Jesse Hart is one of Philadelphia’s top boxers, and he gave 16-year-old Richard Johnson the stamp of approval.
Hart, 31, gets a weekly look at Johnson at the Athletic Boxing Club in North Philadelphia. Between their sparring, running, and just a pure eye for talent, Hart said Johnson could be better than he is.
“He just has to keep working,” said Hart, a light heavyweight with a 26-3 record. “The kid’s got it.”
Johnson is at the ABC gym everyday, Monday through Saturday. He and his trainer, Fred Jenkins, start around 5 p.m. and go until 8 or 9 because he likes to train at night. Sometimes he’ll text Jenkins around midnight.
“I’m like, ‘Yo, I just got off work,’ ” Jenkins said. “I’ll go pick him up, or him and his brother to run.”
Johnson is ranked No. 3 in the USA at 176 and 165 pounds in the junior men national rankings. Along with Ramir Wise and Juan Rivera, he represents amateurs who could be the future of Philly boxing.
Johnson is from North Philly. He started boxing at 11 and now it’s his passion. There’s not much indecisiveness on what he wants to do. He’ll sometimes play multiplayer on Call of Duty: Warzone, but boxing is his life.
His support system is his mother, brother, sister, a host of other relatives, and Jenkins.
“It’s just about getting out of Philly,” Johnson said. “I ain’t really good at too much else besides this.”
Jenkins recalls seeing Johnson for the first time when he was 13 at a Golden Gloves event in Philly. He was asked to wrap Johnson’s hands. The soft-spoken Johnson didn’t say much. His actions spoke louder.
“I watched him fight, and I’m like, ‘Who is he?’ ” Jenkins said. “I’ve been around boxing since I was a little boy. Me seeing him kind of like wowed me.”
Johnson’s mother brought him to the ABC gym about six months later, looking for a coach. The timing couldn’t have been more perfect. Jenkins was about to close shop. Most of the lights in the gym had been turned off to the point where he didn’t even recognize Johnson walking in until he got up close.
“Every since then, we’ve been stuck like glue,” Jenkins said. “We’re always together.”
Johnson has the long arms with which he can wear down opponents with supreme boxing skills, but he also has a chiseled enough frame to take a punch and dish out an even harder one. As one of the top amateurs in the country, he’s faced some top competition.
One fight stands out in particular. Jenkins called the opponent a baby Mike Tyson. He was much shorter and stockier than Johnson, but when he swung, Jenkins could only question if he was really 16. Johnson won that fight.
“I like fighting the best people,” Johnson said. “I don’t understand the fun in fighting somebody you know you can beat.”
Jenkins and Johnson went to Lubbock, Texas, this month for the 2021 National Junior Olympics. Johnson fought at 176 and won a bronze medal. Jenkins said he plans to have Johnson go back down to 165.
The big picture isn’t far ahead. Olympic and professional decisions are coming, but Johnson is living in the moment. Right now, the biggest lesson boxing has taught him is how to handle losses.
“Nobody likes losing, but I really don’t like losing,” Johnson said.
“No one knows that feeling when you suffer a defeat in front of your family,” Jenkins said. “That’s almost like getting embarrassed.”
Those two words — losses and lessons — are synonymous at this point of his career. Johnson is doing a lot more winning, but it’s those lessons that will mold him into a professional boxer.