Exclusive: Callum Johnson – I have been to much scarier places than a boxing ring

Callum Johnson’s journey has not been one of plain sailing. In 2016, he lost his father, Paul, who was a vital component of his life; in and out of the ring. This turned his world upside down and Callum is intent on finishing the journey they embarked upon together many years ago as they set out on their path of winning the World Title. In October, chasing 18-0, Johnson faced Artur Beterbiev for the IBF World Title in Chicago. Unfortunately, on this occasion, it was not to be as Beterbiev emerged victorious. However, Callum’s time will come again. He is not done yet; that I am sure of.

Recently, I got in touch with Callum and he agreed to take time out of preparing for the biggest fight of his life for an exclusive interview which featured in Red News.

In a very honest conversation, he opens up in great detail about his initial interest in Manchester United, his addiction for boxing, the influence of his father, as well as his own struggles with mental health.

 

Manchester United


Johnson the Red. Recalling his childhood, he tells how his affection for the club came about and reels off his favourite players. I asked him to choose just one, and it is hard to disagree with his choice: ”My earliest memories of supporting United are from my school days, really. My mates supported them and my Dad was a big fan too. I just jumped on the bandwagon I suppose! I was always a big fan of Andy Cole and Dwight Yorke; they were a great partnership and I loved to watch them.


I think the likes of David Beckham, Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes are the ones that made me love the club. As a young fan, it is that great era I think of when I consider Manchester United. Picking a favourite player is tough, however. If I had to choose one, I think I’d have to go with Ryan Giggs.

Nowadays, I don’t get as much time to follow United as I don’t have a lot of free time. Since my kids were born, I have had my hands full and a lot of my time is dedicated to my boxing.

I played a little bit of football myself growing up but I got sent off quite a lot! I think I was a little bit too aggressive! It was at that point I decided to go down to the boxing gym instead.”

Boxing

His addiction. He began in his local town and by the age of 16, he had progressed to train in Lincoln, at Terry Allen Unique ABC. As an amateur, his record was a comprehensive 95 victories from 120 fights; 40 of which were international fights. He cites his father, Paul, as the person who has shaped the man he has become today, and an individual who had a massive impact on his love for the game: ”My Dad was a big influence. I think that’s where my initial interest in the sport came from, to be honest. My Dad boxed a bit and I remember when I was young I used to mess around with him at home; punching his hands and practicing together. We would watch fights together too; they are great memories for me.


It just naturally progressed from there really and I began at my local boxing club in Boston. My Dad took me down to the gym as soon as I was old enough. I just got the bug; I got my first high from boxing and I have been chasing it ever since.


I was addicted from the moment I started.”


Commonwealth Games in Delhi

Johnson captained the Scotland boxing squad for the Commonwealth Games in 2010 and picked up a gold medal. He fought in the 81kg Light Heavyweight category and defeated Thomas McCarthy of Northern Ireland in the final. Naturally, it is a proud moment for Callum but when asked how much of success is actually enjoyed he had this to say:  ”It’s a case of as soon as it’s over you tend to move on to the next target. I’m not sure how much sportspeople revel in the moment. I have started to reflect a bit more nowadays, however. Since my Dad passed away, I do reflect on the good times in my life and what I have achieved more than before. I think you do forget to enjoy the moment and the success, to be honest.

I have been so lucky in my life. I have done some great things, I have achieved some amazing things and I have been to some incredible places throughout my career. I have been all around the world.

My advice to an up and coming athlete is to enjoy every minute of it while you are doing it. One day, you wake up and it can be all over.”

Visualization

He speaks about the utilization of mental techniques which he believes can enhance his performances. Through visualizing future events, or cognitively recreating a previous good performance, Johnson knows that such preparation can improve his chances of repeating such successes: ”I think a lot of the preparation for a fight is mental. I do visualize when preparing for my fights and to be honest, I have done that for quite a long time. Before the Commonwealth Games, during every single training session or every run I would go on, I used to visualize myself standing on the podium with the gold medal.

I did this before it became labelled as a mental technique and recognized as a crucial aspect of mental preparation. It was something that I did naturally.

I would imagine myself in the ring, with the national anthem, putting my head down and receiving a gold medal. It helps me prepare for the occasion and I imagine the way I want things to go, or giving a good performance.

In turn, it gives me a sense that I can handle anything that is thrown at me. ”

My ‘best mate’

His father, Paul. His hero. A man credited by Callum as the person who moulded him into the guy he has become today: ”My Dad was the first man to train me and he did so throughout my career. He trained me to be an amateur Commonwealth Games gold medalist and he continued to be a big part of my professional career.


