Quiet dignity of Johnson faces the hype of Hamed


DIGNITY is a word which often seems at odds with the excesses of modern boxing., Tom Johnson has it in abundance and is a glorious exception. Inside the ropes, he has been good enough to be IBF featherweight champion of the world for nearly four years.

But it is his quiet self-assurance and maturity outside the ring which sets him apart as the promotional drums beat up the hype ahead of his February 8th unification bout against the WBO champion, Naseem Hamed. While Hamed has said he will win the fight in the third round, Johnson replied yesterday: "You can predict what you want to predict. I didn't come to Britain to lay down or be knocked out."

Eleven thousand of the 12,500 seats available at the London Arena are sold already, and the contest is the star attraction of another pay-per-view night on Sky television; its is the first time subscribers have been asked to pay extra to watch a British event.

Not surprisingly, a huge commercial success is expected for a fight most judges expect to be the toughest of Hamed's career to date. The Las Vegas odds makers, not normally influenced by jingoistic constraints, make this a level fight.

Hamed has described it as Britain versus the US. Johnson dismisses such talk as trite: "This is not country against country. It is not a war. Is the problem that we re perceived to be superior? Have you all gotten to such a state that when we face each other we have to say it's about countries?

"Maybe somebody here wants to wake up. This is a sport between two men and, at the end of the day, life goes on. I have won six title fights in Europe. I didn't do it for the United States, I did it for Tom Johnson."

Despite his low-key approach, Johnson (32), clearly holds his opponent in high regard and has prepared meticulously. His professional career stretches back more than 10 years and he is defending the IBF version of the title for the 12th time. But Hamed, he suspects, will be the most awkward fighter he has met.

"The media has overwound him over here. He's been built up to be a better fighter than he is, but I know he's good. He's never lost, so I have to respect that. He imposes a serious threat, but I've fought dangerous fighters before and beaten them.

"Naseem is unorthodox. But, on the night, it's simple. The man who adapts better to the problems placed in front of him will be victorious and I believe that man will be me.

"I'm the teacher, and Nas has a lot to learn. I have arrived in London with my champion's belt and I intend to go home with it."

Last week, I watched a hyperactive Naseem Hamed disco-dance his way through 12 frenetic rounds of shadow boxing and pad work. Here, Johnson and his entourage - the hard work done - ambled towards their hotel cafe and a cup of tea.