EGG HARBOR TOWNSHIP — Veteran boxing trainer Bill Johnson eased himself out of the white Atlantic City Police Athletic League van and ambled into a gym on Fire Road.
He was joined by middleweight contender Patrick Majewski, former lightweight prospect John Brown and a few other fighters at the Bullpen Vale Tudo gym.
Johnson, a 72-year-old Atlantic City native, dropped his equipment bag on the floor, wrapped electrical tape around his wrists, pulled sweat-stained elastic braces on over both elbows, turned his faded baseball cap around, brandished a couple of hand pads, and gestured for Majewski to join him in the ring.
Johnson lives on Kentucky Avenue in the city and usually treks to the PAL building on New York Avenue. But the PAL’s third-floor boxing gym is closed indefinitely because of roof damage sustained during Hurricane Sandy.
“I’ve heard it’s going to open back up in September,” Johnson said. “But I don’t think anyone knows for sure.”
The rest of his routine hasn’t changed much in the past 37 years. During that span, he has become an icon in the Atlantic City boxing community.
Starting in the mid-1970s, when he guided sons Craig, Cade and Leavander Johnson during their outstanding amateur careers, he has been in the corner for dozens of boxers.
After focusing on professional fighters in the 1980s, he has worked with everyone from former world champions such as his son Leavander, Dwight Muhammad Qawi, Bruce Seldon and Carl “The Truth” Williams to raw prospects such as Majewski and Isiah Seldon, Bruce’s son.
Leavander Johnson won the IBF lightweight championship June 17, 2005, defeating Stefano Zoff via seventh-round TKO in Milan. Three months later, he suffered an 11th-round TKO defeat to Jesus Chavez in Las Vegas and died five days later from brain injuries sustained in that fight.
“The most gratifying thing for me is to start training someone at the ground level and take them on that journey like I did with Leavander,” Bill Johnson said. “He started when he was really young. When we lived in Bungalow Park, we had a speed bag on the back porch, and Leavander would hit that all day long.”
Majewski, a native of Poland who moved to South Jersey in 2003, is among the world’s top middleweights. He sports a 21-1 record with 13 knockouts. The 33-year-old is ranked ninth by the World Boxing Council, 12th by the World Boxing Organization, and is expected to fight for a world title within the next year.
“The main reason I started training at the PAL was because of Mr. Bill Johnson,” Majewski said. “When I first got there, I was greener than green and I did not speak English very well. But somehow we clicked right away. Language was never a barrier, because we understand each other without any words.”
Some things get lost in the translation, however.
Majewski recalled Johnson encountering him in the PAL’s dressing room after a workout last summer. Johnson merely smiled and said, “You missed a loop.”
“For the longest time, I didn’t understand what he meant by that,” Majewski said with a laugh. “I thought he was giving me some sort of special boxing advice that had a deeper meaning, something like, ‘You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.’
“After a few days, I asked him. He said, ‘When you put on your belt, you missed a loop.’
“That’s the kind of relationship we have. He saw something in me as a boxer, but also as a person. He’s helped me so much both in and out of the ring. He’s like a grandfather to me.”
Family is what drew Johnson into boxing in the first place.
Until the mid-1970s, the married father of nine hadn’t been to a boxing gym in decades. He used to spar with his friends at Bobby Jones’ gym on Arctic Avenue and another place in town, but gave it up once those gyms closed and all the fighters started training in Pleasantville.
He was also too busy working to support his family. After attending Atlantic City High School, he got a job as a bell captain at the old Seaside Hotel. He later worked as a waiter at the Smithville Inn in Galloway Township and as a boat builder.
In 1976, sons Craig and Cade asked him to accompany them to the old PAL, a converted firehouse on Rhode Island Avenue, and teach them how to fight. Younger son Leavander usually would tag along and watch.
“Craig and Cade asked me to help them out, because they wanted somebody they could depend on,” Bill said. “I know some father-son teams that don’t work, but we never had problems. We’ve always been a close family and had confidence in each other. And we had boundaries. At the gym, I was their trainer. At home, I was their dad.”
Craig and Cade enjoyed outstanding amateur careers that saw them compete in national tournaments all over the country. Both tried their hands as professionals, but retired after a few fights to pursue culinary careers.
Craig now supervises the restaurants and catering at Delaware State University in Dover. Cade is a chef at Dover Downs Hotel & Casino. Bill continued to work with various fighters at the PAL, but spent most of his time training Leavander.
Together, they climbed to the top, only to encounter tragedy in 2005.
Minutes after losing his title to Chavez at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas on Sept. 17, Leavander returned to his dressing room and complained to his father that he had a headache. He was rushed to the hospital and died Sept. 22.
“When Leavander passed, I thought about stopping,” Bill Johnson said. “I stayed away from the gym for about a month. But I went back because I think that’s what Leavander would have wanted me to do. He loved the sport of boxing, and I felt like it would be an injustice to him to give it up like that. He enjoyed it, and I still enjoy it.”
For the past 25 years or so, he has worked alongside other local trainers, such as Egg Harbor Township resident Arnold Robbins, who is Majewski’s manager and also guided the careers of Bridgeton light-heavyweight Alfred Kinsey and Egg Harbor Township welterweight Shamone Alvarez, among others.
Robbins and Bill Johnson are especially close. Robbins was in the corner with him during Leavander’s final fight.
“Some people call us Batman and Robin, because if they see him in the corner, they usually see me, too,” Robbins said. “Bill’s definitely been a mentor to me, and the opportunities I’ve had because of him have helped me tremendously. And it’s still that way. He may be getting a little older, but he hasn’t missed a beat.”
Bill Johnson has become such a staple in the local boxing community that fellow managers, trainers and fighters can’t imagine him ever giving it up.
But that day will come eventually. There will be an afternoon when he kisses his wife goodbye, but instead of heading to the PAL, he will grab his fishing pole and head to the jetty at Rhode Island Avenue in search of weakfish.
“People want me to stick around for another 10, 15 years, but it’s probably going to be closer to five or 10,” Bill Johnson said. “I want to start fishing again. I don’t think I’ve been five times since Leavander died, but I plan on getting out there more often.”
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