This Saturday night marks another fresh start in the career of Callum Johnson.
The 35-year-old light heavyweight will put to bed an absence of over two years which began after he walked through veteran Seanie Monaghan in New York on a Matchroom USA promotion. The show was headlined by Dmitry Bivol defending his WBA 175lb title against Joe Smith Jr.
That was March 2019. April 2021 sees Bivol still in an unthreatened position as WBA champion while Smith has reached a career pinnacle winning the WBO crown. Callum Johnson hopes his road to a second world title shot culminates in facing Smith. That trek begins under Frank Warren’s Queensbury Promotions banner against Emil Markic for the WBO Global light heavyweight title this weekend on BT Sport.
“It’s been a long time coming,” Johnson told Boxing Social a few days ago.
“It’s getting exciting now. Getting a few butterflies and can’t wait now to get in the bubble and get that fight week feel.”
Butterflies? Seems unusual to associate such an emotion with a knockout artist who tells it how it is.
“I think more than anything else it’s because it has been so long,” he responds. “It’s kind of like wow I’m finally at a fight week. It’s been that long, and I doubted at one point whether I was going to experience a fight week again. Now we’re here.”
Johnson’s career to date can be filed in the inactive and spectacular sections of boxing’s databases. December 2010 in Glasgow was the opening night of his professional act having won gold in the Commonwealth Games that summer in India. Twenty-five years old he was then, managed by the colourful Naseem Hamed and had joined the ranks of Frank Warren’s promotional stable.
“It’s fantastic to turn professional under Frank Warren who is the man to guide me to achieve my dream – to become world champion,” Johnson said at the time.
Hamed disappeared before the partnership got going and the Johnson-Warren association didn’t amount to what many had hoped. Water under the bridge it seems.
In February Johnson reunited with Warren. Two years of frustration had come to an end. Uncle Frank brought Callum on board to form an interesting light heavyweight trio in his ranks featuring Anthony Yarde and the blossoming Lyndon Arthur.
“It was a weight lifted off my shoulders,” Johnson said about his new promotional deal.
“It gave me direction and it gave me something to get my teeth into and know there’s a plan set now. I’ve been in la-la land for the last 18 months or whatever. To get that plan in place and do a deal it was nice and relieving and refreshing.”
Did he ever expect to re-sign with Warren?
“It’s not something that I ever really thought about a lot,” he answered.
“When it came to the time when I was in no man’s land. I spoke to (trainer and manager) Joe [Gallagher] and said what about speaking to Frank and see if Frank has anything to offer. Frank put an offer to me which was appealing.”
You could have forgiven anyone if they had decided to walk away from the sport if they had been put through the mill the way Johnson has over the years. Injuries, inactivity and the loss of his father have pushed Johnson to the limit of his character and mental strength. And while he was linked with fights against the likes of Bivol and Joshua Buatsi they never looked like materialising for one reason or another. The pandemic that swept through 2020 was the unwanted cherry on top for Johnson and a period that brought his career no reward or return. However, as he told Boxing Social, 2020 was not a complete waste for him.
“I trained very well, I stayed very disciplined and did a lot of good things throughout 2020,” he said. “I never wasted the year, but the downside was I never got a fight. My career stalled but there’s also a lot of positives where I improved myself as a person both mentally and physically. I feel like 2020 wasn’t a wasted year although in terms of getting fights it was but that was through no fault of my own.
“It would have been easy for me to have spat the dummy out, sat on the settee and got fat but I never, I stayed disciplined. I mentally just went through it and did what I had to do because I had no choice. There were two choices: I either had the choice of calling it a day and letting it slip away or staying switched on and doing what needed doing and that’s what I did. Yeah, I never got any fights but if I hadn’t had lived my life the way I did last year I don’t think I’d be fighting on Saturday.”
If Johnson could bottle up his mental strength and sell it, he would be a very rich man. Perhaps it is his perseverance and endurance through rocky times which have built up an inner steel that seemingly cannot be penetrated nowadays. He has never been a man to make a song and dance about issues that have been out of his control. Instead he continued to take on and beat the challenging moments that life throws your way which can make you or break you.
“I think in life you go through experiences and certain things and you kind of become bulletproof,” he says.
“You learn how to deal with certain things that you maybe couldn’t have dealt with a few years ago. You’ve got two choices in life: You either quit and make excuses or feel sorry for yourself or you just crack on and do what needs doing regardless of the result. If you do the first choice you know what the result is gonna be. It’s going to be a result you don’t really want and you’re not going to feel good about yourself, you’re going to be down, you’re going to be depressed and you’re going to be unhappy. If you keep positive and stay active and do what you know you’re supposed to do you’re always going to have that inner peace that you never let yourself down. I never let myself down last year at all and can be happy regardless of what was going on and what was going to happen.”
