Johnson one to watch in muddled heavyweight scene

What's ahead for heavyweight Kevin Johnson is a battle with Robert Hawkins. It's Johnson's very first on-air slot on "Friday Night Fights," Joe Tessitore writes.

Originally Published: March 28, 2006
By Joe Tessitore | Special to ESPN.com

"Kevin Johnson. Come on down. You're the next contestant on the Heavyweight Price Is Right."

If Boxing had a game-show announcer, that's exactly what we would be hearing this week. It should have one. Ever since Lennox Lewis called it a career, the most visible division is playing out as randomly as a game show.

Kevin Johnson
In nine pro fights, New Jersey's Kevin Johnson (left) shows potential.

With an unbeaten record as his tag, New Jersey's Kevin Johnson (8-0, 5 KOs) does indeed come at the price that's right. This is a heavyweight division that Bob Barker himself has to love. The legendary TV host reminds Americans daily to spay or neuter our pets. Good ol' Bob doesn't have to worry about boxing's big dogs. Listening to their bark, and watching their lack of bite, makes this heavyweight group seem sterile.

What fight fans really want is for somebody like Johnson to simply emerge. That somebody has to give you the feeling that their best days are still ahead of them. As for now, what's ahead of Johnson is a battle with Robert Hawkins (21-5, 7 KOs) at Mohegan Sun in Uncasville, Conn. It's Johnson's very first on-air slot on Friday Night Fights (ESPN2, 9 ET).

It's fun to watch an undefeated heavyweight prospect. You never know if you are witnessing history in the making. I went to most of Mike Tyson's early bouts in upstate New York. These were the white trunks with the red stripe, non-televised Tyson days. It was a thrill to watch him gain momentum. Years later, those same Capital District fans thoroughly enjoyed scouting Jo-El Scott on his way to 17-0 before his troubled life derailed him.

Watching a good heavyweight prospect work his way toward the top is like riding a wave. It could all come crashing down at any moment. Here's hoping Kevin Johnson can surf.

In his prefight ESPN interview, Johnson told us: "I've got the fastest jab in the heavyweight division. The fastest, guaranteed. I'll bet you half of my fight purse when you see it. Emanuel Steward said it's the fastest since Larry Holmes."

Let the hype begin. Come Friday night we'll know what's for real. I respect Manny Steward but I'm more interested to hear what Teddy Atlas has to say after Johnson fights in a pressure spot like this.

For the record, Johnson already has fought in some pressure spots. His mere nine pro fights belie the fact that he actually has had decent ring experience. In just his fourth pro fight, Johnson was thrown in with former Russian amateur star Timur Ibragimov. Ibragimov was an Olympian and already 13-0, yet Johnson fought him to a draw. He also took on gate keeping journeyman Robert Wiggins and won.

"My biggest thing is, I ain't ducking and diving to hide from nobody. I came up to fight the best," Johnson said.

Right now, the heavyweight division is filled with retreads. Hasim Rahman is as close to being "the man" as we have. The Rock is 33 and his best days were in 2001, when one crushing punch on Lennox Lewis in South Africa made him. Hasim's next fight could be against 37-year-old Oleg Maskaev, whose best day came in 1999, when he KO'd guess who? Rahman. The revolving door is getting greased.

The rest of the heavyweight top crop includes the overtalented but underconditioned 37-year-old James Toney and the 35-year-old feather-fisted Chris Byrd. The sport needs a youth movement. The sport needs big men that give us hope. I think 25-year-old Sam Peter, who will fight on ESPN2 April 28, is going to eventually reign supreme. Still, he will need competition.

Peter is a power puncher. If Johnson's piston-fast jab is as good as advertised, we may have something worth watching down the road. For now, we need to watch him on Friday.

I'm not saying the 26-year-old Johnson can be the real deal. A few boxing people I respect have told me they do think he can be. For all I know, he may be a total bust. What I am ready to say is that the sport needs Johnson to be the real deal.

So here's hoping Hawkins makes for a tough test versus Johnson. Fight fans should hope that Johnson passes the test. If he does impress, then the price is right to buy in on the hype.

Joe Tessitore is the blow-by-blow announcer on 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.

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