HE COULD BE A CONTENDER

John DeMont May 28 2001

HE COULD BE A CONTENDER

John DeMont May 28 2001

HE COULD BE A CONTENDER

He’s hardly a household name in the glitter-and-gore world of professional boxing. But at Admiral Westphal Junior High School in Dartmouth, N.S., where the students line up deep into the hallway for his autograph, Kirk Johnson is the Man. Standing in the school library, the shy 28-year-old from nearby North Preston makes a short speech about hard work, dedication and respecting your parents. Not surprisingly, the students seem more interested in hearing about his car (a white Lexus), how much money he has made in the ring ($1.6 million) and the array of rap artists he has met (Dr. Dre, Ice-T, Ice Cube).

A teenager asks him to flex. Johnson smiles, pulls back a shirtsleeve and, as female giggles fill the room, reveals a bicep the size of an ordinary man’s thigh.

The No. 2-ranked heavyweight in the World Boxing Association was feeling good last week for a number of reasons. He was still on a high from his last fight, on April 28, a first-round knockout of Indiana’s Derrick Banks that upped Johnson’s record to 31 wins, no losses and one draw. Moreover, his planned July 7 bout with the WBA’s fourth-ranked Larry Donald is being staged by Johnson’s own promoter, Cedric Kushner, rather than Donald’s manager, the flamboyant, spiky-haired Don King.

Every little advantage counts, although the fight’s purse-$l million-is being split evenly between the two fighters. The real prize in that bout, though, is that it leaves the victor first in line when the winner of the Aug. 4 Johnny Ruiz-Evander Holyfield fight conducts his mandatory title defence. “What I’ve always wanted, a title shot, is finally within my reach,” says Johnson, who, at six-foot-two and over 230 lb., is known more as a tactician than a brawler.

His title dream began at age 8, when he watched Sugar Ray Leonard dismantle Tommy Hearns in a televised welterweight title bout. For inspiration, his father,

Gary, a former trainer and still Johnson’s adviser, used to read him stories about Sam Langford, Nova Scotia’s last world title contender, and George Dixon, a lightweight from Halifax who became the first black man to hold a world title back in the 1890s. But last week, Johnson told the junior-high students that it was pure desire that made him train hard enough to win three Canadian titles and a junior world championship. “Decide what you’re after,” he says softly, “then no matter what it is, just go and get it.” In Johnson’s case, that’s a championship belt, glittering enough to make the kids at Admiral Westphal take notice.

John DeMont