Stevie Wonder

Patrick Merewether

At the age of 27, Stevie "Li'l But Bad" Johnston has the aspect of an old warrior. The angry clots of scar tissue decorating his eyebrows frame a gaze as piercing as a jaguar's. He speaks so quietly that you can sometimes barely hear him. But bring up the subject of Floyd Mayweather, and cool menace creeps into his voice. On a good day, Johnston stands five-foot-four-and-a-half, but he's cut like a halfback. "I've learned a few things in the ring," he says, "and you never forget what you learn."

Make no mistake: This is a man accustomed to meting out punishment and, when necessary, absorbing it.

In the last four years, though, it's Stevie Johnston's luggage that's taken the real beating. Since winning a twelve-round decision in his native Denver over Mark Fernandez on February 18, 1996, the WBC lightweight champion of the world, now 29-1 with fourteen knockouts, has fought an even dozen bouts. But he hasn't had a sniff of combat in the Mile High City. Among other adventures, the tough, artistic little southpaw has knocked out Julian Romero in balmy Honolulu, earned his first title by decisioning Jean-Baptise Mendy in romantic Paris, lost it to (six-foot-one-inch) Cesar Bazan in hostile El Paso, won the belt back from Bazan in sultry Miami and, last November 29, gave Englishman Billy Schwer a gruesome thumping in foggy London.

Las Vegas? That's where Johnson trains, in the Top Rank gym, and he's fought there so often the one-armed bandits wave hello.

Since beating Fernandez in 1996, "Li'l But Bad" has developed into the best lightweight (135 pounds) on the planet -- a status most accurately affirmed by his current number-one ranking in all three major boxing magazines, The Ring, K.O. and Boxing Digest. He's also listed, pound for pound, among the world's top-ten fighters. But only now is this road-weary champ finally getting what he's always wanted: a title defense in his hometown. On March 17 in the Ritchie Center on the University of Denver campus, Johnston will face Mexico City's Julio Alvarez. Tickets: $25, $50 and $100. Co-promotion by an old hand: Denver rock promoter Barry Fey. A Friday Night Fight broadcast on ESPN2. Another payday of $150,000-plus. Most important, it's a chance -- finally -- to show the homefolks what a champion is made of. Suddenly, Stevie Johnston is happier than George Foreman in a roomful of cheeseburgers.

"Awesome," Johnston says. "I can't wait. I just can't wait until March 17. I been fighting in everybody else's backyard, and now they gotta come to mine. We've worked hard for this. We've been waiting a long time."

"We" would be the fighter himself, Vivian, his wife of three years, and his uncle, Montbello's Richard Johnston, who's long served Stevie in the crucial roles of trainer, manager, surrogate father and worldly advisor. Immediately after Tuesday's press conference announcing the fight, the Johnstons set out for Las Vegas, where they checked in at Budget Suites, far from hometown friends and hometown distractions, and prepared to do battle.

"We go into the gym in Las Vegas," the elder Johnston said late last week, his voice edged with the steely resolve of a drill sergeant. "There we get away from everything. No one banging on the front door saying, 'C'mon, champ, let's go out.' No one calling up for free tickets. No nothing. Just work. Five-thirty in the morning, he runs. Three miles on the days he spars, five miles on the days he doesn't spar. On sparring days, four rounds shadow boxing, four rounds sparring. Fifteen minutes jumping rope. Speed bag. Exercises. Then we're back in the room watching movies, being bored to death."

How bad is it? "Some days in Vegas I won't even go eat with him, I'm so pissed off about his performance," Uncle Richard says. "When he gets mule-headed. When he's a knucklehead."

Sitting at the gleaming mahogany dining table in his modest northwest Denver home, "Li'l But Bad" suddenly doesn't look very bad at all. He simply looks exhausted by the prospect of his uncle's rigors before they even resume. "Oh, he can be a hardass," the fighter allows. "When I do good, he's a pussycat, but he can be a hardass."

This fight will make it all worthwhile, though. This fight will be in front of hometown friends and family. This fight will be just reward for all the dues he's paid. Not just the grueling Vegas training rituals, but the raucous border crowd backing Bazan in El Paso. The raw fish in Yokohama, where Stevie barely escaped with a split decision over Hiroyuki Sakamoto. The bloody head butts he endured while beating Mendy and Demetrio Ceballos and Saul Duran and Angel Manfredy. The startling shot Billy Schwer hit him with in bleary London, laying open his eye again, while the partisan British crowd chanted: "Bill-EEE! Bill-EEE! Bill-EEE!"  

