Commentary

Jabbing Johnson needs to turn up the aggression

Kevin Johnson wants to be the next great American heavyweight champion. But with his safety-first style, does he have the will and desire to get there?

Updated: April 17, 2008, 8:05 AM ET
By Joe Tessitore | ESPN.com

Kevin JohnsonJaviel Centeno/Fightwireimages.com Kevin Johnson, right, can pour it on -- when he's in the mood to.
In boxing, you have to make a decision to want to hurt another guy. You have to make a decision to be aggressive.

To me, you don't make that decision in the midst of a round during a pro fight. You make that decision the first time you walk into a boxing gym and put on gloves.

I realize boxing raises many eyebrows. In this instance, I'm not talking about the typical antics of the sport. Not the stuff that every so often draws the attention of mainstream sports media so it can lean on its "it's another black eye for boxing" crutch. I'm talking about something that even those of us who make our living knee-deep in ringside spit question.

It's a mark on the game that doesn't align with the nature of the sport. A fighter being criticized for a lack of aggression is like a chocolate bar being slammed for not being sweet. The word "aggression" is necessary to define the word "fighter."

I am even more incredulous when the fighter being criticized for a lack of agression is an undefeated heavyweight with a skillful jab and a physically imposing athletic build. But welcome to the world of Kevin Johnson.

I first met Johnson on March 30, 2006. He was outrageously brash, with that Muhammad Ali-inspired gift of gab. Add to it that he had the gift of jab, and it was easy to fall in line with the hype.

Johnson was saying all the right things to pump us up. He had us believing he could be the future of the division. At 6-foot-3 and a well-sculpted 238 pounds, he had a body that further stamped his chance to fill that heavyweight throne.

Then I watched him fight. It was like watching Sports Illustrated cover girl Marissa Miller reach for a smock rather than a bikini.

Fast forward to this week. Johnson still is unbeaten (18-0-1) and still is being questioned. He is fighting veteran Terry Smith, 30-4-1, 18 KOs, in the "Friday Night Fights" main event.

"Knowing me, I'll probably just screw him around a little bit," Johnson said. "I could make it quick, but I just want to enjoy it."

I very much know what I enjoy when I watch a fight. Typically, it's aggression.

[+] EnlargeKevin Johnson
Scott Foster/Fightwireimages.com Johnson, left, may be undefeated, but his safety-first style isn't doing him any favors.
Johnson has figured out the jab is the best weapon in boxing. His jab is very good. But it's good in the way Wladimir Klitschko's jab was good in that insomnia-curing waste of time against Sultan Ibragimov in February.

"I've had 19 fights, and I ain't never been hit yet. Never been down, dazed or out," Johnson said in defense of his jab-first style. "Larry Holmes always said, 'You do what you been doing that's been working, until it stops working.' And so far, I've been in there with 19 people that can't get past the shotgun jab."

Of those 19 opponents, however, he has knocked out only six. In fact, in his past 10 fights over the past two years, he has had one knockout. That was against Curtis Davis in South Carolina. Not exactly Klitschko at the Garden.

I get it -- some guys aren't punchers. But I don't believe that is the reason here. This is a product of Johnson's mentality.

The big man recently offered up one of the craziest explanations I've ever heard as to why he doesn't go for the knockout. He said he doesn't fight with aggression and doesn't throw knockout combinations because he doesn't want to unveil his game plan for a title fight somewhere well off in the future.

"I'm saving all that for the champions," the 28-year-old New Jersey native said. "They're going to be sitting back, studying tapes of me. They can only study 19 tapes of the jab. They ain't going to get too far."

Does he understand this isn't the NFL preseason? Bill Belichick isn't training Klitschko, looking for tendencies on third and long.

This is professional prize fighting. Putting butts in the arena seats is how it works. Getting viewers to tune in is how you get paid.

Jabbing and not getting hit against guys you should get rid of lasts only so long.

Smith now is 36 and seems to be nearing the end of what has been a very entertaining career. He is coming off two disappointing losses. He doesn't have what it takes to be a heavyweight champion, but he does have what it takes to get my attention time and time again.

I like watching Smith fight. He tries. He understands what it means to be a fighter. He wants to be aggressive.

Maybe Smith will be the cure for Johnson's ills. Maybe Smith will force Johnson to cross that line. Just maybe, it will be the moment when it all clicks, giving American fight fans what they want -- a big, athletic, exciting heavyweight American champion.

According to Johnson, he wants the same.

"I'm getting tired of what you're tired of," Johnson said. "All these runner-ups and candidates, just coming in as an opponent for a title shot, knowing damn well they ain't the man for the job. I'm tired of it, you know? Everybody wants to fight for the title, but [really], they just want that check."

Joe Tessitore is the blow-by-blow announcer for ESPN2's "Friday Night Fights."

Joe Tessitore has been the blow-by-blow announcer for ESPN2's "Friday Night Fights" and "Wednesday Night Fights" since 2002 and contributes a weekly boxing column to ESPN.com.