Interview with John “Pops” Arthur, by Sean Nam. See more Hannibal Boxing interviews >>
John Arthur will be the first to admit that he should not be here today, breathing, telling you his story. He should have been found dead long ago on some sorry dirt patch in a foreign country—Thailand, Japan, Russia—after absorbing a fatal blow in one of the many underground deathmatches he participated in as a teenager.
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Or on a cold, dark floor of a garish clip joint in Atlanta, after a drug bust gone wrong, back when he was a sting operator for the Georgia Bureau of Investigation.
Or perhaps Arthur’s demise would have come much sooner before he could have ever envisioned himself entering such violent professions: on some shabby street corner, laid out and bullet-ridden, the unintended victim in a crossfire somewhere in Chicago’s South Side, where he grew up as a child.
“I was talking to (boxing trainer) Buddy McGirt one day,” Arthur, who goes by “Pops,” said in a recent phone interview with Hannibal Boxing. “We were sitting around listening to some music. I told Buddy, ‘You know, Buddy, I’ve been shot, stabbed, everything, in the course of my life. I don’t even know why I’m living.’”
“I should’ve been dead a long time ago.”
Instead, Arthur survived. In those years in which he was no more than a hair’s breadth from danger, Arthur confronted his adversaries head-on, with gumption, guile, and brute force alike. His various occupations—detailed at length in a Men’s Journal profile in 2018—included stints as a globetrotting bare-knuckle fighter, a cop (one of few black ones) in a bigoted Southern town, and an undercover agent for the FBI assigned to the seediest narcotics cases. But the perpetual threat of danger that hung over not only his own head but that of his family led Arthur in search of a less-taxing pursuit. He ended up in Hollywood, the promised land of self-reinvention, began working alongside the celebrity martial arts expert Billy Blanks, and one day found himself in the gym going fifteen rounds of sparring with James Toney. Arthur had found his next calling.
On a recent Saturday in Southern California, Arthur drove over to McGirt’s gym in Northridge to oversee a sparring session for one of his pupils. For a while, Arthur had his own setup: a spacious 10,000-square-feet facility called the Legends Gym in Canoga Park, which his wife, Shirlyn Mozingo, helped run and “kept the boxers in line.” But over the summer his business partners, souring on their investment, decided to pull out, leaving him with a $10,000 monthly rent to handle. “That’s a big hump to make if you don’t have world champions in there who have managers that can pay their fees,” Arthur said. He was not embittered, though. The burden of running a gym for fourteen hours a day was taking its toll on him anyway, not to mention the occasional flare-ups from his arthritis. “All that fighting and getting kicked and punched, that stuff tends to come back on you when you get to a certain age,” he mused. Legends closed down in July, leaving Arthur to pick up where he left off from his itinerant days. “There is no quick money,” Arthur pointed out. “Not even in boxing, not even in music, not even in acting. People have to work for their shit.”
These days Arthur, sixty-nine, is busy molding Eric Munguia, a young Mexican-American boxer with four professional fights—all wins—to his name. “He’s a good kid, a diamond in the rough that we’re polishing up right now,” said Arthur. “He listens.”
The last bit is important to Arthur: “He listens.”
“That’s what I look for in a kid,” continued Arthur. “Because if you get a fighter that doesn’t listen to you and you know what you’re talking about, he’s wasting your time. I used to tell a fighter ‘OK, son, if you don’t listen to me, when you come back (after the round), there’s going to be no one in this damn corner to give you no water or to freshen you up and send you back out there.’ If you don’t listen to me, you don’t need me. You can get your wife to help you get some fuckin’ water.”
Another protege is Isaac Dogboe, the young Ghanaian super bantamweight who lost his WBO belt in an upset to little-known Emmanuel Navarrete in December. Dogboe’s father and trainer Paul had sought out Arthur’s counsel early on in his son’s career and the trio became close. Arthur, who was not with Dogboe the night of his loss in New York, believed some of the media hoopla got to the fighter’s head, among other distractions. But, more than anything, he believes the corner was simply unprepared.
“If you noticed Paul had nobody in the corner with him,” explained Arthur. “If I would’ve known that he didn’t have any company (I would have been there), because he was doing the cuts, chief second, every damn thing. He had a few guys that would pass him the stool, the water . . . it’s just something that happened. It’s no bad on anybody. Things like this happen in this business.”
The plan now is to regroup stateside and train in California for a projected fight in April, perhaps a rematch against Navarrete. “I told Isaac as long as I’m six feet above ground I will never let him and his dad go into another fight like that by themselves,” Arthur insisted.
But sometimes the biggest troubles for a boxer lie beyond the enclosure of a ring. This was especially true of Michael Nunn. “Michael was a bad boy,” recalled Arthur. “But he was an intelligent bad boy. He used to be at home during training camp and I would come in unannounced and he would be sitting on the couch reading.”
“The majority of my guys are not Sunday school kids. They’re not choir boys. They came up the hard way.”
By the time Arthur linked up with Nunn in 1999, the fighter was an over-the-hill light heavyweight trying to resuscitate a disappointing career. Long gone were the days when he was regarded as the most talented (and mercurial) middleweight in the world, on the cusp of superfights with the likes of Sugar Ray Leonard and Thomas Hearns. An upset loss—in which Nunn was the 20-1 favorite—to a twenty-two-year-old Toney in a 1991 title bout spelled an end to the hype.
