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The End of the Road

Gloen Johnson (L) - Andrzej Fonfara (R)

(Photo © 8 Count Productions)

By Steve Kim

Tonight at the UIC Pavilion in Chicago, Illinois, ESPN2’s “Friday Night Fights” features a doubleheader of two local products from the “Windy City” versus two distinguished old veterans seemingly at the end of the line. Light heavyweight Andrzej Fonfara takes on Glen Johnson and Ivan Popoca is paired with Jose Luis Castillo in a welterweight tussle. The local promoters are billing this card “Crossroads” which is an oft-repeated term in this business as old lions are fed to younger ones in the name of progress. This sport doesn’t treat its elderly well and it’s rare that anyone can outrun Father Time.
For Johnson and Castillo, it’s not so much the crossroads but really perhaps the end of the road.
But this isn’t a column deriding these match-ups or asking rhetorical questions as to why these men are still boxing (we all know the reason why. It’s what they are and what they do). It’s to give them proper tribute for what they have accomplished in this game. They were, in every sense of the designation , “old-school fighters.” Nothing was ever handed to them and they had to come up via the toughest of roads to make a mark in this sport. They were never the darlings of the premium cable networks- who seemingly place a premium on undefeated marks and pound-for-pound rankings- nor were they the marquee attractions who had the leverage to take on (or avoid) select comers. The records of Johnson (51-16-2 with 35 knockouts) and Castillo (63-11-1 with 54 knockouts) speak to the very last of a bygone era when fighters actually- get this- fought often and truly learned the craft of prizefighting.

No, they won’t be inducted into the Hall of Fame (they both fall a tad short in gaining permanent entry into Canastota, in my opinion) but during their storied careers, they got all they could out of their God-given abilities, gave something to the sport and provided long-lasting memories. And when it’s all said and done, isn’t that all we can reasonably expect from our fighters?
The story of Johnson’s boxing odyssey kicked off on February 19th, 1993 at the Airport Hilton in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, when he began his career by stopping Yurek Del Rio in one round. For the next few years- ironically fighting close to home in South Florida- he built up a record of 32-0 facing handpicked opposition. Still, it was good enough to get a crack at IBF middleweight champion Bernard Hopkins, who himself was years away from any real notoriety. This fight took place in 1997 on a typically warm July summer afternoon at the Fantasy Springs Casino. To put into perspective how long ago this was, this bout was actually broadcast on CBS and this casino was still more than a decade away from constructing its indoor facility which now houses their boxing events.
Johnson was stopped (for the only time in his career) in 11 rounds by the well-schooled Hopkins who showed him what real world-class boxing was about. It was just then that Johnson’s career and skills would really begin to blossom. It also showed that, as numerous losses mounted, early undefeated records in boxing are perhaps the most overrated thing in sports.
The loss to “The Executioner” was then followed by successive losses to Merqui Sosa and then Joseph Kiwanuka. These losses were followed by a four-fight winning streak but then Johnson would hit the road (a common theme in his career) and lose to Sven Ottke in a very disputed decision for the IBF super middleweight title in Germany. He then dropped a 10-round decision to Syd Vanderpool in New Orleans, a controversial loss to Silvio Branco in Italy and a majority 10-round decision defeat to Omar Sheika at the Blue Horizon in Philly.
A familiar pattern was developing in Johnson’s career; he was more than willing- and quite frankly, he had no choice- to go on the road and fight guys in their backyards. It was he, not Mel Gibson, who was the real “Road Warrior” in a career that has seen him fight not only in all parts of the United States but in various locales in the Bahamas, Germany, Italy and the United Kingdom. You look at his record on ( and it seems the only places he hasn’t fought are Antarctica and Timbuktu. And like many other tourists, he has been the victim of robbery while on foreign turf.
