Callum Johnson: “I’ve Still Got Time.”
By Cameron Temple
“My professional career hasn’t really gone how I thought it would’ve done, but I’ve still got time.” Like many boxers, Callum Johnson’s career has featured a series of highs and lows.
Although, perhaps the extremities of these highs and lows have been more severe for him than most.
When Callum first burst onto the professional boxing scene, he was brimming with potential, coming off the back of a successful amateur career, with a Commonwealth games gold medal to his name.
In his corner he had assembled an excellent team made up of his promoter at the time, Frank Warren, his trainer, Joe Gallagher and his former manager Naseem Hamed, who predicted Callum would knockout his first ten opponents and be a world champion within three years.
That was not quite the reality of the situation, as Callum explained:
“I only ended up having six fights in the first three years, but that was purely through no fault of my own. It’s a period in my career where I don’t think too much about it now, because it didn’t go to plan and it didn’t go how I thought it would, but I can’t change it, so I don’t worry about it.”
In 2016, Callum’s career looked to be building some momentum, as he won the Commonwealth title, by knocking out Willbeforce Shihepo in Manchester, before his life was thrown into disarray due to his dad’s passing:
“My dad is my biggest influence,” Callum said, “he always was, always has been and always will be. Ever since I was a young kid, I always idolised my dad and I wanted to make him proud and impress him. I think it was a mutual thing, I think he felt the same about me and wanted to make me proud of him and impress me. We really were best mates and although he’s not here now, he’ll always be my biggest influence because of what he taught me and what he always told me I could do and what he believed I could do.”
Not only was Callum’s dad his biggest influence, but he was also the man who introduced him to boxing:
“I would always mess around with my dad, punching his hands and sparring and things like that. I had my first amateur fight when I was twelve, I used to bug my dad all the time asking him to take me to the gym and as soon as I was old enough, I went.”
After eighteen months out of the ring, Callum returned in spectacular fashion, knocking out Frank Buglioni in the first round at the O2 arena to claim the British title, a victory that brought Callum immense satisfaction.
“That was my career highlight,” Callum revealed, “getting back in the ring after my dad passing and going through a really tough time in my life. I had eighteen months out the ring due to personal demons that I couldn’t deal with. So, the highlight for me is getting back in the ring and overcoming what I overcame.”
“Although my dad’s not here to see it,” Callum continued, “he always knew I’d do it, so that’s what drives me on. I’ve still not quite done it yet, but it does bring me some satisfaction and I think my dad would be proud of me the fact that I’ve carried on without him. I’m not shy to admit I’ve always been a daddy’s boy, even as a thirty-year-old man, I was always in his pocket, I always felt safe.”
For many fighters, eighteen months out of the ring would prove too much, as ring rust or a lack of fitness would catch up with them:
Fortunately, for Callum, this is not a problem he suffers:
“People talk about ring rust, but I don’t think there’s any such thing. If you’re sparring and training and you’re sharp in the gym, then you should be sharp in the ring. It is different, but it’s only different mentally, so if you can control your mind for that occasion and if you can bring your gym work to the ring then how can you have ring rust when you’ve had a hundred rounds of sparring.
“I know he’s the best fighter of our era, but look at Mayweather. How many times did he have two years out of the ring, come back, and look as good as he’s ever looked? So, I used to say if he can do it then so can I and I proved myself right on that occasion. I didn’t surprise myself in the way I beat him, because I thought I would do that anyway, we expected an early night with Frank if I’m honest.”
Following the Buglioni fight, Callum took on his biggest challenge yet, travelling to Chicago to take on light heavyweight number one and pound for pound ranked, Artur Beterbiev, as they competed for the IBF world title.
It was a thrilling contest, with both men going down in the first two rounds, before it was all over in the fourth. Callum shared his thoughts on the fight:
“I think the game plan went out the window from day one, because I let the occasion get to me a bit if I’m honest, I was very nervous and tense. That first round knockdown was half illegal in my opinion, because the ref shouted stop and I thought I was safe and then he knocked me into next week. From that moment I was very unclear of what was going on, I was tentative, but I still had the aggression. It’s hard to put into words how I felt and how I was feeling during it.”
