In This Corner

Put 'em up: Paul Johnson is ready to go the distance for his brothers in the ring
David Kern

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.

Torres was immediately taken with Johnson's pitch, and he was quick to throw his weight behind it. As the former chairman of the New York State Athletic Commission, Torres understood better than many the ways in which boxers can be exploited. And he'd done something about it, having once banned promoter Don King--the most powerful figure in the sport--from staging fights in New York. Torres says he made the move after learning that King and his stepson Carl, who, in the sort of conflict of interest endemic to the sport, manages King's stable of fighters, had enticed Harlem heavyweight Mitch "Blood" Green to sign two contracts--a dummy one drawn up for review by the state commission and a less generous one for the actual payout. After Torres left office, King applied for and received a New York promoter's license once again.

"Boxers are the weakest athletes in the world today," Torres says. "They're not considered relevant in anything connected to the business of boxing. When they fight, where they fight, how much they get paid, they don't have a say in any of it." Instead, prizefighters' careers are generally governed by a triumvirate of feudalistic cabals: television networks, promoters, and the so-called Alphabet Boys--masters of the sport's three major sanctioning entities, the International Boxing Federation (IBF), the World Boxing Council (WBC), and the World Boxing Association (WBA). "As a result," he concludes, "fighters make less money than the promoters, and to me that's absurd. People have always said we should have a union, and now we're getting closer and closer."

Since he first met with Torres, Johnson has recruited some of fistiana's most respected figures to join the Boxing Organizing Committee (including Hall of Fame trainer Irv Abramson and Roy Foreman, brother of noted ex-champ George Foreman); both men say they expect to be mailing out ballots to some 4,500 to 6,000 boxers across the nation before the end of the calendar year.

As Johnson sees it, this is an ideal time for a union push precisely because the sport is in such rough shape. Late last year U.S. attorneys indicted the three top officers of the New Jersey-based IBF on charges that they demanded and received kickbacks to fix rankings. "You have the government and the public saying that boxing is all fucked up, that it's the red-light district of sport, and the government is talking about regulating the sport. With all these problems, this is an opportunity for us," Johnson says. "We think we can be in on the ground floor of the entire reorganization of the sport." A union, he adds, could bring its weight to bear in ways that would benefit both fighters and the fans--specifically, by developing a league-style system to create undisputed world champions. As it stands, each of the three major sanctioning bodies names their own champs. Owing to the rivalries between those bodies, there are just two undisputed titlists in the sport's 17 weight divisions--a development that has made boxing difficult to follow for all but the most devoted fans.

To date, Johnson's efforts have received only modest notice in the boxing press. That, according to boxing historian Bert Sugar, may be due to the considerable skepticism among insiders that anything will come of the union push. "I hate to be a naysayer. I think it's very wonderful and high-minded, but I just don't see it. It's just another wet dream," Sugar sighs. People have been complaining about the exploitation of boxers for decades, he adds, and notes that former heavyweight champion Jack Dempsey--one of the best-known figures in all of professional sports in the first half of the 20th Century--wrote a letter to the New York Times calling for the formation of a boxers' union in 1937. "Nothing came of it. And that was the heyday of unionism. Unionism was in its flower," Sugar observes. "Maybe if boxing were at the top of its game, a union could happen. Sharing wealth is easy then. But boxing is not on top of its game: If 1999 had been a funeral for boxing, it would have been an insult to the deceased."

Others are less pessimistic. "That's the way the old-timers have always thought, and that's been the uphill struggle for Paul since day one," says Scott LeDoux, a former heavyweight contender and current member of the Minnesota Board of Boxing, the state agency that regulates the sport here. "When Paul initially started, I thought, 'This guy has a long way to go, this is never gonna happen.' I couldn't imagine anyone putting the financial and personal effort into it. But he's really done his homework."  

According to Johnson, the Boxing Organizing Committee has already received endorsement from some of the biggest name fighters around, including light heavyweight Roy Jones Jr., who is widely regarded as the best pound-for-pound boxer in the world; former welterweight champion Oscar De La Hoya; Sugar Shane Mosley, a rising star; George Foreman; even Muhammad Ali. The well-connected Torres has brought some other unlikely figures into the fold. Former South African president Nelson Mandela (who was a national champion featherweight as a young man) and former New York mayor David Dinkins have lent their names to the cause as prospective members of the union's Board of Trustees.

"This is gonna happen," Johnson says. "There's a real sense of camaraderie among boxers, whether they're club fighters in the gym or champions. When we get our message out, we're going to explain very carefully what unions are about and why they are significant." To that end, Johnson declares, the committee is planning to make a big public splash with, he says, a televised union-charter signing preceding a title fight sometime in the next few months.

In the Minnesota rings, word of the union drive has been slow to spread. "Fabulous" Fred Moore, a light heavyweight from Rochester whose 21-0 record (19 KOs) has made him one of the state's hottest prospects, says he suspects most fighters would vote to certify a union if they received ballots. "This is a sport where a lot of guys get used up pretty quickly. I've got a great manager, but a lot of guys don't." Moore says. "I've seen how their managers and promoters rob fighters. It's been that way for so long, we've come to accept it. If there's one boxer out there that isn't for this, I'd say maybe he's a little punchy or something."

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