April 7, 2016

Life Imitates Hart: Dashon Johnson Wages a Philly War for Redemption

Hollywood Ending in Philadelphia
By Terry Strawson — To tell any story correctly, you have to start at the beginning. As an adviser to Dashon "Flyboy" Johnson, I almost feel as if I should begin further back, but when matchmaker, friend, and former contender Andy Nance forwarded us an offer to fight Jesse Hart for his NABO and USBA titles in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the story of the fight itself began to take shape.

Initially, fighting the WBO's number three rated super middleweight, two or three weight classes above our preferred weight (in his hometown of Philadelphia no less) wasn't exactly provoking too much excitement in me. "Hard Work" Hart puts his punches together better than most fighters in the division, barring maybe Andre Dirrell, and the height and weight advantages he possessed were almost alarming. In the murky waters of professional boxing however, we are forced to consider almost every offer between welterweight and light heavyweight.

We have to look at accepting fights similar to the way Billy Beane and the Oakland Athletics viewed acquiring players in Moneyball:  

"We've got to think differently," says Brad Pitt's analytical character. "We are the last dog to the bowl."

A look at Johnson's (19-19-3, 6 KOs) record does not offer a glaring example of shrewd business and matchmaking. He has shared the ring with countless prospects, contenders, and former world champions; often on a couple days or a couple weeks notice. Sporadic yet impressive upsets have blended with disappointing losses more often than not. However, over the last year or so, Johnson has reevaluated and refocused himself to his craft. The results have been positive. His last two victories in particular offered confidence, and enough evidence to warrant proceeding with negotiations for the Hart fight. He had captured the WBA NABA super middleweight title with a dramatic knockout in a rematch with once-beaten Mike Gavronski, following that up with a victory over hard-hitting Izaak Cardona.

Fly Boys Simpkins, Porche, Johnson, Strawson
Still, it was not a decision taken lightly. We watched endless fight footage, training clips and interviews of Hart. We even followed him and his team on Instagram and Facebook. It was evident, to us at least, that there was little chance of Hart actually training for us the way we were training for him. How could a man next in line for the WBO world championship possibly be taking a man with 18 losses as seriously as we knew he should have been? How in the world could he possibly be?

We refused to offer any material for promotional purposes, turned down interviews from the likes of Steve Kim and focused solely on a three-a-day training regimen (that Dashon does alone most days) geared towards dragging Hart into deep waters and drowning him. My friend, and Philly fighter Malik Scott, warned me that, "Hart is a real young lion." I told Scott: "Lions don't swim too well."

They're actually not bad, but you get the point.

By the time we headed to Philadelphia, hometown of Rocky Balboa and countless real life boxing greats, we were brimming with confidence. And, as in the Rocky spinoff CREED, another young Johnson (Dashon) was traveling from California with a point to prove in the City of Brotherly Love. It felt right. We were treated very well by Hall of Fame promoter Russell Peltz and by his team too. We ran up the Rocky Steps, took pictures at the Rocky and Joe Frazier statues, and took a ride through the mean streets of Philly.

It was gritty and it was real. I loved it. We weren't there for that though.

All Hart until the end, then more heart
The bout was to take place at the 2300 Arena on Swanson Street in South Philadelphia. From the outside, and as my memory serves me, it looked a little grimy. On the inside, it was actually a beautiful building, perfect in my opinion for hosting prizefights. There was an old-school feel to it, a blend of brickwork and bright lights. The violent atmosphere was growing throughout fight night as knockouts seemed to be the favored method of victory. Most in attendance were anticipating another stoppage in the main event and the environment seemed to grow more hostile as we drew closer to fight time.

The referee Ernie Sharif had come into our dressing room to give his pre-fight instructions. You know the spiel, the same shit every referee says before every fight. No punching after the bell, your shorts look a little high so this will be considered good and so on. It's worth mentioning at this point however that Sharif said: "If you are to be knocked down, and you're not up by a count of nine, you will be counted out." It will become seemingly apparent that he never said such a thing to Jesse Hart. We will get to that later...

The fight itself was very intense. After the official introductions, with the likes of Bernard Hopkins seated at ringside, the action began quickly. To be honest, it was all Hart in the early going. We knew that though. Hart was snapping his jab and using every inch of the ring as he did so. As I eluded to earlier, Hart combines speed and power really, really well and he was pinging his shots at my fighter frequently without much of a response in the first couple of rounds. At times though, the output of Hart forced a wry smile from me. If he kept this up, he would not be able to keep this up, I thought.

It was not until the third round that Dashon fired back with something significant of his own. We, his trainer Jermaine Simpkins, cutman Billy Porche and myself, were imploring him to do more, and let his hands go. At the same time, we were weary of the dynamic and sizable threat in front of him. Hart looked fucking huge! Obviously, we were aware of the height and weight discrepancies long before our arrival in Philadelphia, but when they got in the ring and started exchanging, you would have thought we didn't care about him. Hart was putting rounds in the bag, and looking fairly impressive doing it. There were uppercuts, left hooks, straight rights and everything in-between it seemed. My wry smile turned to concern at times and at this point, I was screaming. We knew we would forfeit the first two or three rounds but as we entered the fourth and fifth, we needed to get a move on, and to his credit, Johnson did exactly that.  