After dropping successive fights to Derrick Harmon and Julio Gonzalez, it seemed that in 2003 Johnson would end up being a tough journeyman and nothing more. But like his dogged temperament in the ring, where he simply wouldn’t quit and take no for an answer, he kept at it. After a highly questionable draw with Daniel Judah (that he avenged years later) and a victory over Eric Harding, Johnson earned a crack at the vacant IBF light heavyweight crown against Clinton Woods. And it would take 24 rounds to win that belt as he had to travel twice to Sheffield to face Woods after their first encounter was ruled a draw. But his 2004 was just getting started because having that title made him an ideal choice for Roy Jones, who was coming off his initial loss to Antonio Tarver. Over nine rounds in Memphis, Tennessee, Johnson dominated Jones and knocked him out cold. To finish off the year, he took on Tarver at the Staples Center in Los Angeles and won a close, well-contested 12-round decision. 
This was his year. Three outings, all in places that couldn’t be more different than each other, Johnson had won defining fights. For his yeoman effort, he was named the “Fighter of the Year.” The man who had supplemented his income for years by working on a construction site had broken into the next tax bracket by sheer will and determination.
Unfortunately, Johnson’s time on top of the mountain was short-lived as he lost the rematch to Tarver the following June and soon he was back to hitting the circuit of short money and fights on ESPN2. Maybe his blue-collar style and gentlemanly manner wasn’t glamorous or flashy enough for the executives of either HBO or Showtime who, at times, seem to crave more sizzle than steak. But Johnson continued to ply his craft where he could against whoever would face him. He could still beat the George Khalid Joneses and Montell Griffins of the world but the “Ol’ Battleship” (as this scribe nicknamed him for his travels all across the globe) has looked like a weathered vessel recently. At age 43, his pressure style, reliant on coming forward and throwing a high volume of punches, is really built for younger fighters.
Even then, Johnson was still able to stop the likes of Yusaf Mack and Allan Green with his combination of guile, savvy and toughness. And late in his career, it’s his losses that speak to the quality and character of this fighter. He gave Chad Dawson all he could handle in 2008 and Dawson has never been quite as “Bad” since and he boxed as cautiously as could be in their rematch a year later. Tavoris Cloud needed a late rally to defeat Johnson in 2009 and the latter gave Carl Froch a reasonably good run last year in the semifinals of the “Super Six.” It was only against Lucian Bute last November when it looked like the “Battleship” would be going dry-dock.
Regardless, Johnson’s had quite a run.
The story of the 38-year-old Castillo actually begins three years before Johnson started his pro career despite being five years younger. Castillo was several months shy of his 17th birthday when he made his debut (yeah, they start ‘em young in Mexico). Fighting mostly in Baja, he rolled up a record of 18-0 but soon started to take his lumps as he was stopped by Javier Jauregui (twice), Cesar Soto and Julio Alvarez before celebrating his 23rd birthday. During this time, Castillo was cutting his teeth as a sparring partner for the great Julio Cesar Chavez and as he developed his skills as an apprentice, “El Temible” came into his own as a formidable lightweight.
Brought in as a relatively safe opponent to the skilled Stevie Johnston on the afternoon before Shane Mosley upset Oscar De la Hoya later that night at the Staples Center, Castillo upset Johnston on a sweltering hot day at the Bicycle Club in Bell Gardens. An immediate rematch was scheduled on Johnston’s home turf of Denver and in what was a closely contested match, a draw was eventually ruled (after the initial scorecards were read with Johnston winning). His next title defense was a sixth round KO of Cesar Bazan and after a few soft touches, Castillo was matched with the highly regarded Floyd Mayweather. What was thought to be a relatively easy belt-taking fight for the “Pretty Boy” was instead perhaps the most harrowing experience of his Hall of Fame career. Using his advantage in size and strength, along with his underrated boxing skills and long jab, Castillo gave Mayweather fits on that April night in 2002. Many observers believed he did more than enough to retain his title but alas, the future was with Mayweather and so eventually was the verdict.
