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.”
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