I don't know if it was enough to steal those rounds but Dashon's aggression was certainly becoming more effective.

Johnson uppercutted by Hart
The end of the sixth round is where things began to get really interesting. After a more encouraging chapter, Dashon landed a massive shot at the bell and as Hart was barreling to the canvas, referee Ernie Sharif quickly ruled that the blow had come after the bell. To me, it was pure bullshit. However, I was buoyed by our ability to hurt the bigger man rather than deflated by the apparent skullduggery of the local referee. I wasn't even mad at the old school behavior in Hart's corner that allowed for an extra ten or fifteen seconds for their charge to clear his head. Hart was on Queer Street and I would have done the same thing. This is not merely an opinion. You can buy the fight at GFL.TV and see for yourself.

The next couple of rounds were a blur to me and the atmosphere was insane.

It's difficult to explain. How can just 1,500 people be so loud, I thought? The sweat was dripping from all over me, even my forearms were drenched and I constantly attempted to dry myself with my shirt or the towel. I knew, no matter how hard I tried to yell, Dashon was not going to hear me. It felt like a bad dream where you try with all of your might to cry out, and you just cannot make a sound. I felt like we were running out of time. And we were. I turned to the lads in the corner and said, "He's too tired, I don't think it's happening."

When Dashon came back to the corner before the last round, he looked spent.

He's usually the most aware and relaxed fighter in between rounds but our boy seemed finished to me. Still, we rallied that man from every angle and charged him with every drop of passion and emotion we could muster. We gave him a bit of water too of course. He went straight to work. I might have made it seem like Hart was faded by this point but he was still going strong. I would not be surprised if the tenth and final scene in this drama earned Round of the Year recognition, as it was something else. Hart was hoping to make a statement, and Dashon needed to make one. They were both throwing, and landing, heavy leather at this stage. At one point, as Jesse unloaded with everything in his arsenal, I worried. Momentarily. The clock was ticking down, and I kept looking at the big screen as it dwindled. "Two minutes," I yelled, "One minute!" Time seemed a more daunting opponent than Hart now. With less than a minute on the clock, Jesse tagged Dashon with a combination of big punches and my heart was in my mouth, but Johnson was not done yet.

As fast as he ate a big shot, he fired one back and had Hart dazed on the ropes. I was screaming at the top of my lungs as I felt one more shot would have ended the fight, but the noise inside the 2300 Arena was deafening. As Hart looked to hold on and recuperate a little, Dashon kept chopping away. As he chased Hart around the perimeter of the ring, he landed one more massive, clubbing right hand that sent Hart sprawling. It was unbelievable. It almost seemed too good to be true. Unfortunately for us, it was too good to be true.

Long-count from a home-town referee?
The conduct of the referee was once again brought into question as Hart rose to his feet fairly late. To me, it was ten seconds he spent on the canvas. I mean, even Larry Merchant would've had that count at at least nine, and according to his pre-fight instructions, that should have been enough to see Dashon register a knockout victory. It was painful to watch Hart climb to his feet the way "Pretty" Ricky Conlan (from my hometown of Liverpool) did in the CREED climax.

The only consolation, one that really has not yet fully resonated with Dashon, is that just like Adonis Creed did against Conlan, and Rocky did against Apollo, he had won the hearts and respect of the people. Hart won a close decision.

Dashon had shocked everybody. Well, just about everybody.

I asked promoter Russell Peltz for his two cents.

Gonna Fly Now Boy
"The fact that Johnson signed his contract right away, got his medicals right away, and refused to get caught up in the pre-fight hype told me he was in seclusion and taking the fight seriously," Peltz told me. "I expected it to be Hart's toughest fight but no one could have predicted a fight like that. I thought Johnson would make his presence felt earlier, and in a way he did because he forced Hart to move a lot early and expend considerable energy. I had it 95-94 (Hart) because I have to credit Johnson for the knockdown in the sixth round because I thought Hart was hurt from the first shot, not necessarily the second one which dropped him."

"I wanted to make the rematch," Peltz continued. "I think it's a mistake for Hart to not accept it, simply to prove he's better than he showed that night and to show us a marked improvement by doing better the second time around. However, I understand the mentality of modern-day boxing where it's all about getting the W and moving on, even if it makes no sense to me. A lot of fighters today succeed that way because when they get to the title fight, nine times out of ten the guy in the other corner came up the same way, simply by getting the W's and getting the hype."

Ain't gonna be no rematch? Who knows. Hart (now 20-0) has expressed no interest in it. Neither has Top Rank. I don't blame either. And I applaud Jesse Hart for showing his heart and rising from the canvas. I just applaud Dashon Johnson more for putting him there.

I'll leave you with a quote fitting for both men.

"It ain't about how hard you hit. 
It's about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward. 
How much you can take and keep moving forward."

Rocky Balboa