Castillo was not Chavez but you saw a lot of Chavez-like qualities, from the ability to work inside and break down the body to his heavy-handed attack and a strong finishing kick. During his heyday at lightweight, he faced the likes of Mayweather (twice), Bazan, Juan Lazcano, Julio Diaz and Johnston (twice) but it will always be his rivalry with Diego Corrales that will be his everlasting legacy (Yeah, yeah, even more for being the guy alongside Joan Guzman who will be defined by the maddening habit of not making weight).
The night of May 7th, 2005 will be one that boxing fans will remember fondly. Quite frankly, it will take one helluva fight to beat that one for best fight of this century. If you think that’s an exaggeration, then you probably haven’t seen it. Yeah, you can say, “What about Micky Ward vs. Arturo Gatti?” OK, think of that fight with a better caliber of fighters. Over 10 pulsating rounds, Corrales and Castillo waged a savage battle that never let up in its intensity or execution. Corrales with his sharp, stinging punches and Castillo with his skilled in-fighting fought on brutally even terms from the first bell. Finally, in the climactic 10th, Castillo sent “Chico” to the canvas twice- on the second trip, Corrales spit out his mouthpiece, giving him valuable time to recover. And just as it looked like Castillo was going in for the kill, the fight suddenly turned as Corrales stunned Castillo with a series of compact punches off the ropes. 
In as dramatic a turnaround as you will ever see, the fight was halted by refereeTony Weeks as Castillo was dazed as he was dangling off the ropes, nearly unconscious. You watch it today and you still have a hard time comprehending it. Unfortunately, neither fighter came out of this contest the same way they entered the ring that night at the Mandalay Bay. 
They had a rematch but it’s at that time when Castillo’s problems making weight began. He stopped Corrales five months later in a fight that seemed unfair given that only “Chico” made the effort to hit 135 pounds. A rubber match was scheduled and then infamously scrapped as Castillo again failed to make weight. Both Castillo and Corrales reached the apex of their glory that night in 2005 but it was also their ultimate demise. They had simply given too much of themselves against each other. Castillo was easily dispatched by Ricky Hatton in June of 2007, basically ending his period as a true world-class fighter. A month before, Corrales tragically died in a motorcycle accident in Las Vegas, two years to the date of their classic war.
Since then, Castillo has fought on the fringes, able to defeat the likes of Robert Valenzuela and Carlos Urias but losing anytime he’s on the big stage. In March of 2010 on the Manny Pacquiao undercard at Cowboys Stadium, he was served up as an opponent for Alfonso Gomez, a former contestant on “The Contender.” He even lost to Jorge Paez Jr., notable because back in 1999, Castillo beat his father. Most recently, he notched a victory over Sammy Ventura, who had a record of 26-21 coming into their fight. 
Both Johnson and Castillo have seen better days but those days should never be forgotten.
Here’s one fans take on the September 15th snafu and I think this gentleman sums it up best (and yes, it’s the brother of the “Amazing Swider-Man”)...
Two days since Lopez was ‘confirmed’ as the opponent for Canelo and here are some of my thoughts:
1. I am not entirely sure, as a boxing fan that is not going to either one of these cards, I dislike that there are two cards going on the same night. I can, and will, watch both main events. Certain sports have become one of the last experiences you need to consume live; yet I do not think boxing is one of those sports. You cannot escape NCAA or NFL football scores, NBA playoffs, etc. for more than 30-45 minutes, even when trying to avoid them. I do not think the same is true for boxing. So, if the presence of GBP on that date causes TR to do an overall better show, then I win. Similarly, if TRs card pushes GBP to try and stack the undercard with more competitive fights given its less quality main event, I again win. I have said it before, unregulated monopolies in any form (whether US Steel or a given date in September) hurt consumers. Any additional competition increase our marginal benefit. We have seen in the past, cards featuring JJCJr or Canelo alone are often packaged with filler because, like hot dogs, people will still consume them that way. Why waste additional, costly, ingredients? We will see more, and high quality, boxing on Sept 15th because of the two shows than if only one was on, and that is a microe-conomic reality
2. Lost in all the comparisons between the two cards, the unanswered question is what if Lopez is actually a competitive match-up for Canelo? Full disclosure, I think Canelo is a dog-sh*t fighter. I have never seen anything in the ring that has me thinking he is better than a gatekeeper/sparring partner. Two years ago Canelo was busy getting buzzed by the bad Cotto, a guy that made his name (albeit the small part that Miguel did not make for him) fighting at 135. Why are we so sure that he rolls over Lopez who will walk in at 144? I fully appreciate the weigh difference, and that Lopez himself is an average fighter that outlasted a dumb guy, but still. Canelo should be the heavy favorite, but I think a lot of the moaning over the match-up is because of the date/location. If this was held in Mexico, on September 14th, then we would say this is a decent stay busy fight for a guy taking his 5th fight in 15 months.
