In a division loaded with depth, he fought em all
By John J. Raspanti
Born in 1954, he grew up in a crowded household of five boys and four girls. His older brother liked boxing, and used him as a sparring partner. When he went into the military, his brother told him “he better keep boxing because when he got out he’s going to beat me up.”
He went to a gym where he met trainer Champ Chaney who said he’d work with him. He improved quickly.
In 1972, Marvin Johnson represented his country at the Olympic games, winning a bronze medal. He debuted as a professional in his home state of Indianapolis a few months after the games, scoring a sizzling second round knockout. In his seventh professional fight, he dominated future contender, Gary Summerhays. He knocked out Tom Bethea to win his 15th consecutive match.
Johnson’s reputation as an exciting fighter grew. A southpaw, his left-hand packed dynamite. In 1977, he was set to meet fellow up-and-comer, Matthew Franklin, from Philadelphia. The talk was the fight would be a war. The words weren’t cheap. Johnson drew first blood in round two.
Franklin hurt Johnson in round four. Johnson battled back soon after. Frankin’s face swelled up. The toe-to-toe action continued as Johnson landed some wicked shots.
“His ability to absorb punches,” Johnson told me during an interview in his home near Indianapolis several years ago. "He absorbed the punch and kept going. I had that attitude--he can’t keep on taking it. I’m going to hit him and I’m going to hit him again. I actually got tired of hitting him. And he didn’t fall.”
Johnson had a slight edge through seven rounds. He had stunned Franklin with hooks and uppercuts. But there was no denying Franklin. He knocked out Johnson in round 12.
Johnson’s first loss was devastating. But as he’d do throughout his career, he’d fight back through grit and determination. He won six of seven, earning a shot at WBC light heavyweight champion, Matt Parlov, in Italy. Johnson floored Parlov in round nine with a left hook. A round later, the referee stopped the fight.
Marvin Johnson is a world champion.
“I was so thrilled to be champion of the world,” said Johnson. “This is something I have worked for all my life. My wife was there and I was so happy that I won and that was just the greatest thrill ever.”
Johnson’s first defense would be against nemesis Franklin, soon to be Matthew Saad Muhammad. Johnson did well in the early going. Franklin was taking punishment and bleeding, but at this point in his career, his resiliency was super-human. He fought back, hurting Johnson in round seven.
“Muhammed wore me down,” said Johnson. “And that’s the bottom line. He wore me down because nobody has absorbed my punches like he did. And keep coming, and keep coming.”
Saad Muhammad stopped Johnson in round eight. In 1996, Ring magazine called the brutal contest the “35th greatest title fight in boxing history.” Johnson shook off the loss, and almost a year later, met defending champion Victor Galindez in New Orleans. Galindez was favored, but Johnson turned to big brother for help.
“I think that the training that I went through for the fight helped me out," Johnson said. “I went down to where my brother was. He was in the military, and he invited me down there to train with the military boxers. And I think it helped me. Helped me to actually focus and condition my body. I felt real good.”
The fight was another war. But this time underdog Johnson grew stronger as the bout progressed. He was tagging Galindez with lefts, until one sent the soon-to- be ex-champion staggering across the ring and on his back. The fight was over, and Johnson was a champion again.
Not resting on his laurels, Johnson, who was always eager to fight anyone, faced talented Eddie Gregory, (later known as Eddie Mustafa Muhammad). Gregory boxed well, breaking down Johnson with bodyshots and knocking Johnson down in round three. The champion hung in, trying to connect with his signature left, but Gregory was too much. The loss to Gregory still eats at Johnson.
“I allowed too much of my body to be accessible to him,” Johnson said. “He hit me. He actually separated my rib. That’s how I got my ribcage separated. He’s a great guy and I congratulate him because he’s a great fighter. I just know, when you know a thing yourself, you didn’t fight your best fight.”
A year later, Johnson was brutally knocked out by future champion, Michael Spinks. He never saw the punch. Johnson was a month shy of his 27th birthday. Many considered him washed up. His nickname of “Pops” was never more relevant. But Johnson took the loss in stride. He looked at it as a religious wake-up call.
“Well, actually, you see, I’m spiritual,” Johnson said. “Nobody had ever hit me with a punch that I didn’t see. Never. But, I think there’s things that I’ve done that I shouldn’t done, not even related to boxing, OK? And there’s a payday. There’s something that I had to pay for. I could see that after the fight. “
Advised to retire, Johnson laid off for a year. He returned to the ring revitalized, scoring a knockout. He prevailed 14 times in a row, defeating rising fighters Alvino Manson, Eddie Gonzalez, Charles Williams, and Eddie Davis. He was now on the cusp of another title shot. WBA light heavyweight champion Leslie Stewart was confident he could beat Johnson. The venue was Market Square Arena in Indianapolis. Hometown hero Johnson had the crowd on his side. He took it to Stewart from the get go, hammering the champion with body and head shots. Stewart hung in, but a series of punches hurt him in round seven, prompting the referee to wave off the fight.
Johnson was a champion for the third time. He defended his crown against Jean Marie Emebe, again at Market Square Arena. In 1986, he faced Stewart again, this time in Trinidad. Stewart got some revenge by stopping Johnson in eight. Johnson decided to retire after the fight. He was thirty-three.
There are regrets.
“When I retired, it was not hard,” Johnson said. ”It was disappointing. I was disappointed in retiring because I didn’t make the money that I thought I’d make. I wanted to buy my wife an amazing house. Tell her to stop working.”
But giving up something you love is always hard.
“I loved boxing to the point where it hated me,” said Johnson. “I mean it hurt me. I grew to love boxing more then I should have.”
It’s time the voters at the International Boxing Hall of Fame show Marvin Johnson some love by voting him into the hall. The way he battled back from losses is hardly common, it’s pretty dang extraordinary. He ignored those who said he was done, and in something that shocked most, won a world title for the third time. He was, and always will be, a fighter, who earned his titles through blood and guts.
He should be recognized, now.