KEVIN JOHNSON vs DAMIAN WILLS

JOHNSON: He's set the bar high. / Photo: HOWARD SCHATZ
Location: 
DORAVILLE, GA, Aug. 3
Graham's Odds: 
Johnson -400; Wills +250
Over 9.5 -185; under 9.5 +155

Confidence is a great thing, and Kevin “Kingpin” Johnson has it in abundance. The unbeaten, 6ft 5ins heavyweight sees himself as a boxer with the skills and grounding of the old-school champions.

To hear Johnson talk, he can outbox anyone in the division. He is 27 and impatient for the big fights. He sees Friday’s 10-round ShoBox main event against Damian “Bolo” Wills as just a step on the path to greatness.

So far in his career, though, I have to say Johnson has reminded me a little of Larry Donald, a clever heavyweight with a fine left jab who failed at the top level — come to think of it, Larry was quite loquacious, too.

Johnson will tell you that he is more like another Larry — the great Larry Holmes that is. “Larry Holmes’s brother, Floyd Holmes, used to train me,” Johnson said over the phone during a break in training last week, “and I used to work with his other brother, Mark Holmes, and I used to spar with Mark Holmes. Some of my best inspiration comes from studying Larry Holmes and Muhammad Ali tapes, because I’m a throwback to the old days back to the new days.”

Damian Wills — son of former heavyweight Mark Wills — has a respectable record of 22 wins and a draw in 24 fights but Johnson said: “He’s just another fighter in the heavyweight division. There’s a whole bunch of them now. They’re not even actual boxers. Last night I was watching ESPN Classic, Evander Holyfield fighting George Foreman — now that was boxing. Just because you’re a big guy who can punch don’t make you a boxer.

“He’s nowhere near the level I’m on. This fight is gonna be just like the rest of the fights. Everybody goes: ‘Well, we need to get Kevin Johnson a higher level of competition — oh, now we need to go to another level.’ All these fights are going to be so easy for me, because I have what these fighters don’t really have, I have been training like they used to train back in the day. I’m not some half-hearted fighter just playing around in the gym because he’s a big guy that somebody seen on the street. No, I went to school, sparring with the top heavyweights for six and a half years — and still going.

“These guys, they’ve got none of the schooling I have. I’ve worked with Wladimir Klitschko, Nikolai Valuev, Ruslan Chagaev, Alexander Povetkin, numerous of the Russians and Germans — Sauerland Event used to put me up in Berlin. I’ve worked with Jameel McCline. My first night in the gym I was sparring with Art Tucker back in 1997.” (Tucker, for those who might not know, was a hard-hitting former convict from Asbury Park who was once considered a prospect.)

Obviously, then, Johnson can be considered a top-level gym fighter. How about the real thing? So far, so good. Apart from a draw with the more experienced Timor Ibragimov in his fourth fight, a bout he believes he won, he has dominated everyone.

People might wonder if Johnson can take a punch, but he says they will never find out. “You’ve got to be a fool to stand in front of somebody and take a hit,” he said. “I will never, in my boxing history, stand in front of somebody and let them hit me with a solid punch. The majority of the time I move with it, I roll with it, my hands are up, my defence is tight.”

His talk seems over the top but his feet are on the ground. He is a single father, raising an eight-year-old daughter in Atlanta although he trains in New Jersey — “I’m from Asbury Park by way of Atlanta”. He says the work ethic was instilled in him by his mother, Darlene, and his late grandmother.

“My grandmother was my heart, may she rest in peace, but my mother is my biggest inspiration,” he said. “I was born and raised in New Jersey but came up with a Southern background. The way we was brought up was with a mother, grandmother, no father, a lot of sisters and brothers, and we grounded ourselves with all the love we could. A low-income family — mom worked two jobs, my grandmother worked one job, we didn’t have the fanciest clothes but by the time mom and grandmom came home we had a meal on the table. I was able to take custody of my daughter at 26 years old because I had a beautiful grounding coming from my mother. I’m raising my daughter to be the best, most successful daughter that one man could ever raise.”

So when you cut through the chat you can warm to the likeable side of Johnson.

The chat keeps coming, though. “I’ve had six weeks of intense training,” he said. “I went out and worked with Chris Arreola for two weeks in L.A., and he stopped Damian Wills. Chris and me are gonna clean up the heavyweight division and be the last guys standing, and when we fight it’s gonna be one of the best fights ever made.

“I’m looking to fight a tough fighter after I’m done with Bolo, and then another, and another after that. After I crack the top 10 these guys can’t duck and dodge me.”

On Friday he predicts a one-sided win. “Either he’s gonna quit or the fight’s gonna be stopped,” he said. “I’m bringing my whole arsenal out for this fight. He’s way out of his league.”

Johnson’s line of patter is entertaining, but will the fight match the flow of words? The last time I saw Johnson he was not exactly Mr. Excitement in outboxing the trial horse Robert Hawkins.

Wills is unlikely to win but I think that on sheer heart and determination he can put up a respectable fight, maybe a better one than Johnson would have you believe. The 27-year-old from Lancaster, CA, is a big man at 6ft 4ins and 250-plus pounds. He was hammered in seven rounds by Arreola in his biggest fight, true, but last August he gave a willing, consistent type of performance in outpointing the capable journeyman Cisse Salif. My notes on Wills that night: “Solid guy, nothing exceptional.”

Johnson should be able to outbox the slower Wills — Johnson’s left jab alone can see him through. If he can do what he says he is going to do and stop Wills it will be a noteworthy performance, although as Johnson has halted only six opponents in 16 fights he would not appear to be a seriously hard hitter. (Then again, he would say he hasn't had to be a hard hitter.)

I am not sure how much of what Johnson says is tongue-in-cheek and how much he truly believes. He is a great self-promoter (Joe DeGuardia of Star Boxing does the actual promoting), and I think Johnson realises that making comments that might seem outrageous is a good way to get noticed.

A points win seems more likely than a stoppage on Friday, but Johnson does seem determined to make a statement. He has set the bar high, and I for one am interested to see if he can perform up to his own level of expectation.

Last Updated: 
July 30, 2007 - 2:41pm