When he’s working at the Harmony Bar on Atwood Avenue, Marcus Johnson’s cheerful greetings and Motown-heavy musical mixes elevate the mood of everyone inside. He has a talent for setting a positive tone.
But his other talent is handing out punishment.
Fighting as a welterweight, Johnson, 28, will join six other boxers to represent Wisconsin at the Golden Gloves of America tournament in Chattanooga, Tennessee, in early May. He’s raising money through GoFundMe to help pay bills while he misses work to compete.
“For me, boxing is a strong hobby. I need this,” Johnson said. “This is really a part of my heart and my spirit, who I am.”
In an interview with the Cap Times earlier this month, Johnson talked about how he turned his love of fighting at school into a passion for boxing and how the sport is safer now than it’s ever been.
Did you start boxing at a young age or were you into other sports?
I try not to regret anything, because everything I’ve done in life has added up to who I am now. But I didn’t do any sports, I wasn’t in any clubs. For me, it was always music and singing. I was in the Green Bay Boys Choir for five years. We sang with Ray Charles the year before he died. I sang in choir in middle school and high school, but I got away from a lot of that.
My mom passed away when I was 11 and my dad became a real big alcoholic. On top of that, he worked from noon to midnight in a factory. So I didn’t really have that person that really put their foot on the gas with me. A lot of my family stepped up and helped and never let me quit, but as far as someone in the home, there was nobody there to give me structure.
As I got into high school, in with a bigger group of kids, I always liked fighting. I always say I was very lucky I never got expelled from school — this is before they really started locking kids up. So I always got suspended for fighting or standing up for myself. I naturally liked it. I was never mean, per se, but that’s how I thought you handled problems, if someone disrespected you or something.
How did you find your way into organized boxing?
My father boxed a little bit back in the day. My uncles did in the military, a long time ago, when boxing was a bigger part of the culture. I always wanted to do it. But since I was in trouble for fighting, my dad never taught me how. In Green Bay, there weren’t any boxing gyms.
When I moved here, I had nothing to do, no friends. I didn’t do anything. Skipped school, hung with friends, smoked a lot of weed. So acting kind of tough, I started asking about where the boxing gyms were and a kid I knew pointed me to Ford’s Gym, back when it first moved to Winnebago.
I took the beginner classes there for about a year.
There’s a big difference between fighting in school, taking boxing classes and then actually being a boxer. When did that happen?
The first time I went to the gym to actually spar, against one of the sparring partners I still have today, I’m in there doing ridiculous stuff, fighting like Roy Jones, Jr., bobbing and weaving, spinning my arms around and stuff. I don’t know how long it was, it feels like forever but it was probably only a minute in, I got stuck on the ropes. I don’t mean like I was trapped there, I mean like my legs would not move. Fights at school only last like 10-15 seconds. I got tired and I didn’t even know it. Finally, Bob Lynch who ran the gym, kicked me out of the ring and he said “We teach real boxing here! I don’t know what it is you’re doing!”
But that didn’t make me want to stop coming to the gym. I was a little embarrassed, but I loved doing it. I kept coming and learning. I’d stop for a bit and then come back to spar or take a class just to have a place to be and get rid of frustration, burn energy, have a family.
Amateur boxing is set up with less risk and with insurance, so they take care of their fighters.
My first fight was in the Wisconsin Golden Gloves. I was 20 and the guy I fought was 29. He was a southpaw, which just means he’s left-handed and I didn’t really know how to handle that. He had about four or five fights, which is a huge experience difference. He beat me up in the first round. I thought, damn, this dude is really trying to take me out.
When you say he’s really beating you up, what does that mean?
The first round, and this is the case for everybody, your adrenaline is going. Things hit you and you don’t get hurt. You’re burning energy and you don’t get tired. So he’s dominating the space. He’s throwing punches. I wear glasses and didn’t have contacts at the time, so depth perception was crazy. I was throwing punches, but nothing with any real malice behind it. He’s throwing hard blows and missing. But I just felt like he was really trying to do it to me.
I sat down on the stool after one round and that’s when it hit me. Like, I gotta do this two more rounds?
So in the second round, I go from 10 to zero so much faster. He keeps coming hard, hitting me in the body and arms. Amateur boxing is really about keeping you safe, so if you get hit and you don’t punch back or you don’t move your feet, if you look like you’re not in control, they’ll stop the fight.
