Marvin Johnson - A Three Time Division Champion! Interview by Ken Hissner (Aug 27, 2010) Doghouse Boxing
I was given a strange question upon interviewing Marvin Johnson. He asked “why did you want to do a story on me?” This was from a Bronze medalist in the 1972 Olympics in Germany who won two National Golden Gloves and one AAU title’s to get there. From a man who won the WBC title and after losing it won the WBA title twice to become the light heavyweights first three time division champion. I was almost speechless and believe me my colleagues would love to see that happen more often.
Marvin Johnson was born and raised in Indianapolis, Indiana. At the age of fifty-five he still lives there. He won twenty fights there only losing once. He wanted to end his career there but somehow a poor country like Trinidad and Tobago came up with over three times the offer.
Johnson won the light heavyweight National Golden Gloves in 1971 in Fort Worth, TX, at sixteen years of age. He went on to win the National AAU title the same year. In 1972 he dropped down to middleweight and won the Golden Gloves in Minneapolis, MN. In that same year as a member of the Olympic team he drew a bye, defeated Ewald Jarmer (W. Germany) and Alejandro Montoya (Cuba) by 5-0 decisions. In the fourth round he lost to eventual Gold medalists Vyacheslav Lemeshev (Soviet Union) by TKO in 2 to earn a Bronze medal in the middleweight division. “Champ Chaney felt with being only three pounds over the middleweight limit and having defeated Lemeshev before it would be best to drop down a division. Besides, Ray Russell at 178 in our trials would be a tougher opponent I felt than Lemeshev. What I felt beat me was in my prior fight with the Cuban it took too much out of me,” said Johnson. “Marvin was a left handed boxer who could punch hard. He was an outstanding boxer with a great attitude,” said Davey Armstrong. This is from a two time Olympian who was Johnson’s teammate in 1972.
Johnson, a southpaw, turned professional with his career trainer Champ Chaney by his side on May twenty-second in 1973. He scored knockouts in his first six fights before defeating the Canadian champion Gary Summerhays, 22-6-2, over ten rounds. Four more knockouts followed including over Ray Anderson, 36-17-4. In his twelfth fight he traveled to Philadelphia for the first time stopping Wayne McGee, 4-2-1, who had defeated and drew with Matthew Franklin aka Matthew Saad Muhammad. “Before he boxed Wayne Magee I flew to about ten different cities looking for talent over a thirty day period and saw Marvin fight on the first leg of the trip in Indy with no direction and no help,” said J Russell Peltz. Like his trainer, this promoter would be there to the end of Johnson’s career.
After posting fifteen straight wins, twelve by knockout, Johnson fought for the NABF title against Philadelphia’s Matthew Saad Muhammad, 15-3-2, at the Spectrum in Philadelphia, in July of 1977. “He was a very well conditioned fighter,” said Johnson. So was Johnson but there was something exceptional about Saad’s ability to come back when hurt. Johnson suffered his first career loss being technically stopped in the twelfth and final round. “He gave me my toughest fights,” said Johnson.
In November of 1977 Johnson returned to Philadelphia to meet another “outsider” who the fan’s in Philadelphia “adopted”, Billy “Dynamite” Douglas, 35-13-1, father of the future heavyweight champion “Buster” Douglas. Johnson scored a fifth round technical stoppage. “If I caught him earlier in his career it would have been like fighting Saad Muhammad. Douglas had lost to Saad in his previous fight but had him down.
In April of 1978 Johnson stopped New York’s unbeaten Eddie Davis, 10-0-1, in their first meeting, in the seventh round. The following month he won a decision over the 1968 Olympic Bronze medalist Johnny Baldwin, 32-3, of TX, and also a southpaw. The next month Johnson traveled to the Red Star Stadium, Belgrade, Serbia. He would meet Lottie Mwale, 7-0, with six knockouts, before 40,000 people on the undercard of Mate Parlov and John Conteh for the WBC cruiserweight championship. Mwale was from Zambia, and to this day is considered the greatest fighter to ever come out of his country. “He was a good fighter and fast,” said Johnson.
