In the halls of near-vacant Morrison Elementary School in East St. Louis on a chilly Monday afternoon, you can see your breath. The hum of a single electric heater grows louder as you approach the small classroom that serves as a makeshift gym.
A boxing ring is marked off in tape on the marble floor.
That's where you find 12-time national boxing champion Arthur "Flash" Johnson giving pointers to a young boxer.
A little over a week away from the Golden Gloves boxing debut of 18-year-olds Keeion Anderson and Keilann Isaac, Johnson was eagerly awaiting their arrival after school from Belleville. Anderson and Isaac are two of the more advanced members of the Flash Johnson Boxing Team.
"They take MetroLink from Belleville to get here,'' said Johnson, who coaches 8 to 10 boys in the makeshift gym. "This brings back a lot of memories for me. I'm just walking these kids through the process.
"I honestly see skill there with both these kids. I see ability, and we need to build on that. As a former athlete, you can see talent. Some kids walk into the gym and you can see that they are naturals. These two kids are closer to being naturals than most kids. That's why it's so exciting to work with them.''
Isaac, a senior at Belleville West and Anderson, a senior at Pathways School in Belleville, will fight in the preliminary rounds of the St. Louis Golden Gloves, Jan. 22-24 at the St. Ann Community Center. (Call 636-561-2380 for ticket information.) The finals are set Feb. 8 at the St. Charles Banquet Hall. Both Isaac and Anderson will fight in the novice 141-pound division.
In three corners of the Flash Johnson Boxing Club workout room are three heavy punching bags. A single piece of paper with pre-workout exercises hangs from the chalkboard, and both Isaac and Anderson systematically go through each one together.
After they complete the exercises, Johnson helps both boxers put on their gloves and head gear for three rounds of sparring.
Both Isaac and Anderson get in several good shots, mostly to the body, in each round. Following each round, Johnson gives instructions to both fighters.
For Anderson it's the second go- around in boxing. He started fighting in middle school, but gave up the sport. With Johnson's encouragement, he's back at it.
"Mr. Johnson came to my school and I got to know him," Anderson said. "I later found out that he was a boxer and a former champion. He's like a mentor to me, almost a father figure. I want to be the best one day and so I figure, why not be trained by the best.
"I've been with Mr. Johnson for about six months. I love it. It's the best thing I have going on in my life right now.''
Arthur "Flash" Johnson, an East St. Louis native who now lives in O'Fallon, is a four-time Golden Gloves champion and won the 106-pound national Golden Gloves championship in 1985.
He won 12 national titles all together and was a member of the 1988 Olympic Team. Johnson won his first two fights at the Seoul Games before losing in the third round.
Working with members of his club brings back memories of his fighting days, when he was one of the best in the world.
"It's a great thing to be able to leave a legacy," Johnson said. "But it's not about people remembering what a great boxer I was or what a great athlete I was. It's about 'what did I leave behind? What did I give back?' For me, it's exciting to be able to give back in this way.
"The kids know a little about what I accomplished. They don't know how huge it was. They are aware that I was a great fighter, but they don't know the impact I made and had on the sport. But they do have respect for me. ... They trust my coaching instincts and, as we go deeper into this game, I think they''ll find out my specialty and how special I was to this sport.''
Keilann Isaac has played on West's football, basketball and track teams. But when his good friend, Keeion Anderson started boxing again, Isaac put on the gloves, too.
"My friend Keeion got involved and I liked the sport as well,'' Isaac said. "I like to feel that I've accomplished something and boxing helps me do that. I like the speed of the sport.
"Will I be nervous before my first fight? I'm anxious and looking forward to it. When the time comes, I'll be a little nervous. It's only natural. But both Keeion and I have the advantage of training and working with Mr. Johnson. All we have do is train and listen to what he tells us and we'll be fine.''
Johnson feels he has an advantage over several other world-class athletes who attempted to coach after their days of competing were over.
"I have been blessed with the gift of patience,'' Johnson said. "I think one of the reasons a lot of great athletes don't want to coach or attempt to coach and then get out is they don't have the patience to work with young athletes.
"They don't have the patience to wait for athletes to develop and they can't figure out why things that sometimes came so naturally to them, are more difficult for others to pick up."
The real goal
The Flash Johnson Boxing Team operates through the Arthur Johnson Foundation. For Johnson, his message goes way beyond athletics.
"The Arthur Johnson Foundation is what made this possible. So if there are people looking to donate to a worthy cause or a worthy foundation, this is one they can contact,'' said Johnson, who is also a pastor, singer and author.
"We're taking kids off the streets from what could be a life of crime, and we're giving them something different. We're giving them hope, we're giving them a destiny and we're giving them a chance for a better life. That's what it's all about.''
A tournament win by either Anderson and Issac would elevate them into the Golden Gloves Open Division and earn then a trip to the National Golden Gloves finals in Las Vegas later this winter.
A hotbed of boxing in the United States, the St. Louis area has produced many world-class fighters, including Johnson, former world champions Michael and Leon Spinks and, most recently, Devon Alexander.
"These kids don't realize how big winning the St. Louis Golden Gloves would be," Johnson said. "St. Louis has a rich tradition in boxing going back to Sonny Liston and before him even.
"Both Keeion and Keilann have a chance to compete and compete well, and, yes, they have a chance to make it to the finals,'' Johnson said. "If they can maintain their poise and not let the nervousness and everything that they are going to feel with this being their first time competing, they have a chance to do very well. I have high expectations for them.''