Obviously, Joe is my coach and my professional trainer but my Dad was always involved. When I lost my Dad, I didn’t just lose my Dad, I lost my best mate too, my coach, and the man that looked after me. He made me feel safe; I lost everything. It broke me, to be honest.

When I put it into perspective, and when I consider what I have been through, how can anything scare me now?

Boxing was me and my Dad’s journey. He was as passionate about it as I was. I am on this path now without him; we can’t finish our journey together. But it is now my duty to finish it the best I can in his memory.

I didn’t find boxing a release from that pain; it didn’t help me. We were always at the gym together and there was no escape through fighting.

To win a World Title would be the perfect end to a bad story. That is what is driving me on; there is nothing I want more than to win the World Title for my Dad and to be able to look up at the sky and say, ‘we did it.’ Without him, I wouldn’t be doing what I am doing and I wouldn’t be the man I am today. He guided me and I still believe he is guiding me now. He imparted the knowledge I needed to equip me for life without him.”

Joe Gallagher

The man who stuck by him when the going got tough. The man who stuck by him when nobody else did. A man he has great respect for: ”Joe has had a massive influence on my career. My Dad had encouraged me in the direction of Joe, to be honest. He has taught me so much and he has been there for me since I lost my father.


There have been times when I disappeared from the gym and had little wobbles. There are a lot of people who wouldn’t have stuck by me, and Joe did. I owe a lot to the man. He is always there for me. He has stuck by me and backed my corner. I would love to win this World Title for Joe too, so we can say ‘I told you I could do this’ and to prove all the doubters wrong.

Psychologically, I think a coach has a massive amount of influence on a modern fighters success. If a coach believes in you like I know Joe believes in me, that can give you an extra lift or little bit of inspiration. If your coach doesn’t believe in you or say the right things, it’s not going to help your mental preparation very much is it?

Joe has a big part of the mental side of my preparation.”

Will > Skill

A summation of the mentality of Callum Johnson: ”I had this conversation with a mate recently. You can be as talented as you want, but if you aren’t obsessed, and don’t put the work in, you won’t be successful. I was obsessed as a young teenager. I stayed longer than everyone else in my gym; practicing certain shots and movements. I would repeat that back at home that night, or the next morning.


I think to be a successful top level athlete, in whatever sport, you need to be obsessed. Obviously, the talent is important too but you won’t get to the top of you don’t put the work in. I was like that as a teenager and I am still like that today. I am always striving to be fitter and stronger than I was yesterday, and always trying to improve myself.

I believe that is what separates the top athletes from the rest.”

Modern Challenges

There are a number of challenges a modern athlete must contend with as times evolve. He gives some insight as to what he believes are the most taxing aspects of a sportsperson life: ”I think social media is a challenge a modern day athlete must overcome. When you consider some of the things that people who don’t even know you write about you online, it can be difficult to deal with. At the end of the day, these people wouldn’t dream of saying it to my face. You have to be strong enough to deal with the nasty stuff that is posted about you online.


Injuries too, obviously; they can ruin a career. I have had a few injuries that took me out of the game for some time and its hard to deal with. Again, as I mentioned, it requires a lot of resolve to come back from a bad injury.

Little injuries that keep you our for a few months here and there are a test of one’s steel and strength. It’s difficult to keep focused but you must concentrate on that end goal. If you can do that, I think you will get there sooner or later.

In modern society, there is more emphasis on mental health and it is the same in sport. It is also a big issue for athletes, especially for men; the statistics show that. In previous generations, nobody really understood when people were going through these bad times.

Nowadays, there is more knowledge about it and there are more people coming out and talking about their battles which is great. Hopefully, eventually, we can reach a stage where everyone is comfortable talking about it. It is definitely a big concern and one which should be addressed more.

Having said that, it is hard for people to open up on their feelings. I think we would be surprised with how many athletes that do suffer on a daily basis.

We are talking about people who are in the limelight and comfortable financially. In theory, their life must be amazing but sometimes it’s not about the money. It doesn’t work like that. Mental health doesn’t pick out certain people, it can pick out anybody.

When I was struggling, I didn’t talk to people or look for help. When you are in such a dark place, it is hard to reach out and you may feel like nobody cares about you, but so many people do care. I would advise anybody who is struggling to reach out and talk about their problems.”

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