For today’s edition of the “Lo’s Gym Blog,” we take it back to the Buckeye State, the city of Columbus, Ohio. Although Columbus is known for championship football, the city has also produced it’s fair share of professional fighters – most notably, James “Buster” Douglas – the first man to defeat Mike Tyson. Among Columbus, Ohio’s local legends is former title contender and current head trainer at the Lula Pearl Douglas Recreation Center, Vonzell Johnson. During the course of his professional career, Johnson compiled a record of 22 wins, 2 losses, and 1 draw, challenging boxing legends Matthew Saad Muhammad for the WBC Light Heavyweight title and Michael Spinks for the WBA version of the Light Heavyweight crown in 1981. Today, he is known as one of the top trainers in the Tri-State Boxing Association, his club one of the most respected squads in the area. And, based on my experience working at Lo’s Gym Boxing Club, I can assure readers that you don’t want to go up against a boxer from his club — those kids can fight! We competed with and against his club on several occasions. In anticipation for the upcoming release of “12 Rounds in Lo’s Gym,” I decided to check in with one of my favorite Buckeyes — trainer Vonzell Johnson.
Tell us the story of how you became involved with the boxing club at the Douglas Community center.
VJ: When the center first opened I was at the Thompson Rec Center here in Columbus, coaching a different boxing team. We had a good thing going over there. My team won the team award at the West Virginia Golden Gloves 2 or 3 different times. When the new center was built, the director was a guy named Dale McCampbell. He brought me over here to see the facilities. They had two boxing rings. Great facilities. It was absolutely beautiful. Dale said to me, “man, you know nobody can do this but you.” I took a look around at the facilities and man it was out of sight. I think it was 1991 when I became the coach of the team here at the center.
As the head trainer, how would you describe the impact this center, and the boxing club, has had on youth in Columbus?
VJ: It has had a tremendous impact over the youth in Columbus. There have been some great success stories. Off the top of my head, I can think of one kid that started program, got is M.A. in computer science at Ohio State. Dannie Green is his name. What I’ve been doing for the past 31 years is be that father figure to kids that don’t have a father at home. I have a team of men around me that are men of integrity. We all have the same goals. We want to raise the kids above all this. We want to make them productive citizens. We strive for that. We’ve lost a lot of potentially great athletes to the streets. We want to provide kids like that structure. We let the parents know that if these kids don’t have a C average they can’t come. If you have D’s on your report card, you can’t come. We enforce that heavily. That rule makes them get in those books and do what they need to do.
I recently interviewed James “Buster” Douglas. I know that you and Buster are friends. He seems to enjoy competing against your club.
VJ: Yes. Buster trains with the guys over there. We have fun with it. It’s a healthy competition.
Your boxing GPA requirement is interesting to me. I interviewed Teddy Atlas and he outlined a similar requirement in his gym. Do you think many outside the sport of boxing would be surprised to find that so many boxing trainers maintain such a requirement in their gyms?
VJ: At our gym, if you don’t have the grades, you don’t box. If they misbehave or we find out that they disrespect their parents, it’s push ups. My motto in the gym is “if you’re going to be dumb, you’re going to be strong and dumb.” That’s sort of a joke we have in this gym. I have this one kid that’s been coming to the club since he was 13 or 14, he’s 22 now, I tease him. I tell him that, at this point, he ought to be strong enough to lift the building.
You, of course, had a very successful career as a professional boxer. You faced a few legendary light heavyweights (Michael Spinks, Matthew Saad Muhammad). Which has been more challenging – fighting or training?
VJ: My career was more challenging. The emphasis I put in to being the best that I can be. It takes dedication and very hard work to make it to the level I was at. My teachers in life were my coaches. Ed Williams started me out in the game. I knew from day 1 that what I put into it was what I get out of it. Unfortunately, it wasn’t until when I fought Matthew Saad Muhammad that I finally got a title fight. He was supposed to fight Eddie Mustuafa Muhammad and I was the late substitution. I only had three weeks of training for that fight. I had to cram all that work into 3 weeks, to get ready for a 15 round fight. And, in the fight, it showed. I only made it to the 10th. Angelo Dundee said, “you got to take it.” We tried our best.
For the Michael Spinks fight, I had time to train. I did well in the fight but if you watch the video closely you’ll see that I got hit on the break. I saw Michael years later and joked with him that he still owes me a million dollars. He knows (followed by laughter).
I’ve been talking to boxing trainers from around the country, asking folks what defines a successful boxing gym. Often, trainers don’t even talk about wins and loses or state championships. How would you define a successful boxing gym?
VJ: To be honest with you, most fighters are not cut out to be trainers. The truly great ones, like Ali and Hearns could never do it. Most great fighters can’t be trainers because they lack patience. You teach a kid how to throw a 1-2 and they don’t get it. The truly greats don’t have patience for that. Like, Michael Jordan would probably be a lousy basketball coach. To run a gym, you have to have patience.
As for running a successful gym, you have to know that every kid is different. You have to do different things to get the most out of them. You have to understand their personalities and their strengths. I think a successful gym is when a coach takes a group of young men to a hotel for a weekend tournament and the staff of the hotel compliment how they have never seen more well mannered kids. That, to me, is a sign of a successful boxing gym.
The state of Ohio has produced its fair share of champion boxers. However, I think Cleveland, Cincinnati, and Youngstown would the locations most folks think of when they think Ohio boxing. Do you think Columbus gets overlooked?
VJ: When people think of Columbus boxing, automatically, they think of Buster Douglas upsetting Mike Tyson for the unified heavyweight championship of the world. Maybe the biggest upset in boxing history. But, Columbus has produced some great athletes. Period. A lot of great athletes have come out of this city.
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