There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.
Ham Johnson, patriarch of the first family of D.C. boxing, took in Mike Tyson’s most recent—and probably final—bout with two of his kids, who happen to be fighters. Watching Tyson’s trainer throw in the towel hit them a lot harder than it did the boo birds at the MCI Center.
“To see a bum beat Mike, that was a sad, sad night,” says Johnson.
Johnson and his family go back a long way with the former champ. James Harris, Johnson’s son and one of the 1,000 or so boxers he’s trained at various local gyms over the years, roomed with Tyson in the Catskills while both were adolescents and nationally ranked amateurs. Another son, Mark Johnson, got to know Tyson while on his way to a world championship of his own. When Tyson came to D.C. in March to announce his fight with Kevin McBride, he held up the press conference to call out Ham Johnson and introduce him to the assembled media as a mentor and longtime friend.
Ham did a little boxing at local boys’ clubs while growing up in Southwest. But his career as a trainer started rather by accident in 1969, when some neighborhood kids who had heard that a former fighter lived nearby knocked on his door and asked for ring tutelage. Ham started showing them the ropes in the alley just behind his home at Isherwood and 15th Streets NE. Ham found he enjoyed the sessions as much as the kids did. So when word spread about the boxing clinics, he founded the Ham Athletic Club (AC) Warriors in the basement of Eliot Junior High School.
“We never had a boxing ring,” he says. “We had one speed bag and heavy bag, and that was in a closet the size of a small bathroom. For ring posts, we just used human beings holding hands. The gloves used to bust open, and we’d put silver tape on them. Everybody used the same mouthpiece. I took the back seat out of my 1941 Plymouth, so if we had a tournament I could get 17 kids into that car. I know that sounds crazy, but it’s the truth.”
Despite meager resources, the squad began making a name for itself around the region.
Before long, Ham says, he had hundreds of kids training with him and a reputation as a stern disciplinarian. Ham says that once the courts learned about his program, they began turning troubled juveniles over to him in hopes he could box some sense into them. He adopted a policy of never asking a new kid’s name when the kid came into the gym.
“That was so if the police came in and asked me if I knew a guy, I could say, ‘Never heard of him!’ and be telling the truth,” says Ham, who paid the bills by working nights at Giant Food. “I gave everybody a nickname, and we just went with that.”
He tried to scare the young fighters straight with periodic field trips to Lorton Correctional Complex. He showed them that education could be a ticket out of D.C. by taking annual trips to the Ohio State Fair—which at the time held one of the nation’s premier amateur boxing competitions—where his team would room in dormitories at Ohio State University. Ham says that Patricia Harris, mother of James and Mark, was the secret weapon of his boxing teams, bringing hot plates to cook cheap meals for the team on the road and providing a soft touch to counteract the trainer’s hardball tactics. Patricia, he says, wasn’t overjoyed at watching her sons throw and take punches, but she knew she couldn’t keep them out of the fight game.
The family had several brushes with greatness during Ham’s years of coaching amateur teams. In 1975, a Ham AC fighter lost a bad decision to soon-to-be gold medalist Ray Leonard that, the trainer swears, Leonard still apologizes for. That same year, Patricia kept Leon Spinks from breaking team rules by keeping a woman in his hotel room the night before a national tournament. Ham’s fighter Louis Curtis made the 1976 U.S. Olympic team at 106 pounds. Ham and James stayed at future champ Aaron Pryor’s house as James and Pryor tried out for the 1984 Olympics. And Ham once carried a teenage Tyson back to the dressing room after the fighter lost a bid to make the 1984 U.S. Olympic team.
“Mike was a real big, strong kid. A heavyweight,” says Ham. “He took his loss real hard. So all 145 pounds of me had to lug him back to the dressing room, wipe the tears out of his eyes, tell him it would be OK.”
Like Tyson, James, who was the 1984 national champion 106-pounder, lost a bid for the Olympic team that year; he gave up boxing after a three-fight pro career. But Mark Johnson’s career brought his trainer/father to the highest levels of the sport.
Mark wanted to fight as soon as he knew what fighting was, so he could be like his brother James. Ham says he put off Mark’s ring debut, which came at a gym in Hillcrest Heights when Mark was a 36-pound 5-year-old, as long as he could. The proud papa remembers the bout mainly for its comic value.
“Mark would stand on a chair and three phone books so he could reach a speed bag,” says Ham, “but he could hit it as good as anybody I had. And he could put on 16-ounce gloves and throw combinations. He was so small, when he got into the ring, you couldn’t see Mark over the second rope. We couldn’t get a [protective] cup small enough for him, so we tried putting something together with tape that he could use, but in that first fight, he put his gloves up to his face and looked at the floor, and I noticed that his little cup had fallen through his pants and onto the ring floor. We were all laughing, and his mother went out there and picked it up. Mark took it real well. We all knew he was going to be a superstar.”
Mark’s debut outside this area would have to wait a few more years; amateur tournaments wouldn’t take fighters who weighed less than 55 pounds. But every August, he’d travel with the Ham AC to the Ohio State Fair and watch his father train his brother to seven straight wins in the tourney.
Mark won a national Golden Gloves title at 106 pounds as a 14-year-old, then successfully defended his title a year later. He went pro in 1989, but his original manager wouldn’t get him quality fights in the D.C. area. Ham scraped together $48,000—“That was my entire life savings at that time,” he says—to buy out Mark’s contract and in 1993, after Mark had KO’d 10 of his 13 opponents, began shipping him to Los Angeles to face well-regarded and far more experienced fighters.
Mark’s career peak came in May 1996 in L.A., when he knocked out Francisco Tejedor in the first round to win the International Boxing Federation (IBF) flyweight belt. He is the first and only African-American ever to hold a world title in that weight class.
Ham says he speaks only in code to his fighters during bouts and that his instructions during the short match with Tejedor included little more than commands to “Jab, jab, sit on the tallest stool, get me a dollar punch and don’t bring me back any change.” He declined to divulge the translation but says Mark obeyed every word.
“My dad gave me focus, he gave me discipline,” says Mark.
After eight title defenses, Mark went up a weight class and won the IBF’s junior bantamweight belt in 1999, but he lost it a year later. Now 35, he hasn’t fought since 2002 but has begun his own training career: His fighter, Ronald Boyd, won by disqualification on the Tyson– McBride undercard.
Ham, who retired from Giant in 2003 after 31 years, gave up running the amateur fight club when he took the reins of Mark’s career. But lately he’s been working with kids again at what was formerly Finley’s Gym, a legendary boxing club near Capitol Hill that closed in 2001. He helped restore the club with partner Robert Simon III, one of his former fighters.
“I wanted to box after I got out of college,” says Simon, “but Ham put me out and told me to go to grad school. I’m proof: Ham knows boxing.”
As has become custom, Ham says, he got calls on Father’s Day from fighters from across the United States to thank him for the role he played in their lives as kids. He also celebrated the day by having dinner with members of his blood family.
“Believe it or not, nobody talked boxing,” says Mark.
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Photograph by Charles Steck.