Kingpin Keeps A-comin': Kevin Johnson reflects on his love of fighting, family, God, and giving back

‘As a matter of fact, things are a lot better. You will see it during this fight. I can already hear a lot of people right now saying, “What took him so fucking long?” you know?’

Kevin Johnson has caused quite the stir in boxing circles recently. As one of only ten billed fighters, he will soon be fighting his way into history, headlining the first European boxing event since the continent went into COVID-19-induced lockdown (a contest to which the above quote pertains). His opponent will be 35-6 Pole, Mariusz Wach – who in December took a heavy Dillian Whyte the full non-title 10 round distance – with the fight being hosted in a hotel in Konary, Poland, and closed to the public but streamed live to a global audience via Event.TV pay-per-view, the first time that Johnson has appeared on such a paid platform since he fought Anthony Joshua on Sky Sports Box Office in 2015. I ask him how this particular event came together, and what precautions are currently in place to ensure it's safe (from a Coronavirus transmission perspective) execution.

‘This fight was going to happen before Coronavirus hit. This was back earlier in the year, but then the virus got a win, and things started shutting down over here early, a lot earlier. […] Preparations are going to be in place to make sure we are able to host the fight safely, for sure. I can’t go into these too much at the moment, but we are told that we are going to be in the hotel, that we must wear protective gear and that we are going to be safe.’

The ‘over here’ Johnson refers to is his current training base, and the original country of location for the fight: Germany. Safely ensconced and sequestered in the western city of Gelsenkirchen – a notable location for British, or indeed German and Ukrainian, fight fans as the location of David Haye’s 2011 defeat to Wladimir Klitschko – where he has been since Coronavirus first began spreading at the communicable and news-piquing rate, which subsequently forced the country into their deep and considered mid-March lockdown, I am intrigued as to how Johnson has endeavoured to effectively train for a ten-round contest when social media would have us believe that the majority of other fighters are now simply maintaining or ‘ticking over’ – running and working heavy and/or floor-to-ceiling bags within their garage spaces.

‘We have creative ways to keep my conditioning good and my technical skills ready. Me and my trainers, we have been working hard. 100%. We’ll be ready in two weeks, but we’ll still have an extra three weeks until the fight, so we’ll actually be able to execute a lot of things that I haven’t had a chance to execute in the last 8 or 9 years.’

Thus, it would appear that the what-will-eventually-end-up-as-an eight-month break between this fight and his last – Johnson’s longest hiatus from the ring since March 2017 – will in fact have a profound, serendipitous and beneficial effect.

‘I’ve overcome a big physical obstacle in this time, something very, very big.’

Crediting his trainer – Gelsenkirchen native, Christian Hiller – with improving his overall physical condition – ‘Christian is studying currently for a doctorate which includes a deep understanding of the physical body. He knows how to prepare things correctly and many, many more things that I’ve never even known about’ – his current training arrangement, accompanying personnel and overall team environment, has Johnson speaking with reverential gratitude and an excitable ebullience that is both infectious and charming.

‘Larry Holmes once told me, right at the beginning of my career, he said to me, “If your trainer has never been in a fight, get away from him,’ and whilst Kevin has not always followed Larry’s advice, for the last three years he has. Thus, coached today by head trainer, Christian Hiller, and assistant trainer – and Christian’s wife – Pia Mazelanik, he now has two trainers who have each enjoyed their own successful professional boxing careers – Christian being a former WBU light heavyweight champion with a professional record of 12-1-1; and Pia, a bantamweight, who finished with a professional record of 14-6-1 – and who are able to not only continue to challenge, teach and inspire Kevin towards reaching his own enduring aspirations as a professional boxer, but who have both also allowed him to find renewed joy in the entails of his chosen vocation; to find happiness, peace, gratitude and contentment in the everyday nature of their work, his current surroundings and their respective company.

‘Oh man, I’ve got one of the greatest teams. Both of my trainers were fighters. They excite my motivation, man. If ever I think about stopping or giving up, all I gotta do is holla at Pia, man. She was one of the greatest fighters in the world; she is a very dangerous girl. Plus, on top of that, I get strength from a very good friend of mine, Sylvia [Sylvia Kunkel]. She supports me in everything. She is my life. She handles everything for me outside of the ring: living, breathing, eating, walking, talking, my entire personal life, she handles it all and makes life here in Germany very easy for me. So, between Pia, Christian, and Sylvia, you know, I wake up on the good side of the bed. How could you complain?’

That said, I ask Johnson once again whether he is not at all apprehensive about uprooting this team, to traveling with across the German border with them into neighbouring Poland, and then competing, when such an invisible, virulent, viral spectre continues to ravage and loom above both them and the rest of humanity collectively.

‘I don’t worry about a thing. Man, I do the one smart thing that everybody probably do[es] or should do: I pray, and then I let it go. Because I believe, and I have faith in God. I have prayed on it and I know that I’ll be ok.’

Aged 40, and with a recent record showing more losses than victories, Johnson is in the twilight of his career; his contemporary status as a now-gritty journeyman gaining him respect from a new generation of fighters and fight fans alike, as he is evidently able to contend, survive, work, challenge and educate those much-younger prospects with whom he shares the ring. The days of being a legitimate championship contender may well be over, but he still remains far more than the manifestation of that tragic subcultural combination: a boxer with a good chin aligned with a brave and reckless manager. But what keeps Johnson enduring and compellingly drawn to a sport which is both notoriously exacting and dispassionately unforgiving?