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Activist for boxers walks the line

As a wiry Minnesota middleweight, Paul Johnson surprised the touts once and came away with an upset victory.

It was April 1981 in a smoky club in Bloomington called the Celebrity Room when he shocked the crowd and stopped Chuck "Kid Polack" Daszkiewicz on cuts in the fourth round. For a Marine who’d served in the Vietnam era, it might have seemed like proof the St. Paul slugger could do anything if he put his mind to it. Forget that three months later Kid Polack returned the favor and beat him on points. There was no quit in Paul Johnson.

More than 30 years later and 1,600 miles from Minnesota, Johnson on Tuesday walks point outside the Clark County Detention Center. Still middleweight slim on a sun-baked sidewalk, his white T-shirt reads: "Boxers Organizing Committee." From the look of things, Johnson is a committee of one on this day.

The placard he carries announces, "Equal Treatment For All Misdemeanor Offenders," "Stop Solitary Confinement of Floyd Mayweather," and "Stop Unfair and Inhumane Treatment." His noonday vigil is occasionally interrupted by a honking horn or passing driver who punctuates his opinion of Mayweather with an epithet.

The harsh words are short-armed jabs that miss their mark. Johnson, 63, promises he’s no Mayweather sycophant. (The county lockup’s most famous inmate still has a couple months to serve on a domestic violence conviction.) It’s the principle of the matter, the retired Minnesota mauler and railroad copper says.

Why should Mayweather be treated worse than others?

I have no good answer to the question but notice the cause of justice and fairness for boxers fills Johnson’s waking thoughts. For a quarter century, he has politicked and protested on behalf of the broken-nose underclass of workers with the goal of incorporating boxing and creating a pugilistic players union.

It isn’t a particularly hot day for late June in Las Vegas, but at this point I begin to wonder whether Paul Johnson has been in the sun too long. Over the next half-hour, he proves his logic and rhetorical arguments are as well thought out and neatly drawn as the professionally printed lettering on his message board.

They also figure to have zero impact on any but the curious who find themselves strolling down South Casino Center Boulevard outside the detention center.

The trouble with Johnson’s dream isn’t that it lacks logic. It’s a worthy vision shared by many others. It’s just that professional boxing defies logic. It doesn’t exist to protect the fighters or polish the sport’s professional reputation.

It isn’t about fine traditions. It’s about making a score. Remember, this is the sport the mob lettered in.

Imagine the outcry that would be heard if every state that had a professional baseball, football or basketball team also had to have a government commission to regulate it to keep the players, coaches, managers and owners from cheating. Imagine the scandal if a major league team owner was allowed to pick his own umpires; that commonly happens in boxing.

As for Mayweather, Johnson only wants him treated fairly, taken out of solitary, perhaps sent to counseling and therapy for his obvious anger management issues.

For Johnson, it’s just another example of boxers being treated unfairly. He has seen innumerable examples over the years.

A Minnesota legislator once tried to outlaw professional pugilism in that state. When Gov. Jesse Ventura eliminated funding for the Minnesota Boxing Commission, Johnson says, the office was more about political patronage than protecting pugilists.

Nevada, meanwhile, keeps its Athletic Commission open for business. And business is brisk despite the occasional jaw-dropping judicial scoring on championship bouts such as the recent Pacquiao-Bradley affair.

For Johnson, it illustrates the need for a stratified corporate structure that enforces unified rules and a players union that generates an undisputed champion.

"Fans love boxing, but they think something’s wrong," he says. "If you’re providing something the public wants – undisputed champions and unified rules and regulations – they’re going to come back to the sport."

His fight journey has brought him in contact with U.S. Sen. John McCain and, more recently, the office of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, fight fans who endorse a federal commission to oversee the sport. But without a professional league and collective bargaining, Johnson says, boxers will continue to fall prey to the sport’s traditional power brokers.

Our time on the sidewalk ends, but Johnson’s legs are still game. He’s just getting his second wind. As I leave, I ask him what kind of fighter he was in the ring.

"I think I was a puncher," Johnson says. "I could hit pretty good, but I could get hit pretty good, too."

The crackerjack-crunching crowd and sports-page handicappers say he can’t win. Maybe they’re right.

But it’s clear there’s no quit in Paul Johnson. Outcomes aside, he’s going the distance.

John L. Smith’s column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday. Email him at Smith@reviewjournal.com or call 702-383-0295. He also blogs at lvrj.com/blogs/smith. Follow him on Twitter @jlnevadasmith.

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