So in the second I get a standing eight count because he really cracked me a good one and I didn’t respond, I didn’t throw a punch back.
You think you’re going to be Muhammad Ali and rope-a-dope, but you’re not. I’m thinking, he’s going to get tired, like it’s a movie in my head, and I’m going to come back. But it doesn’t happen. He comes right back on me again, throwing punches and the ref just stopped it right there.
Now I’m mad, not at him or anyone, but myself. It sucked. And that just fueled me to train harder.
So you weren’t discouraged?
Everyone wants to learn how to box. You could have a hundred people come to take a class and maybe half of those people stop because they get tired, it’s not comfortable. Then of that remaining 50, you get them in the ring to spar and they get hit, they’re not even hurt, but that’s uncomfortable, so they stop. Out of the 25 that continue sparring, after they do it over months, you realize how hard the work is and you might get like seven left to compete. Half of those guys are going to lose and that sucks, so a lot of those people don’t come back. You’re down to three or four. Now life takes hold of you. Maybe you get a tough job, have kids. Now you’re down to one person out of a hundred who came into the gym to continue boxing and have any sort of success.
So I was one of a hundred who didn’t mind getting beat up.
How many fights do you have?
I’ve got about 60 now and I’m like 30-30. More than half of those have come in the past four years. I thought until I was about 23 that training was coming to the gym and sparring. But the coaches know who’s really putting in work and whether you’re in shape. You can’t lie about it. They never put a whole lot of effort into me because I never put a whole lot of effort into myself. I was just kind of a guy learning and a sparring partner for a lot of people.
By 2016, I had fought Golden Gloves a few times and not had too much success. So that year my opponent was David Carlson, who was a little older than me. At weigh-in, I look at him and he had muscles on his muscles, military guy. I’m thinking damn, I’m fighting a tank! I had lost so much before, but I knew I had put in work. The night that we competed, they messed up the order and we went up early. I didn’t warm up and had no choice but to just do it. I made him miss a lot and I made him pay a lot.
I got a standing eight count on him and then realized it didn’t matter how strong he was, he couldn’t hit me. He was getting tired. Those muscles need oxygen. So I started pushing him around and going forward. I beat him and got to national Golden Gloves in Salt Lake City. But I was fighting at 165, a weight class I don’t belong in. Most guys lose weight to come down, but I was weighing in at like 160.
At a tournament like that, it’s luck of the draw. I end up fighting the Number 1 guy in the country. This dude whupped on me, but I didn’t get knocked out. I made it to the decision. He knocked me down twice and I was trying hard, but he was just too strong and he knew what he was doing.
After that, that’s when I knew I had to step my game up. That got me to train harder and more efficiently.
People are worried about boxing and brain injuries. We see some of these old fighters deteriorate. How much do you think about that?
A lot. More as I get older. It’s better now than it ever has been. What we’re seeing now with old boxers who might have slurred speech or be out of it a little — and football players, too — is that they fought when pride was essential. It still is, pride is what gets you through. But referees did not stop fights. Fights today get stopped easily.
A lot of these guys fought when it was acceptable to let the fight go on. There’s nothing more rewarding than to see someone lose and lose and then come back. We all like it when someone rises to the occasion. Now, it’s not really acceptable to do that. There’s no sense in letting a guy take punishment for six, seven, eight rounds in the hopes that he’s going to come back and knock the guy out. It’s not going to happen.
So we don’t see the knockout we want to see, this guy gets to go home to his family and he gets to compete again.
When tending bar at the Harmony, you have a kind word for everyone and you seem to carry an aura of positivity with you. How does that connect with boxing, such a violent sport?
Any charisma I may have, friendliness, that’s from my mom. When I was a kid, she’d stick me on the playground and say "Go make friends. Go see if that kid wants to play with you." Black, white, on crutches, whatever. She gave me the ability to make friends, which is hard for some people.
From boxing, I got discipline and a notion of what’s real and what danger is.
There have been times at the bar where I’ve stopped fights before they were fights. I’ve had stuff thrown at me, n-bombs dropped on me, and I’ve never felt like I had to fight.
I’ve been in real danger. I’m always in a tense situation in the gym where things happen extremely fast. So since I’m accustomed to things happening fast in the ring, when things happen fast in real life, they appear to happen slower to me.