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?
‘I think it’s about where I come from. I come from nothing. I come from the streets. I came from jail, from prison time. I came from adversity. I came from the bottom. And I came from a family who didn’t have much.’
For those uninitiated to Kevin Johnson, he was raised in New Jersey and first entered a boxing gym aged 13. His mother was staunchly opposed to this burgeoning interest, rationally fearing that her son would get hurt, and ‘coming from a small town that’s one square mile big, and where everybody knows everybody and it’s all interconnected’, would regularly send his brothers into the gym, instructing them to remove Kevin from this risk of possible harm. She was also opposed to football (in the American sense), and so the only thing that he could do, which would ironically eventually benefit his boxing training and his base fitness level, was run, and he’s ‘been a runner ever since’. As a young amateur, Johnson was involved in a ‘bad street fight and did some bad harm to a person,’ for which he would serve 18 months in jail. Emerging from that experience, he was different and conscientious, measured, and repentant, and he chose then, at that juncture, to also embark upon a concurrent career in real estate – ‘because amateur boxing didn’t exactly pay for groceries’ – whilst continuing towards succeeding in his desired calling as a professional fighter.
Though just in the same sentiment that Cyril Connolly deemed a pram in the hallway to be the ‘sombre enemy of good art’, so too are comfort and security often deemed the extinguishers of a fighter’s motivating hunger. Kevin and his family are no longer in the tough New Jersey neighbourhood of his childhood – ‘Now, everyone is successful. I have 6 brothers and sisters. We have lawyers, we have a judge, we have a doctor, we have a nurse, we have an EMT; we have it all in this family.’ Kevin remains actively involved in the real estate market, working on multiple projects and property developments in Columbia, the Dominican Republic and Leverkusen. His older brother, Brian, is the judge. Fortunately, he was able to graduate ‘just prior’ to the coronavirus explosion, and Kevin credits him with ‘fully changing my life’, stating that he ‘continues to inspire and motivate me to this day’: ‘My brother managed my career for 15 years and then he went off to become an attorney, and then he stopped being an attorney to go take the bar, to become a judge. He wanted to help the people-crime situation in America, you know, police brutality and incarcerations are at a mass high. He wanted to become part of the solution, not part of the problem. […] We had travelled the world together, and we made a lot of freaking money, but there was something bigger in the world and he wanted to step back away from boxing, to start helping. He gave up all of it to go through a new school to become a judge, and passed top of his class, thank God. So when you’ve got someone like that doing things like that, my brother Brian motivates the hell out of me, man.’ His mother, Missionary Darlene Johnson, is another powerful motivator. Trained in psychology, social work and nursing, she still refuses to watch Kevin fight, although she acknowledges his success, and he, in turn, feels her pride towards his accomplishments and towards the man that he has grown to become – which suggests that there must exist a seduction more potent that necessity, which keeps drawing him back to boxing, and indeed there is: love and legacy.
‘I just love fighting. I’m a warrior. I love fighting, everybody knows that I like fighting the best of the best. I like it because when it’s all said and done, I’m not gonna be one of those guys sitting in a rocking chair saying, “Man, if I could give it one more try.” Nope, I’m going on YouTube and Facebook and Instagram to look at all the videos I've saved up, to show to my nieces and nephews and everybody else, and I’ll be able to show them, I’ll have them on DVD, and I’ll be like, “Man, I had a great run all over the world.”
And it’s that desire to fight the best of the best that has seen him compete with a who’s who of past, present, and the future heavyweight boxing champions. He has been the distance with Vitali Klitschko (challenging for the WBC heavyweight title in 2009), Tyson Fury, Christian Hammer, Derek Chisora, Manuel Charr, Kubrat Pulev, Andy Ruiz Jr., Daniel Dubois, Filip Hrgovic, Nathan Gorman and Oleksandr Zakhozhyi, and has been stopped on only three professional occasions, once by Anthony Joshua (‘legitimately’) and another by Martin Bakole (who he fought only eight days after going a full eight rounds against Zakhozhyi: ‘I was in training. I felt good. I thought I could fight both of these dudes in two weeks. And I did, but I made a big mistake. I should never have been in the ring with that guy [Bakole].’) Spanning 17 years and thus evolving through three cyclical generations of opponents, I ask Kevin for his reflections on how the professional heavyweight division has changed throughout his career.
‘Size. If you look at the heavyweight division in the 80s and 90s, the biggest heavyweights in the division were Andrew Golota [6’ 4”], Lennox Lewis [6’ 5”] and Michael Grant [6’ 7”]. Those were the biggest in history. Anytime a heavyweight was fighting a heavyweight, if you were 6’ 3”, you were considered a big guy. Like Ray Mercer [6’ 1”], you know? Larry Holmes [6’ 3”]. Those were big guys. Now, these guys are 6’ 6” plus. These guys are freaking huge, so the landscape of boxing has changed. The category of heavyweight has changed. At the beginning of my career, I had never seen a heavyweight over 6’ 4”. I used to always be the big guy in the ring. Always. I fought with high hands, high guard, like the Philadelphia shell. Now, I’m fighting guys who are 6 foot 5, 6 ,7, 8. Zakhozhyi, he is 6’ 9”. He got into the ring and I was like “wow”. So, I had to drop the shell so I could see the hands up there because if I keep my hands high, I can’t see certain punches from the angles that these guys are throwing them. Man, truthfully, nobody is trained to fight these monsters.’