Despite falling short both Callum and his trainer, Joe Gallagher, want the rematch and believe the result would be different a second time around:
“I genuinely believe I could beat the guy. He’s the best in the division bar none, he’s ranked in the pound for pound top ten now and he’s just a monster, but I genuinely believe I’ve got what it takes to beat him, and Joe does as well. I know I’ve said it a few times and Joe’s said it a few times, but I’ve not had the constant fights and activity for people to see what I’m really capable of doing.”
As well as Beterbiev, Callum has his eye on a number of the other fighters in his weight division, especially domestically:
“I believe on my day I can beat anyone in the world, but I’m also realistic and there’s a few of them out there who have the beating of me as well. So, I’ve never had that delusion of invincibility, but you do have to have the confidence that you’re a hard man to beat as well. I think there are four or five fighters in the world who I could fight and it really just depends how it goes on that particular day.
“It’s the same if you look at the domestic scene, there’s Anthony Yarde, who I think is very much overrated, but don’t take it away from him he’s still a top fighter. Buatsi is another one, he’s very good, but he’s got that hyped up name. He has done everything right so far, but he’s not been tested yet, and that doesn’t mean he can’t do it, I believe he can and that he’s a top level, world class fighter himself. So, I do see me and Buatsi as the best two out there in Britain and I’m sure that fight will happen very soon.”
Shortly after the Beterbiev loss, Callum bounced back in spectacular fashion, with what he described as a “career best performance,” knocking out Sean Monaghan in the third round, as he began to gain the momentum he had craved throughout his career.
However, this momentum was quickly curtailed once again by yet another injury, as well as the current pandemic, which seems to have left not one life undisrupted.
Nonetheless, Callum has managed to maintain motivation and fitness throughout lockdown and despite being of an age where questions start coming about retirement, Callum has no plans to hang up the gloves just yet.
“As I feel right now, I feel like I could go on forever,” Callum revealed, “but things can change overnight. I’m pretty confident I’ve got enough left in me for two or three years at least. I’ve always lived clean and I’ve not had a busy career or loads of fights, so I’m still fresh, I’ve only had one tough fight. I’ve got no miles on the clock and I’ve never been a drinker or took any drugs or anything like that, I’ve always kept myself clean and healthy.
“You look at fighters now who are in their late thirties or forties and they’re world champions, and granted we’re talking about the best in the world, but if they can perform at that age, then why can’t I, that’s the way I look at it. I know the way I feel and I don’t feel like I’m an old man, far from that, I’m genuinely fitter and stronger than I’ve ever been and that’s the truth.”
If all goes well, Callum’s skills may be required sooner than expected, as Eddie Hearn recently announced Matchroom’s return to boxing in the form of ‘fight camp.’
The ‘camp’ would be four weeks long, with a fight card every weekend, culminating in the eagerly anticipated Whyte vs Povetkin card. Hearn has said he hopes to keep the undercard intact, which currently consists of Katie Taylor vs Amanda Serrano and Callum Johnson vs Igor Mikhalkin for the European title.
“I think Mikhalkin is a top fighter, he’s very good.” Callum said, “He’s been European champion before, but he lost to Kovalev for the world title, but he was very active and competitive in that fight. He only got stopped by a cut, so I know I’m up against it. He’s a Russian so he’ll be tough, but I’ve seen bits of him and he doesn’t look like he’s the super strong and powerful usual type of Russian that you can get. He’s very good though so I know I’ll have to give him my very best, but I intend on being at my very best, so I believe I win that fight and that I get him out of there.”
While this would be a welcome return to the ring for Callum, ultimately it is not his final goal, as he still strives to defy his age and become a world champion.
Such an achievement would be well deserved and a fitting end to a career that has been undeniably tough and interrupted, but has also provided moments of pure inspiration, and in the words of Callum himself, “I’ve still got time.”