Three months later Johnson would bounce back when he traveled to the hometown of Jerry Celestine, 15-1-1, at the Superdome, New Orleans, LA. Celestine had won his last fifteen fights. Johnson got back in the win column over ten rounds. At the end of the year in his next fight Johnson would get his first title bout against southpaw Mate Parlov, 22-1-1, the WBC holder, in Sicilia, Italy. The champion was the 1972 Olympic Gold medalist in the light heavyweight division, and won the 1974 World championship in Havana, Cuba, ending with a 257-19 amateur record. In his last bout he defeated Conteh for the WBC title. Parlov’s loss and draw was against Saad Muhammad. Johnson would win his first world title stopping Parlov in the tenth round earning 50k. It was quite an accomplishment for Johnson.
In Johnson’s first title defense he was re-matched with Saad Muhammad, now 22-3-1 (ten in a row), in Indianapolis. “I didn’t want him in my first defense but Peltz (promoter J Russell Peltz) said I would have to meet him next anyway and it brought the most money. I always wondered if I took my time more how it would have turned out,” said Johnson. To that, Muhammad put so much pressure on you it wasn’t easy to take one’s time. Johnson was stopped in the eighth round, losing his title. Johnson was winning the early part of the fight and had Muhammad’s nose bleeding and cuts over both eyes. But he would not be denied. “Johnson was the best fighter I ever fought,” said Muhammad. Johnson would receive 75k for this defense.
After a ten round win Johnson was matched with the WBA champion, Victor Galindez, 55-7-4, of Argentina, as part of three title matches in the Superdome, in New Orleans, in November of 1979. Galindez had gone from 1972 to 1978 without losing a fight until he was stopped by Mike Rossman. Galindez was in much better shape for the rematch in 1979 stopping Rossman and regaining the title. Both Rossman fights were in the Superdome.
“I was very well trained and in good shape. I avoided his punches for he was very sneaky,” said Johnson. The fight would go back and fourth until the eleventh round when Johnson landed an overhand left dropping Galindez. His corner had seen enough and stopped the fight making Johnson a two time champion winning the WBA title. “I was proud of that victory. I felt good in beating him. I felt like I really beat somebody. He was the best fighter I ever beat,” said Johnson.
Four months later Johnson was defending against Eddie Mustafa Muhammad, 35-4-1, in Knoxville, TN, in March of 1980 on the undercard of Tate-Weaver’s heavyweight title bout. In 1977 Mustafa had a nine bout win streak snapped, including a win over Saad Muhammad, when he came off the canvas to lose a highly disputed decision to Galindez in Italy. Another seven wins and he lost to James Scott in Rahway Prison. Now he was on a six fight win streak. Like Johnson and Marvin Hagler, Mustafa as Eddie Gregory had gained fame fighting in Philadelphia. He was a boxer-puncher who was a very dangerous foe. Johnson was behind on all scorecards when he was technically stopped in the eleventh round. “I was surprised I held up that long. He was a great guy and good fighter,” said Johnson.
Things looked bleak for Johnson who rebounded with three knockout wins over losing record boxers. He was matched with the 1976 Olympic Gold medalist, Michael Spinks, 15-0, in Atlantic City. Spinks stopped Johnson in the fourth round to gain a title bout with Mustafa Muhammad and become WBA champion. “Spinks fight was good money and a chance to get back in line,” said Peltz. Johnson took a year off to re-group. Over the next thirty months he won eight straight including defeating Eddie Gonzales, 22-4, Jerome Clouden, 19-2 and Johnny Davis, 16-6.
On May of 1984 Johnson earned the comeback of the year award by Ring Magazine posting six wins including future champion “Prince” Charles Williams, 12-3-2, in November. “He was the friendliest boxer I ever fought. After the decision was announced he was still jumping around. I wondered who won the fight?” said Johnson. Seems Williams knew he lost but also knew he could hang with the best and go on to win ten straight and defeat Bobby Czyz for the IBF title in 1987. Johnson’s promoter knew even in defeat Williams had great potential. “I signed Williams within a week or two after the fight,” said Peltz.