But fight them Kevin has. His pugilistic promiscuity, borne out of his aforementioned inability to shirk a challenge, combined with the exuberant, enthusiastic matchmaking of his trainers, promotional and management companies, means that he is now consequently perfectly placed to provide a unique insight into the biggest fights being made within heavyweight boxing today. Assuming that this contest still goes ahead, who prevails out of former adversaries Anthony Joshua and Kubrat Pulev, and how does he see the fight unfolding?
‘If AJ fights Pulev… AJ would win by decision; I could see that. It’s not impossible to stop Pulev, but it’s pretty tough and he [AJ] would have to take a chance in there. I would just box exactly as he did against Ruiz, and just make him look stupid, very stupid. He can stop him because we saw what he did with Klitschko. He did it, he took the chance and he executed wonderfully. Pulev isn’t as versatile or a power-puncher like Klitschko was, but I see AJ winning on points easily. I see a unanimous decision.’
And Joshua (‘I knew him before we fought. Wonderful man, great heart, beautiful family. I love his mother the way I love my own mum, you know?’) vs Tyson Fury (‘I’ve got really good friendships with a lot of British fighters, but especially Fury. Years ago, him and his father and his uncle, they opened up their doors to me, their facility, and their house, they opened it up for me numerous times. Peter’s a great guy. My friendship with the Furys is bigger than just boxing?’)
‘Oh man. I don’t even know. Fury coming in at 270 [lbs] and the conditioning he had against Wilder, where he was a lot stronger and very broad in the chest area, and with that power… erm… you see if Fury was 6’ 3”, he wouldn’t be such a dangerous fighter. But he’s long; he is so long and he’s so out there, it’s like being on the end of a sniper rifle. And his movement is good too. Fury, he moves great when he moves, but he can’t do it forever. The human body is not designed like that. It requires a lot of oxygen and the travel of a lot of blood, and it just doesn’t travel like that. It doesn’t. You’ll see anybody go into a clinch, lay on the ropes, or just put their hands up and go on the defence. Because you’re not designed to move and fight like that for 12 rounds. You’re not. And when he stops, that gives AJ the chance to knock him out. […] I was at Wembley Stadium for Joshua and Klitschko and I couldn’t predict shit. I wouldn’t even bet my money. And AJ versus Fury, I couldn’t put a dollar on it. I can’t call it.’
One fight he can call, however, is his favourite to date. 51 professional fights and counting, if he had to relive just one, which one would it currently be? The best night that he feels he has ever had in the ring as a professional?
‘My favourite fight has been against Alex Leapai [April 2012, in Australia, for the IBF Australasian heavyweight title], because I fought that fight with nine stitches, no actually, my eye was glued, glued shut, like three days before the fight. I got head-butted in sparring on the last day, and I had to get it glued because I couldn’t fight with stitches, and in the first round it busted open again, but luckily the bottom level was healed so no blood came gushing out. I fought all nine rounds like that. I knew if I could get through the first few rounds, where he came at me like Mike Tyson, I would be able to slow him down, back him up and get to him later. I started working the body and I started to get to him. I knew the body type to work with. I started pushing him back, and then he started to stumble, and I knew right there and then, I said to myself, “It’s done.”’
Those two words carry increasing significance in boxing parlance. In the context Kevin uses them, they mean an awareness that the end of the fight is drawing near, that one’s opponent has been overwhelmed sufficiently to the point that it is only a matter of time before he/she is vanquished officially. Though they can also succinctly refer to a brutal knockout or the cessation of a rivalry; they can even articulate the announcement of the end of a career. Though no fighter wishes to recognise their mortality – the diminishing of once-great reflexes, physical capabilities, punch resistance and aerobic capacities – much less welcome or accept it, I would be remiss not to ask Kevin as to whether he has contemplated his life without boxing, or allowed himself, in quieter moments, to fantasise about how best he would like to exit from professional prizefighting.
‘I’ll go, and I’ll know, only when God tells me.’
As aforementioned, Kevin retains an active real estate portfolio, as well as many other successful extracurricular avenues which oblige his energies, his concentration, and his focus. But through the course of our discussion there was one in particular to which he would continue to return, talking with unbridled energy and excitement at the potential and the beneficent possibilities that this future project could effect.
‘I got a new project going down in Cameroon, Africa, where I’m doing a boxing facility. A good friend of mine Jacques Eone, he’s from Cameroon, and we’re doing one of the first boxing facilities in Cameroon, Africa. That’s where I’m from and I’ve never been there. And to go back and help the original people of my native land, it’s everything man, right! Our gym will be the best to ever touch Africa itself!... If that’s not the way you want to retire in this sport – because even when you are done with boxing, as champions, we never go out, we never fade, no – then it’s the way that you want to continue to live your life.’
One feels that that life still includes a few further fighting chapters, that the highlight reel of Kevin ‘Kingpin’ Johnson will continue to evolve to make compelling, inspirational viewing – showcasing the transformative possibilities of combining hard work with directional clarity, inspired by the energies of formative hardship – though that the final ending of said DVD is certainly not ready to be determined just yet.