Boxing behind closed doors: US veteran Johnson relishing a step into the unknown

Omnisport

Week by week, game by game fans across the world are getting used to the spectacle of top-level sport taking place behind closed doors.

Germany's Bundesliga lead the way last month, with the Premier League, LaLiga and Serie A all due to follow suit as European football emerges from its coronavirus hiatus.

Goals will fly in to no applause, much like the tries being run in before empty stands in the NRL. Formula One engines will soon make a howling echo as they pass deserted grandstands.

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But what of boxing and it's close-quarters intense combat in the COVID-19 age? Dramatic twists with no fan on the edge or any other part of a seat, knockout blows followed only by the thud of body on canvas and without roars and screams.

So what does a former world heavyweight title challenger think about the prospect of trading leather in an uber-sanitised environment?

"Sweet, sweet, sweet! Because the fans can make your blood pressure go up for no reason," US heavyweight veteran Kevin Johnson told Stats Perform from his base in Gelsenkirchen, the German city where he is undergoing final preparations for taking on Mariusz Wach in his native Poland next Friday.

Top Rank will bring boxing back to Las Vegas earlier in the week, with WBO super-featherweight champion Shakur Stevenson and his fellow 126lbs star Jessie Magdaleno featuring in respective main events.

In the UK, intrigue remains over Eddie Hearn's plans to stage events in the sprawling gardens of his Matchroom HQ, but Wach v Johnson has been slated for some time – confirmed in April as a pay-per-view event. It will set fans back 20 Polish zloty, or a shade under $5.

Palac w Konarach, a hotel in a plush setting that suggests its three-star rating might be selling it a little short, will host the card. It lies remotely in the rural Swietokrzyskie Voivodeship, 100 kilometres north east of Krakow and 230 south of the capital Warsaw.

"We were in negotiations late last year and then there was the corona thing, so we were postponing," Johnson explained.

"Now it's come about. It's going to be under a strategic, surgical eye as far as the methods and precautions that we're going to take in this pandemic.

"It's going to be very different to any show that's been done because of the extremes we have to go to and into for our safety."

Those precautions will include quarantined areas for both fighters at the hotel and on fight night, with tests for everyone allowed into the event – from the referee and judges, to both fighters' teams and camera operators.

Johnson knows that in the current climate, any fans at all being involved was a complete non-starter, especially given a boxing ring walk does not grant the distance from supporters afforded by grandstands in other sports.

"I always worry [about my health] when it comes to a fight," said the former Tyson Fury and Anthony Joshua foe. "I'm not worried about the fighter because we test all year round. We are some of the healthiest and cleanest athletes to come into contact with each other.

"I'm more worried about fans who would want to take pictures and grab on you. You're sweaty, your pores are open, you're more susceptible for anything to happen at that moment.

"Now I don’t have to come into contact with anyone but Mariusz and his team over in Poland are taking wonderful, cautious and precise methods to make sure we can perform and come into contact with each other without any of us having anything.

"There will be extra testing to make sure we are 100 per cent and [between then and the fight] we will be isolated to our areas."

Johnson suffered his first career defeat in his 24th outing, challenging the great Vitali Klitschko for the WBC title in 2009. That unanimous points loss in Berne, Switzerland was the first time he had boxed outside of the United States.

The 40-year-old will step between the ropes for the 52nd time against Wach and has only fought on home soil in two of his previous 24 bouts – the last of those coming when he took Andy Ruiz 10 rounds, 11 months before the Mexican underdog stunned Joshua in New York.

This status as a well-travelled road warrior means Johnson knows the challenges of boxing with the crowd against you all too well – a factor he is relishing being taken out of the equation on June 12.

"A guy can throw punches at you and you block them, but the fans didn't see it and they think it landed," he said. "The fans either put some weight on you or they help you with their energy.

"So [Wach] has got to operate clearly off what he knows has landed. It's just me and him and the judges."

Wach's shot at the top honours came in 2012 when he took Wladimir Klitschko the distance.

Although he and Johnson's days among the elite are long gone, the bout between these seasoned campaigners carries a weight it would not have done in normal circumstances. For weeks now, they have been united in a common purpose of solitary togetherness.

"We want the world to know that fights can still happen," Johnson added.

"People don't understand the s*** you have to go through in these times just to train. It's so far-fetched, so far gone.

"This is a time right now where we're both putting our life on the line and it shows the tremendous heart and warrior spirit of two great fighters."

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