Saturday, December 5, 2015

Stephan Johnson: A Light Middleweight Contender Gone Too Soon

By Peter Silkov

Stephan Johnson was a tough light middleweight, with good boxing skills, who began his professional boxing career in 1987, at the age of 19.  Johnson would mix with a long line of the world’s top light-middleweights and middleweights during his career.  Johnson was certainly not one of those fighters who was babied along in his career. The names of his opponents include fighters such as Kevin Pompey, Willy Wise, Roy Jones Jr., Vincent Pettway, Anthony Jones, Darryl Lattimore, Wilfredo Rivera, Andrew Lewis, Sam Garr, Fitz Vanderpool, and Paul Vaden. 

In those 12 years there were a lot of tough fights for Johnson, and along with the ups and downs, the wins and the losses, he would compile a record of 27(18koes)-9-1.  Yet Johnson was a fighter and he continued, returning from setbacks again, and again.  Like all fighters, he held onto his dream.  Even the most cynical and battle worn of boxers still has a dream.  This is one of the most fascinating aspects of boxers for the normal man (and woman) in the street, the fact that they are following a dream, the kind of dream that normal people reserve for private flights of fantasy.

For some, Stephan Johnson was just another fighter, just one of many tough and talented fighters trying to make their way in what has often been called ‘the toughest game’ but is in reality, not a game at all. Outside of the ring, Stephan worked as a boxing fitness trainer at an Equinox Fitness Centre in Manhattan, while continuing his dream to be a champion, and earn that one pay-day.

On September 24, 1998, he stopped Sam Garr in the 5th round to win the IBU world light-middleweight championship. Despite being one of the lighter regarded titles, this was the kind of win that could have opened bigger doors for Johnson, who was now 30 years old.

However in his next fight, on April 14, 1999, Fitz Vanderpool, in a fight for the WBF world light-middleweight title knocked out Johnson in the 11th round. Johnson had been stopped before in his career, but this was what people call a bad knockout. Johnson was taken from the ring on a stretcher and spent time recovering in hospital. 

Johnson was placed on a suspension list after his loss to Vanderpool, but that fight was in Toronto, Canada.  Johnson was soon back in the ring, winning fights in Georgia and South Carolina, two states renowned for such a lax attitude to the safety of fighters that they are often used by fighters who are unable to get a fight almost anywhere else. 

In an effort to have his name removed from the Association of Boxing Commissions suspension list, Johnson underwent a number of tests to measure motor skills and memory, as well as a CAT scan.  Only the CAT scan was submitted in the end, and although it passed, it was later described as being ‘borderline.’

Johnson was only removed from the suspension list 5 days before his 2nd comeback fight on October 2, 1999, when he stopped journeyman Calvin Moody in the 3rd round.  Both Johnson’s Mother Ira, and his manager Kenneth Woods, wanted him to quit the ring, yet Johnson wanted to fight on, still feeling that he was just one fight, one win, away from the kind of big pay-day that all fighters dream about in their careers. Even if he didn’t quite get to that big pay-day, Johnson wanted to earn enough to be able to take his mother out of the projects in Queens, New York.

Some may wonder why Johnson’s manager Kenneth Woods didn’t stop him from fighting anymore, if he felt that he should quit.  The truth is, in boxing, just as in life, generally things are never so easily black and white.  The chances are that if he really wanted to continue boxing, Stephan could just have found himself a new manager. 

Seven weeks later on November 20, 1999, Johnson was fighting former world champion Paul Vaden for the vacant USBA Light-Middleweight championship in Atlantic City.  After building up a lead on the scorecards, Johnson was knocked out in the 10th round, his head hitting the bottom rope as he fell.  He would never wake up.  Suffering from a subdural hematoma, Johnson was treated at the Atlantic City Medical Center, and had two holes drilled into his head in an effort to relieve the pressure upon his brain. Stephan Johnson fought for his life for two weeks, until the final blow was delivered upon him when he contracted pneumonia.  He died on December 5, 1999, at 31 years old.  

Stephan’s death, like all such fatalities in boxing, caused a ripple effect of anguish through all of those that knew him, including both family, friends, and noot forgetting Johnson’s opponent, Paul Vaden.  Too often the opponents in tragic cases like this are overlooked.  Being involved in a fatality or a serious injury has irrevocably changed many fighters’ careers and lives.  Vaden would fight just once more after his match with Stephan Johnson, losing on point’s 5 months later to Jesse Flores.  He never fought again, and has struggled ever since Johnson’s death with feelings of guilt.

We will probably never know how much Johnson’s previous fights impacted upon his tragic final contest.  Had the back of his head not hit the bottom rope in that fateful 10th round would things have turned out differently?  Then we look again at the Vanderpool fight we can see the warning signs.  It is a fact that many fighter who are either severely or fatally injured in the ring have often suffered some form of injury in a previous fight, an injury which has gone either unnoticed or has been ignored.

Stephan’s story is another example of a boxing fatality that could have possibly been avoided with more stringent medical guards, and a unified boxing commission.  Fighters should not be expected to be the ones to say when enough is enough. While boxing remains splintered with dozens of different commissions and world bodies, no central commission keeps control of them all. With a central commission, the safety of the boxers, whose sweat, blood, and sacrifice breathe life into a brutal sport, sometimes at the cost of their own lives, would stop senseless deaths.

Copyright © 2015 The Boxing Glove, Inc. Peter Silkov Art. All Rights Reserved. Peter Silkov contributes to

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