This fight will be no walk in the park, either. Previously unranked, on January 22 Alvarez knocked out highly respected Israel "Pito" Cardona in the tenth round in Del Mar, California. The former Mexican champion -- a bona fide that will hurt exactly nothing when it comes to building the gate here -- comes in with a 21-5-1 record, with seventeen knockouts. Johnston's opponent was supposed to be Puerto Rico's Carlos Gerena, another hard-hitting lightweight, but he couldn't come to terms with promoter Bob Arum and Top Rank, who have handled Johnston since 1994.

Little matter. Fighting in Denver -- against anybody -- was so important to the Johnstons, they say, that they turned down Arum's offer to appear on the undercard of boxing superstar Oscar De La Hoya's February 26 fight at New York's Madison Square Garden. Instead, Arum and Fey are collaborating on the Denver bout. So far, Fey says, his dealings with Top Rank have gone smoothly, but the former concert promoter has learned a few things in recent weeks about the byzantine ways of the fight game -- its tangle of sanctioning bodies and mysterious ranking systems. "Some of the music people are beginning to look like Mother Teresa," Fey allows.

So what's taken so long? Why hasn't Denver's homegrown world champion, late of the Colorado Golden Gloves, Manual High School and the fabled 20th Street Gym, been able to defend his crown in one of America's most rabid sports towns?

Two words: No regulation. Colorado hasn't had a boxing commission since 1977, and without one, even the shadiest promoters are hesitant to bring fights here. The Johnson-Alvarez card, six bouts in all, will be overseen by officials imported from Nevada. But unless new legislation establishing boxing oversight passes, hometown fans may never get to watch their local hero in the flesh again.

On January 27, HB 1183 weathered a hearing before the House State Affairs Committee and moved on to the State Finance Committee. Significantly, Stevie Johnston was scheduled to testify in favor of the bill, but he missed last week's hearing. An executive of a group that arranges outside sanctioning for Colorado fights, he sheepishly explains, failed to remind him about the time and place.

Think that flew with Uncle Richard? The older Johnston gives his nephew a withering stare across the dining-room mahogany, then turns his attention to the matter at hand. "We just want to keep Stevie focused," he says evenly. "Fighters are all prima donnas. They can be knuckleheads. A lot of times fighters, when they fight in their hometowns, they get caught up in it and they get knocked down in the first round. It happened to Holyfield. It happened to Pernell Whitaker. The hype from the crowd gets you looking past the guy. You think, I'm gonna go out there and impress everybody, and all of a sudden you're on the floor."

He shoots Stevie a look mingling rebuke, affection and concern. "The first few rounds will be difficult," he says. "But we'll be all right."

For the champ, March 17 has been a whole career coming. "Sure, I wanna show everybody what I can do," he says. "But like I say, I've learned some things. One, I'm a boxer. I have to keep boxing. When I go in there slugging, I look sloppy. A guy gets a good shot on me, like Schwer did, sometimes I lose it and say: Okay, lemme get one back on him. Most of the time, though, I'm boxing. That's what I'm gonna do this time. If he comes out swinging and wailing, I might have to take him out in the first couple of rounds. Otherwise, I'll put on a show. Fans deserve that. But I can't let nobody take my belt."

If he keeps his mind on his art at the Ritchie Center, Stevie Johnston should beat Julio Alvarez and move closer to his top goals, which include a showdown with 130-pound champion Ray Mayweather, considered one of the three or four best fighters in the world -- and one of the mouthiest. "He's been talkin' too much," Johnston says. "I don't like guys that talk." Johnston also hopes to expand his collection of lightweight titles from one to three. To go with the gleaming WBC championship belt lying on a lamp table in his living room, he wants the WBA and IBF crowns as well, establishing once and for all that he's the best in the world. Maybe then -- maybe -- he'll move up to 140 pounds.

Otherwise, "Li'l But Bad" says, he plans to settle down in a second career in Denver real estate -- perhaps as soon as three years from now. Vivian, after all, is expecting their second child. And the prospect of hanging up his gloves at age thirty, a champion bruised but unbroken, still burning with talent, is looking better and better.  

Like the man says, he's learned a few things.

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