December 3, 1999
WBC Lightweight title
Monday 29 November
Given that genuine world title fights are as rare as charismatic golfers, fans that long for the "good old days" will have enjoyed Stevie Johnston's points victory over England's Billy Schwer. This throwback clash between an immensely skilled world champion
and a deserving challenger reminded us of all that is attractive about boxing. If 1999 has been an arid desert for the fight game, then this was a welcome oasis.
It wasn't a classic fight, being too one-sided to warrant consideration as 'fight of the year'. However, it was nonetheless an absorbing battle between two talented exponents of the noble art. Johnston's speed, accuracy and portfolio of classy moves proved too much for a brave Schwer who has now fallen short in two world title bids. His effort to wrest the IBF crown from Rafael Ruelas in 1995 was thwarted by a cuts stoppage. Billy had improved considerably since then and had been producing the best performances of his career in recent outings.
Cheered on by a troop of highly vocal followers, Schwer made a productive start, edging a close first round with effective jabs. Johnston nodded his head in acknowledgement of a crisp Schwer uppercut early in the second, and responded with hurtful straight lefts from his southpaw stance. Johnston's slickness was already in evidence and it was clear that Schwer was tangling with the the best of the lightweight champions.
They swapped punches freely at the beginning of the third round. Schwer was landing the jab but had difficulty avoiding Johnston's spear-like left cross. His problems were compounded by an unseemly cut over the left eye, caused by a Johnston jab. Now in top gear, Johnston exhibited his full repertoire of skills in the fifth. Dancing gracefully, he flashed dazzling combinations, artfully avoiding Schwer's counters. Another cut, this time on the bridge of the nose, had reduced Schwer's face to a gory mess, but he grittily persevered and earned a share of the sixth on my card. Johnston connected wth the cleaner punches in the seventh, but experienced a cut of his own above the right eye. Seemingly distressed by this setback, he was more negative in the eighth, and ran from Schwer for most of an uncharacteristically quiet round. He made up for his hesitancy in the previous stanza by dominating the ninth, stunning Schwer with a right hook and digging in with hefty combinations.
Well behind on points, Schwer tried to dig deep in the tenth and eleventh, but for all his valiant efforts the gap in natural ability was too great to bridge. Whenever he was fortunate enough to catch Johnston with a telling shot the champion would invariably reply with a quick combination. Schwer stormed from his corner at the start of the last round and landed some of his best punches of the night to roars from his supporters. They were soon silenced by a vicious Johnston flurry which rocked Schwer backwards. The action swayed back and forth in a terrific round as both had some eye catching successes. When the final bell sounded, Johnston raised his arms and was lifted aloft to applause from a sporting crowd who appreciated that they had just witnessed a class act.
All three judges displayed rare uniformity in scoring the fight 118-110 in favour of Johnston, while I was slightly more generous to Schwer at 117-112. What is beyond dispute is that Johnston is a skilled operator who has the potential to dominate the Lightweight division in the years to come. His exhibition of classy boxing was beautiful to watch. Schwer, at age 29, indicated afterwards that he will continue boxing and seek another world title opportunity. "I thought the scoring was a bit wide" he reflected "but Johnston's very awkward and wily. He's the best Lightweight in the world".
No-one who witnessed this performance would dare to disagree.