Johnson repeated the word “choices” throughout this line of questioning. He refused to feel sorry for himself during his time away and improved himself as he alluded to. But it has to have come from somewhere.
“It’s all in your mind,” he believes.
“When we went into the lockdown I sat there and thought I’ve got two choices here. I can dwell on this or just sit on the settee and live a normal life. At the age I was at I didn’t think that would be a good thing to do and I thought I’m going to keep on it, I’m going to stay fresh, stay healthy, I’m going to stay fit and that’s what I did. All the other stuff it’s that mental thing, you have to decide you’re going to do it and just do it. So many days I woke up, and I still do, and think I can’t be bothered. I always say motivation isn’t a real thing, it doesn’t exist, it’s discipline. Discipline is the only thing that will get you anywhere. If you only work when you’re motivated, then you wouldn’t get a lot done.”
To Saturday night then. A fight against the Croatian that he is expected to win comfortably and should do as well. The buzz is back for Johnson. He’s fighting, something he loves. He wants a knockout, something else he loves. He can’t wait to let his hands go, we all love seeing him do that.
Two years away from the sport could build up some bitterness, some anger and frustration. Johnson isn’t an old man but he’s too long in the tooth for that to get the better of him. But whether you are 35 or 25, a former British champion and world title challenger or five-fight novice the pressure is still alive, and Johnson knows that a shock loss to Markic would blow up any hopes of another world title shot.
“We can say there is no pressure but there is,” was Johnson’s own assessment.
“I’ve been out two years. It’s a new promotion, all the eyes are going to be on me, and I’ve got to perform, and I’ve got to look good, and I’ve got to do a good job so there is pressure to do that. But at the same time, I’m just going to enjoy it and do what I do and that’s knock people out and that’s what I’m aiming to do.”
Johnson’s last opponent to not hear the bell was Seanie Monaghan. It was the Brit’s last fight under the Matchroom banner but there was never a contract between them and the fighter. He appeared on some big shows, won the British title in devastating fashion and was helped in securing a world title fight against the formidable Artur Beterbiev. Johnson gave Beterbiev the fright of his career that October night in Chicago. He lost but he won at the same time thanks to his performance even if it is a case of the one that got away. The reality is his career should have kicked on from there. Blame can be appointed but it’s done. For Johnson, it’s done. And there’s no regrets looking back at that time in his career.
“I had some good times there. There’s no hard feelings. Nothing last forever, things change, circumstances change and that’s what happens. It’s just business, it’s just boxing, and people change all the time. It’s not the end of the world. It’s not like I’ve fell out with anyone, it is what it is.”
Another chapter now begins for fans of ‘The One’ to look forward to. A nickname that perhaps hold more nostalgia than anything else. Ten years down the road, things could have been better, but Johnson seems in terrific shape and is talking a good game. The miles on the clock mean if he were a car, you’d be buying something somewhat older but has the kind of bodywork and engine that is still waiting to shine on a beautiful day and give you that great moment flat out. Less than 20 fights but he’s 35-years-old, yet there can’t be many around like Callum Johnson capable of putting brutal dents into other machines despite his out of sync résumé.
“I’ve been around the game a long time. I’m a very experienced man now. A lot of people are done by the time they’re my years but I’m far from done. It’s not ideal I have all this inactivity, it’s not ideal I’ve only had 19 fights but at the same time the way things have gone, the way my life has panned out, the way my career has panned out it’s quite a good thing that I’ve only had that amount of fights. I’ve had inactivity but there are no miles on the clock. It works both ways.”
Saturday shouldn’t add anything to the odometer. Further down the road that will hopefully come with the most important stop, Johnson hopes, against Joe Smith. The 31-year-old edged out a win against Maxim Vlasov earlier this month to win a world title second time around. A feel-good story for the blue-collar New Yorker who owns a timber business. As things stand Smith is the target for Johnson and is prepared to go through any other Queensbury Promotions light heavyweight who gets in his way.
“If I’m honest I favoured Vlasov, I thought Vlasov deserved it,” Johnson said after watching the fight.
“Smith is a good fighter. We know he can punch. We’re all only human and we can all get put on our arses. I do look at him and think I’ve got the beating of him. I don’t see it as an impossible task to beat Joe Smith Jr, not at all, far from it. It’s a fight I would love to get.
“If I can get that world title shot first then I’ll take it but if I have to go through Yarde or Arthur to get it then obviously I’d do that as well. At the same time you do look forward and you do look past fighters even though you shouldn’t but I really have got to concentrate on Saturday because if I don’t do a job on Saturday then nothing else really matters.”