Friday Night Fights

Li'l Stevie Johnston scores a victory for Denver boxing fans.

Late in the second round Friday night, native son Stevie Johnston's left eyelid was gushing a torrent. He knew it was time. Circling left, he caught Julio Alvarez with a stiff right hook that startled the Mexican, then shot a straight left to the chin that sealed Julio's fate. "I seen him wobble," Johnston said later. "His eyes like shocked me, and I just jumped on him." The man they call "Li'l But Bad" waded in, pelted the gape-jawed challenger with a dozen punches and, amid a roar of noise and light and public love, suddenly found himself aloft the shoulders of his corner men. Smeared with Stevie's blood, Alvarez slumped in the arms of his seconds.

This was the thirtieth win and fourteenth knockout of Johnston's 31-fight pro career -- and, despite his desire to put on a longer show, the most satisfying. The WBC lightweight champion of the world had not only defended his title again, he had done it in front of a delirious sellout crowd of 8,000 in his hometown. He had not only shaken off the effects of a serious first-round cut (head-butt or punch? depends who you ask) to destroy a tough opponent who had seventeen KO's of his own, he had struck a major blow for boxing in Denver.

Consider. Before the bloody winner had even slipped back into his blue-and-white satin robe, before the roar had subsided, ABC Sports and HBO had both called Top Rank Incorporated's second-in-command, Todd duBoef, on his cell phone. The boob-tube folk had tuned to ESPN2 for Johnston-Alvarez, and what they saw made them hungry for a piece of the action: a Johnston fight on ABC in June. An HBO bout in September.

Ironically, Li'l Stevie's thunderous second-round TKO was probably the least of the evening's attractions. For the TV people, and for Top Rank promoter Bob Arum, what happened just outside the ring in Magness Arena Friday night was the real main event. Denver boxing fans, who had not seen their home-grown hero fight here in four years -- since he decisioned one Mark Fernandez in a room not much bigger than your den -- simply erupted. They remained so loud after Johnston floated into the ring atop Teddy Pendergrass's "Love TKO" that they obliterated announcer Michael Buffer's famous "Let's get ready to ruuuummmmmmble!" The place was decorated with so many strapless blondes, strutters in hats, swaggering bent-nosed gym rats and boulevardiers wearing yellow silk suits that the powers that be couldn't help but notice all the flash and luster. Ringside was upholstered in mink, and upstairs a couple of mariachi bands worked their way through heaving seas of flesh, guitars and trumpets askew. There were kids hanging out of the rafters and Latino beauties hanging out of their wardrobes.

"Boxing is syllables," the exemplary heavyweight Archie Moore once observed. "You learn them one by one." In Denver Friday night, there was no patience for such nicety: On the occasion of the city's first-ever title fight, the fans sought to devour the whole library of boxing in one furious sitting. In other words, they went nuts. Even promoter Arum, who's seen a few things, was impressed by the Mile High fervor. As a boxing venue, he said, "Denver wasn't on the map. When you thought of fight towns, particularly in this part of the country, it was the California places, Las Vegas, of course, Phoenix, the Texas cities. But never Denver. Denver was John Elway. It was a football town. That changed tonight."

Li'l Stevie Johnston changed it. "I lived my dream," he said. "I fought my dream." His heart's desire, as everyone knows by now, was to defend his title here, in front of friends. He'd held the WBC belt aloft in alien climes like Vegas and London and Japan and some other places he doesn't care to remember, so this was a special night. He had refused a big-money, rep-building chance to fight in Madison Square Garden, on the undercard of last month's Oscar De La Hoya-Derell Coley fight, to come home. But now that's worked out for the best. Thanks to Friday's show, promoter Arum says a matchup between Johnston and super featherweight champ Floyd Mayweather Jr., a major Top Rank attraction, is now a sure thing.

"When that happens," Arum said, "we're gonna be talking seven figures -- for each of them. That's my goal as a promoter -- to build it up so they can both go to the bank with a lot of money and really have security for the rest of their lives. I owe it to both of them."

That would be just fine with Barry Fey, the local rock promoter who did a masterful job pumping this fight, although on Friday night he added this: "If Stevie wants to fight on 16th and Tremont at two o'clock in the morning, it's all right with me."

It would also be just fine with Li'l Stevie, who is 28 and says he wants to box just two more years. It would be okay with his manager, Uncle Richard Johnston, who understood that Julio Alvarez created a monster Friday night when he cut Stevie in the first round. "That pissed him off," the elder Johnston allowed. "Between rounds he didn't say nothin'. He just sat there. I don't even know if I had his attention. He just had that glare in his eye. He didn't say nothin'. I didn't say nothin', either. But I knew what time it was."

It was time for the fight game to arrive in Denver. Not a syllable at a time, but in a torrent.

 
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