Fighting for the Golden Gloves championship

Eunice Lee

As the bell kicked off the final match of the Chicago Golden Gloves tournament, the crowd roared in support of Evanston boxer Ken Johnson.

Whistling, clapping, and “oohs” and “ahhs” filled the room as Johnson, 24, and his opponent traded blows in the ring. At the end of three rounds, Johnson lost a close match for the title Saturday night at St. Andrew’s Gym, 1658 W. Addison St.

“(The tournament) is the biggest thing you can do before you go pro,” Johnson said. “Basically, it’s the truth test. You’re going to see where you’re at.”

Johnson said a combination of mental and physical strain led to his narrow defeat at the Golden Gloves, an elite amateur boxing tournament held every spring.

“I put a lot of pressure on myself,” he said. “I kept thinking, ‘This is the championships. This is what we trained for.’ I didn’t feel like it was my night.”

To meet the weight requirements for his 165-pound weight class, Johnson lost seven pounds over the two days leading up to his final match. His rigid training schedule afforded him little sleep and nutrition.

“I was so exhausted,” he said. “When you prepare for something, you can overtrain. I put my everything into it, but I wasn’t taking care of myself.”

Despite the loss, Johnson remains optimistic about his boxing career and is grateful for the experience of competing in the tournament.

“I learned a lot more from last night than I did from all the knockouts,” he said. “I appreciate what happened last night. I’m going to turn the negative into a positive. It’s going to make me a better fighter.”

Johnson became interested in boxing when he started competing in unregulated matches called “smokers” while he was in the Navy. After winning all of his matches, he decided to pursue boxing as a career.

Johnson joined the Navy in 2002 to support his newborn son, who is now in kindergarten. He’s been deployed three times during his six years in the Navy.

“I want my son to look at me and say, ‘My dad did something with his life,’ ” Johnson said. “Thank God for him. I don’t know where I would’ve ended up without him.”

Johnson started training for the Golden Gloves in September. A leading petty officer in the navy, Johnson travels 45 minutes south every day from his home near Naval Station Great Lakes to work out with his trainers at the Evanston Boxing Club, 823 Emerson St.

“The first day I came to this gym, I fell in love with it,” Johnson said. “A champion could be built in this gym. There are a lot of good people.”

“He’s progressed a thousand times,” said David Englund, head coach and founder of the club. “He went from somebody knowing nothing to somebody who has a future in boxing.”

While training for the tournament, Johnson’s daily schedule included waking up at 5:30 a.m., running four to five miles, going to work, hitting the gym and not getting home until 10 p.m.

“This is what I love doing,” he said. “It’s the ultimate challenge. You’re facing an opponent that’s trying to hurt you, and you’re showing the crowd that you have the physical capability to come out the same. I love it.”

Johnson won his two prior matches in the tournament, knocking out both of his opponents and earning the nickname “the knockout artist.” He said he already asked his opponent for a rematch.

Before every match, Johnson prays and mentally prepares himself.

“I can see every punch land, every punch thrown,” he said. “I can see myself winning, and looking good doing it.”

Johnson said crowd interaction is a major part of the competition.

“My favorite part is when I knock people out (and) the reaction I get from the crowd,” he said. “Just the love that you get from the fans that love the sport. It’s the best feeling in the world. There’s nothing better.”

Johnson plans to continue sparring with professionals and training for more tournaments.

“I’m ready to really step up my game and push myself to the limit,” he said. “My name’s going to make noise. This isn’t the last you heard of Ken Johnson.”

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Tommy Giglio/ The Daily Northwestern.Ken Johnson practices inside the Evanston Boxing Club. He competed in the final match of the Chicago Golden Gloves tournament where he lost at the end of three rounds.