Johnston convinced best days aren't behind him

If Stevie Johnston is nearing the end of his career -- or at the very least is well past the most useful stages of it -- as most observers firmly believe he is, you wouldn't know it from talking to him.

To hear him tell it, being 35 years old and the veteran of 48 pro fights, many of them hard and bloody, only means that he has to work harder than he did at 25.

"When I was in my 20s, I was winning on just my youth and talent," Johnston, in training for his fight Wednesday night with Edner Cherry, told ESPN.com. "Now I have to work a lot harder in the gym, stay an extra hour or two later."

If only that was all there is to it.

It's a cliché that fighters are the last ones to know when it's over, but it's true nevertheless. Most boxing insiders think it was over for Johnston almost five years ago, when Juan Lazcano stopped him in 11 rounds in Las Vegas.

If that wasn't it, certainly it had to be three years later, when Vivian Harris beat him all over the ring on the way to stopping him in the seventh round in California.

Johnston dismisses both losses out of hand. Fighters do that.

Responding to the suggestion that Lazcano might have been too big for him, Johnston replied, "No, it wasn't that he was too big. I've been fighting and beating bigger, stronger guys my whole career. I just couldn't get the weight off like I wanted to and had to starve myself."

About the Harris fight, for which he was a late replacement for Mike Arnaoutis, Johnston said, "I was just being hardheaded and cocky. I took the fight on two weeks' notice. I just wasn't prepared."

No matter how reasonable they sound, they're the kinds of excuses fighters make for losses -- especially when they don't have it anymore.

There was a time when Johnston's opponents were the ones making excuses. While he never was a top pound-for-pound guy, Johnston's run as the WBC lightweight champ from 1997 to 2000 -- interrupted briefly by a decision loss to Cesar Bazan, which was quickly avenged -- was entertaining and consisted frequently of very high-quality stuff.

His pre-championship KO win over the once-beaten and heavily favored Sharmba Mitchell received rave reviews, as did a subsequent knockout of undefeated Corey Johnson, who had 7 inches on the 5-foot-4 Johnston.

Seven fights later, Johnston beat Jean-Baptiste Mendy for the WBC lightweight title in France, a win he recalls as the highlight of his career. He notched seven title defenses over two reigns before Jose Luis Castillo decisioned him in California in 2000. A rematch ended in a draw and though he continued fighting, Johnston more or less dropped off the radar.

It was even worse outside the ring.

There were arrests. Twice Johnston was jailed for failing to pay child support. His entire purse for the Lazcano fight -- $175,000 -- went to pay child support to three women. His drinking, which had always been a problem -- he was arrested three times in the 1990s for driving under the influence -- worsened and climaxed in a car crash in 2003 (Johnston received roughly 100 stitches in his face).

Two years later, he was back in the ring and putting together some wins before the debacle against Harris. He is managed today, as he has been for about the past four years, by Jim Rider, who moved
Johnston (42-5-1, 18 KOs) into his home with him so he can keep close tabs on him.

"He just does a lot better when he's with me all the time," Rider said. "He stays with me. I watch every meal he eats so he doesn't have to starve himself to get down to weight. It works out better this way.

"He was away from me for about three and a half months going into his fight with Rolando Reyes and it didn't work out. So he's back with me now all the time." (Reyes stopped Johnston in the 10th round in Idaho in October 2007.)

Rider's decision to have Johnston live with him isn't motivated by mere business.

"Of all the guys I've [managed], he's the best guy as far as his personality goes, who he is," Rider said. "And he's not looking for any kind of a con. When it's time to train, he's there, putting in the work."

Calling the shots in the gym these days is Johnston's uncle, Richard Johnston, who trained him throughout his days as a lightweight titlist, and has worked in the recent past with Buddy McGirt and Dick Wood. Both Stevie Johnston and Rider feel strongly that Richard, a strict disciplinarian, is the
kind of authoritative figure needed in the gym and in their corner.

"I can still make a run at it. If I'm focused, like I am right now, I don't feel like anyone can beat me," Stevie Johnston said.

For all he's been through and for how old he's gotten before our eyes, Johnston still sounds like a kid. The question is if he can still fight like one, especially against a busy puncher like Cherry (23-5-2, 11 KOs), who is just 25 years old and hungry. Just as important is what happens if he cannot, and if, like many expect to happen, Cherry beats him handily

Rider said that if Johnston loses badly, it will be time for him to move to the corner and start training other fighters.

"If he can't beat Edner Cherry, then he can't beat any of the top guys," Rider said. "I've got the contract on him and I just won't let him fight anymore."

Johnston will hear none of it.

"I know when I was young I threw more punches and was faster. But I'm working harder now and that makes up for it," he said. "I've worked really hard for this fight and I'm in great shape. The pressure I put on him will give me the edge."

Most of the time, hard work in the gym won't peel away the effects of time and a career of hard fights. Maybe for Johnston it will. It is very unlikely.

The Ring's senior writer William Dettloff co-wrote the book "Box Like The Pros" with Joe Frazier.