The Columbus Recreation and Parks Department will celebrate veteran fighters with roots in Columbus and raise money for the next generation
This month marks the 27th anniversary of one of the biggest upsets in boxing history: The day Columbus native James “Buster” Douglas knocked out then undefeated heavyweight champion of the world Mike Tyson in the 10th round of the match at the Tokyo Dome.
Douglas will be honored at a showcase, “Columbus Celebrates Its Boxing Legends,” on Saturday, Feb. 18, at the Barack Community Center, which is part of the Columbus Recreation and Parks Department (CRPD). According to the event creator and CRPD coach Everett Smith, Douglas is just one in a long line of noteworthy fighters with roots in the city.
“Everybody knows Buster Douglas, but there's so many other people that came out of [Barack Community Center] and just Columbus period,” Smith said. “The whole goal … is to acknowledge them for their contributions [in] boxing and to get them back involved in boxing.”
One featured legend is Vonzell Johnson, who finished his career as a light heavyweight professional boxer with a 22-3 record.
“I really lost two,” said Johnson, who felt he was the rightful winner of a match in New Orleans. “They gave him the fight because I was in his hometown,” he said of his opponent. “I was so mad. … They say I lost three [fights], so I got to accept it I guess.”
After moving from Chicago to the East Side of Columbus, Johnson started boxing unexpectedly at age 13. “I got into a fight at Beatty [Community Center],” he said, and recalled how the boxing coach, Ed Williams, made him and the other boy put on gloves and spar in the ring. “[Coach Williams] pulled me to the side and said, ‘Man, you got something special, kid. … Why don't you come back tomorrow and let's talk.' So I went back and the rest is history.”
About 10 years later, in 1974, Johnson won his first national Golden Gloves amateur championship in Denver. “I had five fights [and] four knockouts,” he said. He was then selected to be the captain of a team of U.S. boxers — including Sugar Ray Leonard — during a tour of the Soviet Union, where he won all of his fights.
Back in the U.S., Johnson was honored, along with OSU football star Archie Griffin and acclaimed OSU football coach Woody Hayes, at a ceremony. Hayes, whom Johnson admired, insisted the audience give Johnson a second round of applause for “whoopin'” the Russians. “That was … a very special moment,” Johnson said.
But Johnson's proudest moment in boxing — even more than later competing in two professional world championship fights — was Coach Williams' reaction after one of his knockouts at the Golden Gloves.
“I looked up to him … because he made me the fighter that I was in the amateurs,” Johnson said. “And I just can't describe that look he had on his face when I won that fight. It was priceless.”
After retiring in the early 1980s, Johnson went on to coach kids in Columbus, starting at the Barack Center. “I would see kids out in the streets, hanging out on the corner by the liquor store … [or] selling dope,” he said. “I said, ‘I got to get back in here. I gotta help some of these kids.'”
Helping children is another goal of the “Legends” showcase, which serves as a fundraiser for CRPD boxers, many of whom are at an elite level.
“That's the worst … to work for something and [not] get to actually compete in anything because the outside tournaments cost a lot to go to,” said Smith, who grew up playing sports at the Barack Center and currently coaches about 50 kids and adults. “We need sponsors.”
Among Smith's talented bunch is 16-year-old multi-national champion Dashun Banks.
“They treat me like family,” Banks said. “Boxing is just fun all around — traveling, seeing different places at a young age that some adults may not have the opportunity to [visit]. It's really a blessing.”
“We have a great relationship,” 24-year-old national champion Kechaune Jenkins said of his experience with Coach Smith. “He's like a father to me.”
Both Banks and Jenkins have already met some of the showcase's featured legends, which also include Olympic gold medalist Jerry Page, Steve and Charles Gregory, Marvin Green and Manning Galloway.
“It's flattering for us,” Johnson said. “It's an honor.”
In addition to the meet-and-greet with the legends, attendees will also get to see 14 bouts by male and female youth and adults of various skill levels and weight classes.
“I'm happy to have the group we do,” Smith said. “Some kids join gangs because … they want to belong to something. So it keeps them off the street. This is their family.”