm not naïve, I realise that the belts and the money are what boxers strive towards, but I've spent enough time speaking to this big punching light heavyweight to realise that beneath the tough exterior lies someone who recognises the intrinsic value of family, helping others and having a good moral compass.

Someone once said, "A happy fighter, is a dangerous fighter." If that is a true reflection then Callum Johnson could just be heading towards his most successful boxing chapter.

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