Tris Dixon stops by Marvin Johnson's house on Thanksgiving Day
Friday, 06 June 2008 | 0 comments
IN 2003, I was passing through Indianapolis and stopped off to look for arguably its most famous fighter.
I knew he was now involved in law enforcement. Aside from that I had little information.
I tried the phone book and there were several M Johnsons.
I tried them all, with no luck. Marvin Johnson wasn't an easy man to find.
According to the other M Johnsons listed, their phones had often rung with people trying to find the three-time light-heavyweight champ and 1972 Olympic bronze medallist.
After a few calls, I got his voicemail at the Sheriff's Department where he works, ensuring inmates have an hour's recreation each day.
I must have left half a dozen messages and waited and waited. I left empty-handed. However, a year later I was passing through again and tried to make contact. "Are you the guy that came up here last year?" he said in his deep, gravelly voice. Maybe my perseverance paid off. He collected me from the Greyhound bus station and even invited me, a stranger off the streets, back for Thanksgiving dinner with his family. We talked for hours.
Marvin regretted his career. It was in his past where he wanted it to stay. When he turned pro, he wanted to make $1m and not have to work afterwards.
He didn't make $1m so he seemed to consider his decorated career a pointless exercise. "If I was going to be successful," Marvin said, "I wanted to make sure I did everything I was supposed to do. I needed to give my full and undivided attention to the fight game." That meant no Plan B.
Having seen blood rivals like Aaron Pryor and Alexis Arguello, and Micky Ward and Arturo Gatti, become firm friends, I asked him what he would do if he saw arch-enemy Matthew Saad Muhammad walking in the street outside his home. "I would just let him walk right on by," Marvin said. "It's over now. You've got to get on with life." He fought two phenomenal wars with Saad (then Franklin), losing first the NABF title and then the WBC crown to the Philadelphian orphan.
Days later I was in Minneapolis with Marvin's 1972 Olympic teammate Duane Bobick. He asked for Marvin's number and called him after I left town.
They caught up and after two bolts from the blue - first me, then Duane - Marvin's stance on his past began to soften. Now, whatever burden he was carrying a few years ago seems to have been lightened. He's a happy man. Content. He is still working, aged 53, and probably will be for at least another five years.
His wars from a golden era in the division were more than 20 years ago. He fought Saad (l rsf 12 & 8) in two epics, lost to Eddie Mustafa Muhammad (ko 11) and to Michael Spinks (ko 4). He won his three titles against Mate Parlov (rsf 10), Victor Galindez (ko 11) and turned back the clock to outpoint then-unbeaten Leslie Stewart in 1986.
"Galindez is the one fight where I showed I was more of a mastermind because he was regarded as a great champion," recalled the southpaw, who retired with 43 wins (35 inside) and six losses.
"It wasn't just toe-to-toe slugging. I had to use my skills, so that's the fight I'm proudest of. "The Saad fights were more glorified by the public. Without a doubt he was my toughest opponent but I liked the Galindez fight the best."
Unlike other members of that era, including Saad, Galindez (who died in a car crash in 1980 - aged 31 - when a rematch was on the cards) and Dwight Qawi, Johnson has yet to be inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in Canastota. Yet the resentment is fading. Around two years ago he, along with Eddie Mustafa and "Yaqui" Lopez attended Saad's induction into the Pennsylvania Boxing Hall of Fame.
"I tell you it was so great," Marvin said afterwards. "It was a much different atmosphere to when we were fighting because then it was all about business. I hadn't seen those guys in so many years."
He went with his wife of 29 years, Delores, with whom he has four children (three sons, one daughter - all in their twenties). Two years ago they adopted a girl (now aged 16) they are bringing up.
He enjoyed the festivities at the World Boxing Hall of Fame (WBHOF) in California last month. "I thought it was great. I loved it. It brought back a lot of memories from years ago," he said. "When you start talking about my generation, then I get more interested about boxing. Today, I stay away from it [boxing]. I don't go to shows or the gyms.
"But when we start talking about my generation and "Yaqui" Lopez and Larry Holmes [who were both inducted this year], that's more my sort of thing."
Perhaps a plaque with Marvin's name and image on will find its way on to the Hall of Fame walls in the near future, something he would love. But either way he's happy.
"I just thank the Lord because I have been blessed," he said.