Not long after Paul Johnson began his career as a professional boxer, he learned a lesson all too familiar to many of his predecessors in the racket: A boxer may command his own destiny inside the ring, but outside it he holds little sway. It was 1980, and Johnson had signed on for a bout at the Prom, a then-popular fight venue on University Avenue in St. Paul. As he stepped into the ring, Johnson, a middleweight, boasted a decent record--seven wins, three losses--and a reputation for coming out swinging. "In the first round, I hit the guy with a right hand and hurt him bad," he recalls. "One of my old trainers was working the guy's corner, and he must have said something to him, because then he came out in the second round and I got knocked on my butt. And that was it."
Afterward, a dazed Johnson picked up his check, written out for $125. By the sport's Dickensian standards, that was a pretty typical purse for a nonheadliner in a club fight. Johnson was surprised when the check bounced. After all, the show had been promoted by a local minister. "He was a good guy, so I don't want to say his name. I guess he just ran out of money. But it was a helpless feeling," Johnson says. "I went into the ring, I fought, and then I didn't get paid. After you get knocked out, the last thing you want to do is hassle over money. Who do I go to to say I was robbed?"
As it turned out, nobody. Instead, Johnson took matters into his own hands, driving over to the promoter's home and demanding compensation for his night's work. He wound up recovering only partial payment--75 bucks.
A fit, soft-spoken man with a shock of blond hair and arched eyebrows, Johnson, now 50, concedes that his experience was neither unusual nor particularly scandalous, and he recollects it with an easy laugh and a smile. Still, the episode got him thinking. Why don't prizefighters have a union? If there is any group of laborers out there in need of organizing, Johnson figured, it is boxers. Unlike most professional athletes, fighters ply their often hazardous craft without the benefit of pensions, health plans, or much hope of adequate compensation in the event of serious injury. What's more, over the last few decades, the industry has gone through turbulent changes, most of them bad for the average-joe club fighter. The advent of pay-per-view fights has made some big-name boxers enormously wealthy, but it has become tougher than ever for the vast majority to make a sufficient living; most work day jobs to get by.
Those changes were already under way when Johnson came to boxing. He saw his first live fight as a Marine stationed in Vietnam. After returning to the States, he became both a peace activist and, at the relatively advanced age of 25, a boxer. "People always make the analogy of boxing as war. I disagree," Johnson says. "I think it's more like life. You have goodness and toughness and you try as hard as you can to win. As long you're honest and play by the rules, that's good enough." He speaks often of the transcendence of violence in boxing, the "beautiful" moment at the end of the fight when the victor and the vanquished traditionally hug or shake hands.
But, Johnson says, he has spent enough time in the gyms to recognize the sour side of the sweet science as well. Not long after he got stiffed in St. Paul, he began talking union with fellow fighters. As a career railroad cop with the Burlington Northern-Santa Fe, Johnson understood labor politics. He served two terms as president of the local chapter of the Brotherhood of Railway and Airline Clerks and one term as president of the national. And so, he says, he fired off a letter to his superiors in the railroad union, requesting advice on how best to launch an organizing drive for a boxers' brotherhood.
Johnson was advised to contact Gene Upshaw, president of the NFL's Players Association. Upshaw encouraged him, and with that Johnson commenced a crusade that has occupied the better part of the past two decades. Over that time, he has been busy soliciting everyone who'll listen in his effort to drum up support for the cause: scads of big-name boxers, athletes from other major sports, members of the Screen Actors Guild, assorted union Pooh-Bahs, and an array of boxing literati--from Pete Hamill to Budd Schulberg to Joyce Carol Oates. In 1990 Johnson convinced the United Auto Workers local in Bloomington to donate an office, telephones, and a part-time secretary to what he has dubbed the Boxing Organizing Committee. In 1995 he even cornered Bill Clinton at a campaign stop in Sioux Falls to discuss the fine points of some pending federal boxing legislation.
As it turns out, Johnson made a far more useful contact after attending a reading by Norman Mailer at the Guthrie Theater a few years back. There he told Mailer what he was up to, and the author and fight aficionado directed him to Jose Torres, a well-connected light heavyweight champion of the Sixties with whom Mailer had once sparred.