Whilst pondering over the potential outcome of Saturday’s match up between the world’s two best light heavyweights, I was again reminded that in boxing, more than in any other sport, the least likely of dreams come true. No matter what century, country or weight division, boxing finds a way to defy all usually reliable logic. For Antonio Tarver, great things were always expected, even if he did take a little longer to get there than he might have hoped. For an explanation of his opponent’s rise to the top, I had to dig through pugilistic history to come up with a precedent. The career of Glencoffe Johnson brings to mind a fighter who trod a similar path to the world title more than seventy years ago. After defeating the odds on favorite, Max Baer for the heavyweight championship of the world, James. J. Braddock became known as the "Cinderella Man."
Like Johnson, Braddock was a rank outsider in all his major fights. After unsuccessful attempts to win the light heavyweight title, Braddock went on to shock the world as a massive underdog against Baer. James started his career promisingly enough in the late 1920's, being unbeaten in his first twenty three bouts leading up to his title challenges. After his second defeat, Braddock rapidly descended into the journeyman category. In the first three years of the 1930's he had an uninspiring record of won ten, lost sixteen. With a family to feed in the dark years of the American depression he decided that he could not afford to pursue his dream any longer and quit the sport. After two years, Braddock returned to the ring. After a few surprise wins against fringe contenders he gained an unlikely shot at the hard-hitting Baer. Going into the fight Braddock was a ten to one shot to win the title. Amazingly, the New Jersey native outworked and out punched the champion on the way to a fifteen-round points decision. From then on Braddock would forever be known as the "Cinderella Man."
Alas poor Jim, in his first defense against Joe Louis, the clock struck midnight and he turned back into a pumpkin on the way to an eighth round knockout defeat at the youthful hands of the “Brown Bomber.” The legacy of Braddock was that for years to come all upsets were compared to the night the “Cinderella Man” finally went to the ball. Seventy years on and the Glencoffe Johnson story has amazing parallels. After twelve years as a professional, losing nine times, Johnson finally got the glass slipper to fit and won the light heavyweight title. Like his predecessor of the thirties, he had to take a long and at times not particularly scenic route to get there. After a promising start to his career in the paid ranks, Glencoffe challenged Bernard Hopkins for the Philadelphian's middleweight crown and was soundly worked over until being stopped in the eleventh. Far from discouraging the Miami based Jamaican, the defeat encouraged him to rededicate himself to his trade.
The following years saw Johnson defeated another eight times. He fought mainly on the road and some of the decisions that went against him varied from the debatable to the indefensible. Still he persevered with his dream until he was scheduled to fight Britain's Clinton Woods in an eliminator for the IBF world title. Politics being what they are, the bout was changed from being an eliminator to being for the actual title. After seeming to outwork Woods for twelve rounds, Johnson was disappointed but not particularly surprised when the hometown fighter was awarded a charitable draw. Glencoffe may have been reminded of the old New York Yankee named Yogi Berra who among other gems, was attributed with the adage, "It's like De Ja Vous, all over again." Unperturbed by the previous outcome, Johnson returned to England and this time was awarded a clear points win. At last the James. J. Braddock of his generation had attained his goal. Would Johnson, like Braddock be satisfied with one night at the ball andthen return to where he came from?
This is where any similarities in the two fighter’s careers end. In his first defense Johnson could have been expected to look for an easy payday against a has-been or a never-was. Not for Johnson, he went straight after known puncher and undefeated Joe Calzaghe. When the Welshman pulled out of two agreed dates, Johnson readily agreed to a challenge from the almost legendary Roy Jones Jr. Although Jones had been spectacularly KO'd by Antonio Tarver he was still regarded as too good for a journeyman-come-good like Johnson. Johnson put on a career defining performance, thoroughly beating up the ex-heavyweight champion before stopping him in the ninth.
So what will happen in the battle of the legend slayers? If we go by their respective performances against Roy Jones, at first glance it appears to favor Tarver, who disposed of Jones seven rounds earlier. This however may be misleading. As a wise man once said "There are lies, damn lies and statistics." Tarver took Jones out with one shot, while Johnson took Jones to school, beating him in every department before finishing him. Johnson is not noted as a particularly devastating one-punch finisher, but is more likely to prevail with steady pressure and a wearing down process. In contrast, Tarver is a skilled boxer who can knock out any light heavyweight in the world if he catches them clean. So Johnson has to be on top of his game for twelve rounds and maybe Tarver only has to get through once. Add to this Tarver's awkward southpaw stance and superior boxing skills and I see a hard night's work for Johnson. If he is to prevail, Glencoffe must get in close and pressure Antonio; to discourage this Tarver must catch him hard on the way in and get the Jamaican's respect early.
Unfortunately for Johnson, I can see Tarver executing his plan and boxing his way to a comfortable points win or possibly a late round stoppage. The modern day "Cinderella Man" will discover that this fairytale will have no happy ending.
Patrick Gibbons can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org