Up Next

2020 Tokyo Games

Olympic boxer Delante ‘Tiger’ Johnson delivering on promise: ‘He’s that dude’

The Cleveland native has a shot at ending Team USA’s gold medal drought

Donte Johnson figured he arrived just in time to see his 10-year-old son Tiger in amateur boxing action. His attendance was always special because it gave him a chance to share in his son’s passion. It was also unique because his various jobs limited his presence. Everything was finally in place, until the elder Johnson was in the parking lot watching fans exit the building. Disbelief washed over him.

“I realized that I got there too late,” Donte Johnson said. “As I approached, I could hear people talking about the fight and about Tiger. I was like, ‘Y’all talking ’bout Tiger?’ They said, ‘Man, you don’t know? He’s that dude.’ ”

Donte Johnson stood in awe as several members of the group exchanged details about Tiger’s exploits. His disappointment over missing the fight suddenly changed.

“I was proud of him and shocked, because I missed so many fights I wasn’t able to see his progression,” Donte Johnson said. “When I got home that night, I gave him a few dollars, told him to keep training and that all of his hard work would pay off. Now, years later, we see that it has.”

Welterweight Delante “Tiger” Johnson, 22, will represent Team USA in the postponed 2020 Olympics. The boxing competition runs from Saturday through Aug. 8. Johnson, a winner of 95% of more than 200 amateur fights, makes his Olympic debut on Saturday.

Johnson is a superb technician in the ring. He dominates opponents with his quickness (think Roy Jones Jr.) and is the top-ranked welterweight in the U.S. and 19th in the world. He made a huge splash in 2016 when he won the gold at the youth world championships, and earned a third-place finish at the 2019 Pan American Games.

Johnson is the fourth straight Cleveland native to make the Olympic team. He follows Raynell Williams (2008), Terrell Gausha (2012) and Charles Conwell (2016). He has a chance to become the first Cleveland native to win gold since flyweight Nate Brooks in 1952.

“Fighting in the Olympics and winning the gold is something I’ve always wanted to do since I saw Raynell, Terrell and Charles come into the gym with their Team USA gear,” Johnson said. “It’s also something I promised my first coach [Clint Martin, who died in 2015]. He was the first to bring up the Olympics. He had faith in me.”

Johnson received the nickname Tiger when his dad noticed a peculiar birthmark on his infant son’s bottom.

“He had a green birthmark on his butt that looked like a tiger stripe,” Donte Johnson said.

Johnson grew into the moniker as his feisty attitude on school bus rides gained him a reputation as a fighter.

“My school was in a bad area,” Johnson said. “I’d end up fighting kids two or three grades higher than me. They’d pick on the smaller kids, but I wasn’t having it. I learned in boxing that no matter how skillful you are, if you don’t have heart, you’re not going to make it.”

Johnson’s development was inspired by his father, who taught him the proper way to throw punches, and several family members who had experience in the sport. His grandfather was an amateur middleweight, and several cousins were amateurs and professionals. So it seemed only natural for Johnson to follow an older cousin to the gym and train to become a fighter.

Despite Johnson’s spirit to throw punches, his size created a pause with his father and the coaches in the gym. Johnson was barely 50 pounds at 8 years old, which was way too small to compete with other fighters his age. His smaller size remained a challenge for several years.

“People would look at me and figure I couldn’t fight because I was so small,” Johnson said. “I had to learn how to fight people bigger and taller than me. That helped my development.”

The process wasn’t easy.

“I was thinking boxing wasn’t going to pay off for him because of his size,” Donte Johnson said. “He refused to let go. He wanted to hang in there. In a few years, he just sprouted and was where he needed to be.”

Before Johnson’s growth spurt, he learned under the tutelage of Martin, who trained fighters in Cleveland for nearly 60 years. Among others, Williams was a prized pupil. Johnson was turning heads.

“The first time I heard about Tiger was when he was about 8 years old,” said Gausha. “The boxing community was saying you got to see this kid with Clint Martin, because he’s a beast.”

Despite Johnson’s success with Martin, he moved to another local legendary coach in Renard Safo, who often worked with Martin. The two were close friends. And like Martin, Safo, 69, trained multiple U.S. national champions, including Gausha and former Continental Americas featherweight champion Yuandale Evans.  

“When Tiger and his dad decided to come with me, I tightened up some things, and he started to catch on,” said Safo, a trainer for more than 40 years. “He was fighting. I told him he needed to box. Boxing’s a thinking man’s game, it’s not a tough man contest. I instructed him to box and move with good footwork.”

The adjustments and competition over the years led to Johnson piling up the accolades.

Gausha, who racked up his share of amateur titles and is now a middleweight with a pro record of 22-2-1, credits Safo with his own development and with making Johnson his second Olympic boxer.

“Safo’s old-school mentality is what got me to the Olympics,” Gausha said. “He wants you to pop the jab and circle around your opponent. The other key to Safo’s success is that he keeps you busy, and that’s the difference with Tiger compared to other fighters. He’s got way more international experience. That’s going to help him.”

Johnson fought his way through the Olympic trials last year and earned his berth with a victory over Freudis Rojas Jr. But the coronavirus pandemic put the Games in a tizzy. Johnson wasn’t sure about his future.

“I was stuck in limbo,” Johnson said. “I didn’t know if we were even going to have the Olympics. I thought about going pro, but I held out, hoping we would have the Games. I’m glad we’re having them, because fighting in the Olympics is something I wanted to do since I was a little kid. And it’s something I promised to Clint.”

Johnson will get his chance, but he’ll have to go through heavy favorites Andrey Zamkovoy (Russia) and Pat McCormack (England). And if he does, he could end Team USA’s gold medal drought for men, last won by Andre Ward in 2004.

Safo is not concerned about the competition. He’s confident about his latest protege.

“Tiger’s the best out there, I don’t care who he fights against,” Safo said. “He’s the best I’ve seen right now because of his ring generalship. That’s what it takes, you need to outthink the other man. I’m looking for him to win a gold medal.”

Branson Wright is a filmmaker and freelance multimedia sports reporter.