By Chuck Strouse
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By Ciara LaVelle, Kat Bein, Carolina Del Busto, and Liz Tracy
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"See, this business is filled to the brim with unrealistic motherfuckers -- motherfuckers who thought they ass would age like wine." -- Marsellus Wallace, Pulp Fiction
Two boxers in full protective gear meet at center ring inside a cavernous warehouse transformed into a boxing gym. They tap each other's gloves in a show of respect. "Go!" bellows one of the trainers standing on the far right corner of the ring. The pugilists dance around in a circle, exchanging light jabs, looking for an opening. The sound of their boxing shoes on the red canvas echoes through the Spartan training area. The shorter of the two fighters -- a stout, hard-charging Jamaican with arms resembling industrial-size meat mallets -- quickly takes control of the practice bout by forcing his taller, but not so nimble, adversary into the corners with a series of clutches, holds, and hard punches.
"Nyuh! Nyuh!" Glen Johnson, 35, grunts as he stuns fellow light heavyweight Freddie Moore with a series of left and right jabs and flashy hooks. BAP! BAP! BAP! BAP! Johnson frustrates Moore by keeping his body low and away from his opponent's flailing mitts. The day before, Moore had lauded Johnson's ability to use his upper body strength and his massive arms to pressure his foes constantly. "You have to be in great shape to handle it," Moore said. Today, he could only handle it for one-and-a-half rounds. After walloping Moore with a combination of punches to his mid-section, Johnson connects a vicious right to the 37-year-old boxer's lower left cheek. "Hu, hu, hua!" Johnson snorts. WHAP! THUMP! Moore drops face- first onto the canvas like a banyan tree felled by a category four hurricane. He tries to get up, but can only summon the energy to reach an upright fetal position.
Ringside, Johnson's existential boxing manager, Henry Foster, implores his fighter to take it down a notch.
"Easy champ," he says. "Control that intensity." A groggy Moore crawls out of the ring. Meanwhile, Derrick Harmon, a sculpted bruiser wearing a blue bandanna, prepares for his go-round with Johnson. Before entering the ring, Harmon looks over to Foster and says: "I'm calling Antonio Tarver tonight to let him know he is not going to last six rounds with Glen!"
On December 18, Johnson will get his chance to prove Harmon right. That evening, Johnson and Tarver will square off in a twelve-round bout at the Staples Center in Los Angeles. The fight, the main card of an HBO World Championship Boxing pay-per-view event, was a no-brainer considering Johnson and Tarver share a common denominator: In the past year, they both demolished golden boy Roy Jones Jr. to retain their respective light heavyweight world titles. Before his losses to Johnson and Tarver, Jones was the preeminent franchise. The Pensacola, Florida native successfully leveraged his manufactured reputation as the world's best pound-for-pound fighter into lucrative paydays on fight night and outside the ring via endorsement deals with Nike and other corporate sponsors.
Having vanquished Jones into possible retirement, Johnson has gained some measure of respect from mainstream sportswriters and commentators who didn't give him a whiff's chance against Jones. So naturally, Johnson is becoming a known commodity as a result of the enormous publicity generated by his victory over "Mr. Unstoppable." Jay Garfola, Johnson's marketing manager, says he is negotiating endorsement deals with fifteen major corporations including shoe giant Reebok and Flextec, manufacturer of an exercise glove for people who suffer from carpal tunnel syndrome. Johnson already has an agreement promoting the energy drink Liquid Ice with rapper-turned-actor Ice-T. "I was a happy camper when Johnson knocked Jones's block off," Garfola admits. "For me, it was a crapshoot because if Glen doesn't win, he ain't getting any endorsement deals."
But Johnson has yet to attain the kind of respect that earns him a champion's purse, the multimillion dollar payday that usually goes to guys with last names like Jones, de la Hoya, and Tyson. (For his bout against Jones, Johnson earned a purse close to one million dollars). It's a reality not lost on his manager.
"Glen can walk into any boxing gym right now and people will recognize him as the guy who knocked out Jones, on top of being a world champion," Foster says during an interview in the offices of Fight Club, the Overtown gym where Johnson trains. "But how do you translate that into dollars? Our job was to get another high-profile fight so we can convince everybody that they should pay to see Johnson fight as opposed to shelling out dough to see the guy Johnson is fighting."
Now a victory over Tarver, Foster reasons, would certainly propel Johnson into superstardom. And what happens if Johnson loses? "We don't contemplate losing," Foster boasts. "We only contemplate coming out victorious."
Johnson strolls into Fight Club on a recent Saturday afternoon, two weeks before his promoter finalized the deal to fight Tarver. In person, Johnson certainly looks like a guy who could whup anybody's gluteus maximus. His deep-set brown eyes, pouty lips, and the creases on his cheeks resemble the fierce, yet elegant, facial features of a bull mastiff, a canine breed whose size, speed, and power helped gamekeepers ward off poachers in the Eighteenth Century. Johnson's upper chest and abdominal muscles are tight and pronounced. His forearms, biceps, and deltoids would put the average South Beach buff boy to shame. He greets guests with a youthful smile that is betrayed by the salt-and-pepper stubble growing out of his granite chin.