Reclamation projects are Arthur’s specialty, but his revival with Nunn was short-lived. Arthur began to notice some shady members turning up in Nunn’s fraternity. A street guy himself, Arthur told Nunn, “Something in the milk ain’t clean here. Get rid of them,” but to no avail. In 2004, Nunn was sentenced to federal prison for twenty-four years on drug conspiracy charges.
“He just didn’t listen,” Arthur said, who last spoke to Nunn a year ago. “He normally listened to me during a fight when it came to combat. But (outside) he didn’t listen. And it hurt my heart to see that. Same thing with Razvan.”
Razvan Cojanu would be the six-foot-seven Romanian heavyweight whom Arthur had found in a local gym shortly after the fighter’s first fight, a loss, in 2011. They bonded immediately upon meeting. Arthur guided him toward a title shot against New Zealand’s Joseph Parker in 2017, though Cojanu fell way short in a unanimous decision loss. In his next outing the next year, he was wiped out in two rounds versus Luis Ortiz.
“Razvan in a fight, he won’t listen,” Arthur lamented. “If I tell him to do something, I expect him to do it. Don’t go back and try to do something else. That’s the hardest thing that you can get your fighter to do. Especially when they are caught up in their own world.”
Recently, Radzhan decided to part ways with Arthur. “Razvan is changing his team around him a little bit,’ said Arthur. “As far as I know his wife is handling him, coordinating fights. Fighters get in that mode sometimes.”
Toney, though? He stuck by Arthur.
In a sense, Arthur was a strange choice for Toney. Though he made his bones in the bare-knuckle and criminal underworlds, Arthur’s credentials in boxing were scant. He never grew up in the gym like Ray Arcel in Stillman’s or fought professionally like George Benton. But “bad boys” like Toney (and Nunn) were not attracted to pedigree. In retrospect, this should not have been surprising. A natural talent like Toney never needed any teaching. He needed harnessing—not a trainer as much as a counselor who could impose some semblance of control over his wildest impulses, someone who would not cower before him during his most irritable moods. He needed, in other words, someone with “street cred,” someone who would be willing to go fifteen rounds of sparring with him (as Arthur said he has done).
“James Toney is straight-up, outright and cold, cusses you out and speaks whatever is on his mind,” said Arthur endearingly. “He might become too physically or verbally confrontational. But he listens.”
Never did Toney listen more than when he took on the then-undefeated and much ballyhooed Vasiliy Jirov in 2003 at the Foxwoods casino in Connecticut. “There were so many rumors about [Jirov],” said Arthur, as he recounted the narratives that were trotted out in advance of the fight. “How he outran wild dogs and how his trainer dropped him off the middle of the lake and he had to swim back, that he’s just a machine and that he’s not gonna stop.”
Those anecdotes may have all been true, but for James, the dilemma, as always, began and ended with himself: Could he whip himself into proper shape? “James trained for that fight,” stated Arthur. “We’d wake up at six o’clock in the morning and go on a run, come back, sleep and get back in the gym in the afternoon. And then we would do night work later in the evening. We had to make 190 pounds for cruiserweight. He stood by his gun.”
Ever wary of the Toney hangers-on, Arthur made sure to banish them on sight. “I told him to their face, ‘Y’all ain’t gonna swing on James’s jock strap this time. If you don’t do your job, get packing, get the hell out of there.’”
Few moments in the ring were more dramatic in the early aughts than that night in Mashantucket. After eleven nip-and-tuck rounds, the final stanza ended in a feverish climax. Arthur remembers the day clearly and how co-trainer Freddie Roach was imploring Toney to “Put this guy on his ass!” for fear that they were behind on the scorecards. “Freddie used to have a saying when we were getting close to the scorecards,” said Arthur. “‘You never know who likes James and who doesn’t like James.’”
With a minute to go, Toney connected on a slew of pinpoint counters that had Jirov hurt visibly for the first time in the fight. “The guy you hear in the corner hollering ‘He’s hurt, he’s hurt,’ in the fight—that’s me,” said Arthur. With mere seconds remaining, a body shot from Toney sent the iron-chinned Jirov to his knees, though only momentarily, as the Kazakh would be on his feet in time to hear the bell. It was a late-career performance for the ages, and the judges agreed, giving Toney a fairly wide unanimous decision.
“We were so full of joy,” recalled Arthur. “It’s the kind of feeling that every manager, trainer wants to have when you have a top talent that wants it as bad as you do. People had doubted him so much before the Jirov fight, but James didn’t care.”
For sure, there were missteps along the way. Who could forget Toney’s ill-advised MMA venture against seasoned veteran Randy Couture, who beat Toney via submission in the first round. But neither Toney nor Arthur never dwelled too much on the losses. “We take (the outcomes) as they come,” said Arthur, “and we move on.” These days, Arthur is helping his retired charge launch a cigar and coffee brand, since “all the fame and glory doesn’t keep paying your bills.”
Though he no longer has his own gym or a heavyweight contender under his wing, Arthur hardly feels regret—on the contrary. “To be honest with you I’ve had a great, great time in this boxing,” Arthur reflected softly, before catching himself from entering a retrospective mood. He has other more pressing concerns to tend to, after all, like Murguia, his diamond in the rough, and the slate of sparring sessions they have planned for the week ahead. “We still gotta lot of polishing up to do,” said Arthur, “a lot of polishing up.”