Arthur “Flash” Johnson preaches the disciplines of boxing like gospel, namely how lessons learned through the sport can rescue inner-city youth from a life wasted on the streets.
Last week, during the official dedication of his foundation’s Flash Boxing Gym in East St. Louis, Johnson shared his pulpit with a fellow preacher of pugilism, former undisputed champion Evander Holyfield.
Johnson, a former two-time world junior featherweight and one-time bantamweight champion from East St. Louis, and Holyfield, a four-time heavyweight champ from Atlanta, were briefly teammates on the U.S. national boxing team.
The two share a common history, having fought their way out of impoverished inner-city neighborhoods before finding success in the ring. And their message to the handful of young fighters and a dozen-or-so supporters of the Arthur Johnson Foundation shared common themes about setting goals and pursuing them with determined effort.
“Some things require that you pay a price, but when you pay that price, you reap the reward,” Holyfield said. “That’s why it’s so important for me to come here and be with these kids. I tell them don’t get caught up into this wins-and-loses situation, because you only lose when you quit. If you don’t quit, you ain’t lost nothing because it means you’ve held your ground and faced the challenge.”
Holyfield was born in Alabama and raised in the Bowen Homes Housing Projects in Atlanta by a single mother and eight older siblings. He was introduced to boxing at age 8 by a coach at the Boys Club who told him “you can be like Muhammad Ali.”
Indeed, Holyfield matched his idol’s record of being the undisputed heavyweight champion three times. He went on to a fourth title over a career that lasted nearly 30 years and included more than 200 professional and amateur wins.
In addressing fighters and friends of Flash Boxing Gym (and later in an interview with the BND) he cited frequently the influence of his mother, Annie Holyfield, who coaxed him through the obstacles and self-doubt that once made him want to give up on boxing.
“My mama didn’t know anything about boxing, but she had enough common sense to know that boxing could open opportunities to me. She wouldn’t let me quit,” he said. “Anybody that’s a Christian understands that you have to get the (fourth) commandment right — ‘honor your father and your mother.’ It doesn’t tell you how or what, but God tells you to honor.
“I’m proof standing here that if you get that right, life is going to be great.”
Holyfield said he got his first taste of disappointment when he was 11 years old and a Boys Club opponent named Cecil Collins defeated him for the first time. The eventual champion, who turned 56 on Oct. 19, said he started to cry at the center of the ring when the referee raised Collins’ arm in victory.
After a second loss, Holyfield vowed that he’d sooner tuck a five-pound weight into his trunk and fight up in a heavier class than to face Collins a third time.
“They told me white guys couldn’t fight,” he said. “How would I ever become Muhammad Ali if I got beat up by the white guy?”
But there are lessons in losing, Holyfield emphasized to Johnson’s young boxers. Collins hasn’t added more than 30 pounds since. Holyfield made history.
“You’ve got to go through something to become something. Where I grew up, sometimes a fight would find you and I’d run home because I didn’t know if I could hold my own or not,” said Holyfield. “My mama would run me out of the house and say, ‘Boy, you go back and fight.’ Mama would say ‘A coward dies a thousand times.’ She had wit and common sense to know that a man sometimes has to stand up.
“You have to learn, in all parts of life, that there is a time to speak up and a time to be quiet. And sometimes you have to stand up and fight.”
Developing persistence — and champions
The Flash Boxing Gym was born of the same kind of persistence.
Johnson, a graduate of Lincoln High School and current resident of O’Fallon, is an accomplished boxer in his own right. He was a 10-time national amateur champion, the first gold medalist at the 1986 Good Will Games, and a member of the 1988 U.S. Olympic team. Johnson’s pro career produced three world titles and a record of 22-6 with 14 knockouts.
He and his wife, Latanya, established their foundation in 2001 with a long-term plan of establishing an inner-city gym to teach East St. Louis youth about competition, both in the ring and in society.
“I’m excited because, thinking back to when I was a kid, I wanted to have a boxing career, but there was no really good boxing center like this that existed,” said the Lincoln High School graduate. “Who knows what I could have done?
“Champions come out of places like this. We’re going to develop a lot of champions here. I don’t just mean in boxing, I’m talking about life, because that’s the most important thing.”
Through his foundation, Johnson’s goal came to its fruition on June 2, when the building at 1721 State Street in East St. Louis was opened.
“As you can imagine, this place needed to be gutted. The only thing we saved are the original bricks,” Johnson said. “In fact, this place was up to be demolished and we saved it. It took a whole lot of things to happen to bring this to pass.
“Now my thought is — and this is my prayer to God — we’ve got this started, now we don’t want to stop.”
Many of the $25-per-month memberships are covered by sustaining memberships through his foundation. Members have access to training equipment, including strength machines and a full-sized boxing ring. In January, Johnson says, academic tutors will be available during some hours.
Other donations will go toward monthly bills, building maintenance and outreach. The club also is in need of a transport van, Johnson said.
Interested donors can make a one-time gift or become sustaining members by visiting www.arthurjohnsonfoundation.org and clicking the “donate” link.