For Kate Johnson, success at USIBA Championships fuels a greater goal

Allison Farrand/Daily
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By Max Bultman, Daily Sports Editor
Published April 12, 2015

A little after 3 p.m. Friday, Sandy Johnson saw her daughter take a punch to the face for the first time ever. A few minutes later, she watched her hoist a national championship belt.

Kate Johnson earned her second national boxing title when she won the 119-pound division of the USIBA College Boxing Championships. Before losing Saturday in the Golden Gloves tournament, she was undefeated at 9-0. Just a few years ago, her parents would have never seen this coming.

“She was usually pretty quiet until she got mad or riled up,” Ed Johnson said. “But she’ll hit her head on a brick wall just to get something done or prove a point.”

Now a senior, Johnson grew up in Farmington Hills, Michigan and was a swimmer at Divine Child High School in Dearborn. She liked to exercise, and joined the Michigan boxing club at FestiFall because she thought it might be an interesting way to stay in shape.

At first, she just wanted to punch the bag.

But as she dove deeper into the sport and spent more time honing her skills, the competitive itch took over. It can be difficult to schedule actual opponents in women’s boxing, though, and without connections in the sport, Johnson was unable to find a foe. She finally booked her first fight during her junior year — without telling her parents until after, when she told them she won.

“We said, ‘If you’re gonna do something, put everything you have into it,’ and she has,” Sandy Johnson said. “After, when we see the film, we know that she’s won. That makes it a lot easier.”

Friday, Sandy and Ed Johnson watched their daughter box in person for the first time at the Intramural Sports Building, which hosted the USIBA College National Championships.

And Johnson got all she could handle early from her opponent, Army’s Gaby Barrera-Gutierrez.

Barrera-Gutierrez came out with a series of frantic punches, looking to wear down Johnson. But Johnson, who, according to her father, runs eight to 10 miles per day, withstood the flurry. She stood her ground and went into the first break looking confident, while Gutierrez looked already fatigued.

Normally, Johnson said, she respects her opponents so much that she doesn’t hold grudges during or after a match. This one was different, though.

Johnson was actually supposed to fight Barrera-Gutierrez on Thursday, leaving her open for a different match Friday and an appearance at the Golden Gloves tournament in Detroit on Saturday. But Gutierrez didn’t arrive at the tournament, delaying their match to Friday and forcing her to choose between Golden Gloves and another USIBA fight.

“I was mad at her,” Johnson said.

In the second round, Johnson used that anger as fuel and capitalized on Barrera-Gutierrez’s exhaustion. Taking control of the pace, she landed combo blows and jabs to the side of Barrera-Gutierrez’s head, leading to a standing eight count just before the second bell.

With her winning formula already established, she backed Gutierrez into the ropes at the start of the third round. Pushing her along the edge of the ring, Johnson landed a series of combos to the body and head, relentlessly exploiting openings until the referee called the match.

“I realized she had a pause when she was swinging when she was tired,” Johnson said. “I figured she probably couldn’t take hard punches. So that’s what I tried to do — just clean, hard shots.”

Outwardly unassuming and modest, Johnson is a tactician in the ring, strategizing while dodging open fists and ducking closed ones.

And if she seems surprisingly proficient for a boxer with just two years of live fighting experience, her other role might be even more shocking.

Since women’s boxing doesn’t technically have club sport status at the University, Johnson also serves as one of the team’s volunteer coaches. When she wasn’t fighting, she was ringside, cheering the other Michigan women to the team title.

Five Wolverine women won individual titles over the weekend, knocking two-time defending champion Army from its pedestal in resounding fashion.

And it’s no wonder why they were able to rise to such heights so fast. Johnson’s workout routine is so intense that a SWAT team once trained with her and, as first reported by WCBN, it was so intense that some of the members threw up from it.

The small, redheaded senior helped build the program to a national title contender, even without school funding or a full coaching staff, which the Michigan men have. Next year, even though she will have graduated, she hopes it will finally get some of the same advantages the men do.

Johnson will hit her head on a brick wall if that’s what it takes. Maybe five individual titles and a team national championship will do the trick instead. It might save the brick wall some embarrassment.