In 1985 Johnson would win four straight including Charles Henderson, 16-4, and in a rematch with Eddie Davis, now 29-4-1, for the USBA title. With Michael Spinks moving up to heavyweight defeating Larry Holmes in back to back fights for the title, the WBA light heavyweight title was vacant. It was February of 1986 and Johnson was matched with Leslie Stewart, 18-0, of Trinidad and Tobago, in Indianapolis. Stewart was not an easy opponent for Johnson but cuts got the best of his opponent and Johnson, ahead on all scorecards was declared the winner in the seventh round to become the first three time champion in the light heavyweight division.
It would be seven months before Johnson would fight again due to an injury. His opponent would be Jean-Marie Emebe, 24-2, of the Cameroon, living in France. The defense would take place in Indianapolis in September of 1986. Emebe had won twelve of his last thirteen bouts. Johnson would stop Emebe in the thirteenth round for his sixteenth straight win. He was ahead on all scorecards by several points.
A rematch with Stewart was proposed some eight months later. Stewart was unbeaten in five bouts since their first fight and Johnson only had fought the Emebe bout. “When the bids went out Indianapolis only came up with 75k,” said Johnson. This was the same amount back in 1979 for the Saad Muhammad rematch some eight years before. Johnson was disappointed but the Trinidad and Tobago people came up with a 265k offer to hold the fight at the National Stadium, Port-of-Spain, Trinidad and Tobago in May of 1987. “Stewart became the mandatory and Trinidad outbid us and it was Marvin’s biggest purse. ABC televised the fight and Stewart’s promoter outbid us at the purse bids in Venezuela,” said Peltz. It was a shame his biggest purse didn’t come until his last fight but that happens. “I believe I over trained with so much time on my hands,” said Johnson. “I even felt like I needed to rest the day I fought,” he added. Johnson was down several times in the early rounds. At the end of the eighth round and needing a knockout to win Johnson retired in the corner. He not only ended the fight but he ended his boxing career almost fourteen years to the day on May twenty-third of 1987.
Johnson’s final record was 43-6, with thirty-eight knockouts. In 2008 he was inducted into the World Boxing Hall of Fame. “I have been an officer at the Marion County Sheriff’s Department for twenty-five years since retiring from boxing,” said Johnson. I asked how his frame of mind was today. “I am very happy taking care of my wife Dolores. She is very supportive. Taking care of her is my priority,” said Johnson. I asked him how he was able to get through so many tough battles in the ring. “God is the ultimate and has priority over the lives of my wife and me. She gave up a lot when I was fighting and now its time for me to take care of her. I pray God will continue to direct our lives,” said Johnson.
There was such humbleness in this great three time champion’s voice as he mentioned the passing of Champ Chaney, his long time trainer. Having done a story on his teammate “Sugar” Ray Seales who was the lone Gold medalist on the 1972 Olympic team I knew the two of them were in touch with each other since Seales now lives in Indianapolis. “I live about two miles from Ray. We both attend the Shining Star Missionary Baptist church,” said Johnson. I also did a story on Davey Armstrong from the 1972 team who also was a member of the great 1976 team. I remember Duane Bobick having beaten the Cuban Teofilo Stevenson in the 1971 Pan Am Games only to lose in the Olympics to the same. I also remember Houston’s Jesse Valdez of the Air Force getting robbed of a championship round in his battle with another Cuban, settling for a bronze medal. Like Johnson he had a tougher fight the one before against a boxer from Chile. Ricardo Carreras of the Air Force from New York also won a bronze. Marvin Johnson was a major contributor to that team and a man who will always be known as a “three time winner”!
“My trainer Champ Chaney set the kind of example I wish I could show my kids. I looked up to him as a father figure though I had one, and a teacher. He allowed me to come to his house and was concerned about my education. When he passed I hated to see him go. Even though he had Alzheimer he would smile when I talked about boxing on my visits. He was a special guy,” said Johnson. Chaney wasn’t the only special guy. There are many, including this writer that would say Marvin Johnson is a special guy!
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