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'Hands of Thunder': Boxing Champ Using Hands and Heart to Heal Broken Community

12-29-2019
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East St. Louis, Ill – In the film industry, boxing is associated with box office ratings and critical acclaim. Fan favorites like "Raging Bull," "Million Dollar Baby," and "Creed" – based on the iconic "Rocky" franchise – have proven the genre's popularity and profitability. 

Although some may see the sport as violent, boxing's appeal hinges on the notions of focus and grit displayed in the lives of its real-life athletes, like former world flyweight champion Arthur Johnson whose story can be likened to a tale of two cities.

From the window of his childhood home, he could see in the distance the gleaming Gateway Arch towering over downtown St. Louis. But his home sat on the less-economically vibrant side of the Mississippi River, in southwestern Illinois.

Although the two cities partially share the same name, the similarities end there.

In 2018, East St. Louis earned an unwanted moniker as America's "most dangerous city." Additionally, residents face unemployment that's nearly twice the rate of the national average.

Those harsh realities make it difficult for the people who call it home to obtain their dreams.

Fighter at Heart

Growing up in a city known for its toughness, Johnson inherited a fighting spirit.

Unlike some of the other kids, it helped him resist the pull of drugs and violence with a dream to chase success beyond the city limits. He uncovered a pathway the first time he saw a televised boxing match.

"I would imitate the broadcasters and say, 'There goes Arthur!'" Johnson recalled, motioning a right hook with his fist. "He lands a right hand. Another right hand by Johnson!"

"It was something that I think, without question, God put in my heart before I could really even recognize that I was going to maybe be a fighter," he added.

Inspired by Muhammad Ali, Johnson took up boxing by the time he was 10 years old and joined an athletic club after forging his mother's signature on a permission slip.

"I signed it myself," he chuckled. "Later on my mom would find out, and she knew that perhaps maybe I found something that was going to keep me out of trouble."

Johnson believes the sport opened doors for him by allowing him to see brighter possibilities.

"Learning how to box was definitely a blessing because it kept me out of trouble," he explained. "It kept me out of a gang of trouble — things that I could have done that my life could have been different in terms of the road that I took."

Lightweight, Big Ambition

While he developed a heart for the sport, he didn't quite measure up in size. It was something he realized the very first time he put on a pair of gloves as a young boy.

"I was a small guy, and this kid belted me with a shot [and] knocked me on my tush," Johnson said, referring to that first fight. "I got back up, and I could hear in the crowd somebody say, 'Don't quit!'"

Johnson heeded the advice and kept training to hone his skills.

Weighing in at 112 pounds for most of his career, his size became an asset as a flyweight fighter.

He also earned the nickname "Flash" because of his lightning-fast punching combinations.

"He was a little guy with thunder in both hands," said Michael Gross, a lifelong friend. "112 pounds: that's not a lot of weight, but, man, his power was exceptional for that weight class."

A Knock-Out Career

Eventually, he trained with the man who coached boxing legends, like George Foreman, Sugar Ray Leonard, and Ali – his inspiration. Coach Angelo Dundee was a legend in his own right.

"It's so weird that years and years later that [Ali's] manager would become my manager, and we would be in the same boxing family," he mused.

Johnson excelled becoming the first flyweight amateur to win three consecutive national titles before amassing a total of twelve. His record still stands today.

He also became the first American to win gold at the inaugural Good Will Games in Moscow in 1986. Yet, one of Johnson's most defining career moments was representing the United States at the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, South Korea.

Still, he had no idea life's hardest punch would come when he stepped out of the ring and into retirement.

The Fight of His Life

In June 2008, years after hanging up the gloves, doctors diagnosed Johnson with Acute Promyelocytic Leukemia, or APL – a rare form of blood cancer. They also told him he had only two to three months to live.

"I had never taken a punch, and I know he has," his wife, LaTanya, recalled while letting out a deep breath at their family home about 15 miles from where Johnson grew up. "It was like I got hit with a punch, and I got the wind knocked out of me."

His health declined, but Johnson, his wife, and their children leaned on their faith in God and support from their church, Faith Family Church, in Shiloh, Illinois. LaTanya also reminded her husband of the fighter within.

"When he was laying in that bed in the hospital, the only thing I could say is, 'Babe, we gotta pull the gloves out one more time,'" she said. "This is going to be our biggest battle. This is going to be our biggest fight."

Johnson spent a month in the hospital and underwent six months of chemotherapy. It would take five long years for him to recover.

Once he finally beat cancer, he eagerly punched back with a newfound desire to make a difference.

Making Champions

He established the Arthur Johnson Foundation, a nonprofit whose mission is to rebuild East St. Louis by focusing on making a positive impression on youth. 

"That's what I see. I see him leaving a piece of himself in the next generation," LaTanya observed.

The foundation also paved the way for him to train young hopefuls at his new gym, called the Flash Boxing and Activity Center, built with his own funding along with some sponsors and donations. Today, it's where Johnson teaches his students the lessons he learned both inside and outside of the ring.

His work is making a difference.

Zera Hall enrolled two of her young sons, Solomon and Samuel, to train with Johnson. She told CBN News she has seen true transformation.

"My oldest son, he's become very athletic. His confidence is higher," Hall acknowledged. "[This] organization, I believe, has really changed our lives."

"He's a good role model [and] father figure," echoed Carlos Collier, who trains with Johnson and hopes to box professionally. "He's a good person in general. This city needs more people like him."

Collier noted that much of Johnson's community work is self-funded or relies on donations.

"This stuff that he's doing for us, he's not getting paid to do it," Collier explained. "For him to be doing a lot of this out of the kindness of his heart, that's a blessing."

Johnson views this chapter of his life fueling his passion and fulfilling his purpose, all while returning to his hometown roots in East St. Louis.

"My hope for this city and this community is that it becomes what it once was," he said. "That's my hope – and to give hope to youth that wander about the streets and really don't have direction to what they want to go or where they want to be."

His new fight, outside of the ring, is to instill a simple belief in the hearts and minds of the kids in his hometown – the same one that propelled him to become a boxing champion and a cancer survivor: "If you can dream it, you can achieve it."

"I'm excited about the lives that we're touching [and] the lives that we're going to change," Johnson told CBN News. "We've made some champions in the physical form, but more importantly, I think we're going to make champions in life."

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