During the evenings, Perry Johnson prepares for a long night of cleaning at Pierce College Puyallup. Moving through the halls and classrooms on campus, this custodian contemplates his retirement dream—his dream to train boxers.
Johnson’s enthusiasm for boxing began in his hometown of Oakland, Calif. He grew up in a rough part of the city where learning to fight and to defend himself was almost a necessity.
“In my neighborhood, if you didn’t know how to defend yourself, then you should just stay at home,” Johnson said.
Fortunately, for Johnson, he had a natural gift for the hand movements of boxing. Johnson described it as just something he was born to do.
Johnson recalls getting into a few fights as a kid, and it was one of these fights in particular that changed Johnson’s life.
When Johnson was 10, he was scraping with another boy when a man broke up the fight. This man turned out to be lightweight boxer, John Davis. After the fight ended, Davis asked Johnson where he learned to fight so well.
“It still puzzles me how I learned to use my hands,” Johnson said, while holding up his fists.
The boxer, impressed by Johnson’s skills, trained him until he was 14. Johnson then began to participate in amateur boxing leagues.
He began to develop a killer instinct, an edge, which fueled him during fights. Through the years Johnson maintained his passion for boxing and fought in tournaments at 17 years old.
Johnson’s edge for boxing halted abruptly during a sparring match between Johnson and one of his good friends. Johnson landed several punches to his friend’s head and caused him to collapse. This ended the match. Onlookers were stunned and Johnson was shocked. His friend later recovered, but the incident prevented him from boxing ever again.
“Shocking. Devastating,” Johnson said. ”I felt bad for his mom.”
The shock made Johnson realize the dangers of boxing; his edge turned into humility. He began to steer away from boxing and focus on other sports that he participated in at high school, such as football and baseball. The dedication he showed for sports got him voted most likely to be a professional athlete in high school. At 19, Johnson was drafted into Vietnam.
“It pissed me off,” said Johnson, “it put me in a position where I couldn’t say no.”
Johnson’s dreams of becoming a professional athlete were over. Johnson’s time at Vietnam was described with only two words, “Pure hell.”
When Johnson returned from Vietnam, he went into a life of solitude and became very unsociable. He later moved to Washington state and it was here that Johnson reinvigorated his enthusiasm for boxing by training young boxers. He put all of his energy into training and during this time he began to bring out his friendlier side.
“I learned to like people all over again,” Johnson said.
Johnson began training people in 1980 in a cozy upstairs room at a soccer center, which was later moved to a boys’ club. Johnson felt at home. What Johnson learned in the past, he uses to teach now.
“It was something given to me, so I wanted to give it back,” Johnson said.
The most important idea in boxing he tells his young trainees is balance. Johnson would play music to help his future champions get in rhythm, which helps them get into balance. Johnson tells his trainees that the skills of boxing is a power, it should be used the right way. Johnson believes these abilities you attain should make you realize the importance of using them with discretion.
“It humbles you,” Johnson said. “It humbles me.”
Johnson enjoyed watching young boxers start small then grow and transform their skills, just like he did. Johnson even trained some future champions, like junior lightweight champion, Steve Forbes.
Johnson would take the trainees to compete in organized matches. Johnson said the fun part was getting to know the opposing competitors and their families; they sometimes went to lunch together.
“Once you meet them, you don’t forget them,” Johnson said with a warm smile.
The traveling took a lot of his free time. Johnson had to end training young boxers at the club in 1990 during his job transition. Johnson said it was sad but necessary; he said he had to put family first.
He now works at Pierce College, where he has been for about 10 years. Here he continues to show his friendly side by talking to anyone who wishes to carry a conversation; about anything, or maybe even boxing tips.
Johnson’s future champions in training are now his 8- and 10-year-old grandsons. While In his garage, he teaches them the basics of the uppercut and the jab; he occasionally gives the punching bag a right hook.
Johnson hopes to retire from Pierce someday and if all goes well, he said he plans to open up his own boxing training center, which he will call “The School of Hard Knocks.”
Until then, Johnson moves around school doing his rounds. He listens to music with a good beat, which gets him in rhythm and occasionally reminds him of the good old days of training boxers before, and refreshes the hope of training the boxers to come.
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