3. But as they say, if my aunt had a set of balls then she would be my uncle. Clearly you do not fly out to the desert that weekend unless you are a boxing fan. Too much other stuff going on in the sports world. And if you are a boxing fan, and you chose to go to Canelo over the TR card, I assume you also got tickets to see Bette Midler and Cher the night before. One of the few commonalities between Canelo and JCCJr is that they both have disproportional fan bases relative to their skill set. However, while both bloated fan bases are Mexican in nature, JCCJr gets the older crowd that lived and died with his dad’s fights. Canelo gets the teeny-bopper girls. Which do you think are more likely to fly to Vegas? Ratings on Showtime might be OK, but there is no amount of lipstick to cover the pig that will be the live gate at the MGM.  
4. And the CBS thing was a fine smoke screen, you know, if it lasted more than a day. Being on CBS would have changed the narrative for the GBP card to be sure. Anytime someone mentioned the card, the first thing said would have been “on broadcast TV”. Now that it is on Showtime, the first thing said will be “going against the JCCJr PPV”. Even when GBP card gets written about for September 15th, TR card will get mentioned. However, I think that far less likely (but will still occur) when people write about the TR card. The only relevant story line for the GBP card is that it is competing in a pissing match with TR. TR story-lines include Sergio’s title take back, the prior avoidance of Sergio, and JCCJr getting his first real test. All of those narratives can be written without the mentioning of GBP.
5. Not to say it will happen, but I am guessing there will be some decent rumbling about Showtime blowing a chunk of its budget on a crap fight. While execs clearly do not care about boxing programming so long as they do not have to deal with it, at what point would the bad publicity raise eyebrows for the real power-brokers at CBS? CBS prides themselves on their brands (“CBS is Americas most watched network” is said a trillion times in a single NFL game) and a surefire way to piss them off is to sully that brand. Will this have that kind of impact? I do not know, but the fact that it is even possible is why Espinoza should have avoided it (you know, if he was not a total shill for GBP).  
6. Finally, I am fascinated to see this all play out. I think all the abuses and ills of the current boxing model are coming together on the 15th. It is a social experiment. Many of our commonly held assumptions about what is wrong with boxing (do belts matter, TV ratings, what is PPV quality, is Vegas an outdated location for non-superfights, rival promoters refusing to collaborate, etc.) will get tested. If both cards are wild successes (the alternative hypothesis to the null hypothesis that the 15th will be catastrophic), then how does that shake up the sport? To quote Bart Scott “CANT WAIT!”
No worries,
Brian W. Swider, Ph.D.
Honestly, I’m not sure if I could’ve said it better myself.
The Sept. 21st edition of “Fight Night” on NBC Sports Network will feature light heavyweight standout
Gabriel Campillo versus Sergey Kovalev and welterweight Ronald Cruz against Antwone Smith...The weigh-in for tomorrow’s bout between Amir Khan and Danny Garcia is open to the public at 3 p.m. PT at the Mandalay Bay Events Center...And yes, this fight is at the Mandalay Bay, even though you wouldn’t know it by this: much have your views changed on Joe Paterno now?...OK, can the Lakers get any real help on the bench?...And no, Kobe, this Olympic team cannot beat the ’92 Dream Team, c’mon...
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