Extra Points: Remembering Leavander Johnson
Tuesday marked 15 years since Atlantic City boxer Leavander Johnson lost his life.
On Sept. 22, 2005, Johnson passed away at age 37, five days after defending his IBF lightweight championship against Jesus Chavez at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas.
"My son Craig called me last week," said Bill Johnson, Leavander's father and trainer. "He said he was driving home from work and had this weird feeling that made him pull over. That's when he remembered it was the day Leavander fought. It's hard to believe it's been 15 years. I think about him every day."
Normally, Bill would have spent the day honoring Leavander's memory on the third floor of the Atlantic City PAL on the corner of New York Ave. and Leavander Johnson Boulevard.
That's where the boxing ring, which is named after his youngest son, is located. Leavander was one of only two world champions to come out of Atlantic City. Ten years before he won the IBF title, Bruce Seldon won the WBA heavyweight crown.
Almost every day, the 79-year-old would pull a pair of sweat-stained elbow pads out of a faded gym bag, wrap his bony wrists in electrical tape, strap on hand pads, climb through the ropes, and catch punches from fighters until the sound of bell echoed through the gym.
However, he hasn't been there since mid-March. The Atlantic City PAL's boxing venue closed due to the Covid-19 pandemic and has yet to reopen.
Bill has spent the last six months in his Kentucky Avenue home, waiting for the go-ahead to come back.
The virus halted a journey that began in the late-1970s, when Craig and brother Cade decided to try boxing and asked their dad to be their trainer.
"They wanted someone they could trust," Bill said.
He trained them at the old Atlantic City PAL, a converted firehouse on Rhode Island and Melrose avenues. Little brother Leavander would often tag along and mimic their moves. Craig and Cade both gave up the sport in favor of culinary careers, but Leavander never left the ring.
Leavander was just 19 when he made his pro debut in 1989 with a first-round TKO over Jesus Rodriguez at Showboat Hotel & Casino in Atlantic City. He took on anyone and everyone and wound up winning a world title in his fourth attempt with a seventh-round TKO over Stefano Zoff in Italy in 2005.
He made his first title defense against Chavez. It was an exciting, back-and-forth fight for the first nine rounds before Chavez began to take control in the 10th. One round later, referee Richard Steele stopped the bout. Johnson congratulated Chavez in the middle of the ring and walked to the dressing room under his own power before telling his father he had a headache and collapsing.
I spent that night in a hospital waiting room with Bill, Cade, Craig and promoter Lou DiBella, praying that Leavander would pull through. I flew home two days later. On Sept. 22, 2005, Craig called with the sad news his brother had lost his fight for his life.
At first, Bill couldn't bring himself to go back to the PAL. About a month later, he returned and hadn't left until six months ago.
"I think about him a lot when I'm in the gym," Bill said in an earlier interview. "Fighting was something Leavander enjoyed and I enjoyed helping him on that journey to a world title. I'll always remember that more than anything.
"That's why I'm still in the gym every day. When Leavander died, I stayed away for a while and thought about giving it up. But I thought it would be an injustice to Leavander if I didn't keep helping guys and training fighters. Leavander kept fighting right to the end and I know he would want me to do the same thing."
His fondest memory of his son has nothing to do with boxing.
From the time Leavander was 3, Bill would take him fishing. They would frequently head to the Northeast Inlet where Captain Starns (restaurant) was located and catch flounder and taug, which they used to call "slippery bass."
Bill hasn't been fishing in about 12 years.
Without Leavander, it just wasn't the same.