Callum Johnson's Comeback Plans & Belief In Beating Chris Billam-Smith

The 38-year-old says he's ready to upset a few naysayers in his proposed return
08:00, 27 Jul 2023

Callum Johnson never did retire from boxing, he merely quit the sport. The announcement on his social media channels late last year cited mental demons and a belief he’d let down those closest to him. But now reinvigorated, re-focused and inspired by new surroundings, he intends to launch an assault on the cruiserweight division.

“The hunger’s there, I’ve got a burning desire to do it, and it’s for myself this time as well,” he explained. “Before, there’s always been other reasons, whether it be for my dad [who died suddenly in 2016], for my kids, my missus, my family, there was always another reason why I did it. Now, it’s truly for my own self. I feel like I need to do it for me. I’ve done my bit for my dad and my family, now it’s for me and me only.”

The former British and Commonwealth light-heavyweight champion turned his back on boxing in November and spent the next couple of months “at home, getting fat and feeling sorry for myself.” At the turn of the year, ‘CJ’ found his way back to the gym, mainly for weight training. Eventually, boxing crept back into his sessions and the realisation soon hit home that the itch had not been scratched.

“I was thinking about how I’d love to do it again! I shouldn’t have quit when I did. I quit for the wrong reasons. Until I get in the ring for real, I don’t really know do I? But I feel like I’ve still got it and I’m stronger than I’ve ever been. I feel like there’s a few [fights] left in me. I don’t know whether I could live my life in peace if I never did it again.

“It’s mad really, the first few weeks I was flagging and struggling for breath. But my fitness has really started coming back. I’m currently around 15st 4lbs, a stone over cruiserweight, but my hand speed is as fast as it’s ever been.”


From Boston, Lincolnshire, Johnson turns 38 in August but believes his spell away from the sport – his last fight was a points win over Server Emurlaev in October 2021 – has helped to keep him physically fresh and ready for the final phase of his career. Another factor for the fighter’s renewed enthusiasm is a change of scene. Earlier this year his trainer and manager Joe Gallagher moved his stable of boxers from Bolton to the iconic Champs Camp in Manchester.

“I was killing myself to make the weight, I was constantly dehydrated, I was constantly exhausted and then travelling to Bolton, feeling the way I was feeling – hating life if I’m honest. I’d think ‘I fucking hate that gym!’ Now, being in Champs Camp, there’s such a buzz and I feel fresh and like I’ve still got it. I want to be part of this Champs Camp. I don’t want to get five or six years down the road and wish I had a few more under the Champs Camp banner. I want to be a part of their history. It feels like a new beginning.

“When it was coming into my head about coming back, I was thinking ‘What if Joe doesn’t want me back?’ I couldn’t ever go back to boxing without Joe, it wouldn’t feel right. I spoke to Joe, and I know he’d always be there to help me in whatever I wanted to do. Joe’s a special man. He said that as long as I had a few months to get fit and if the fire’s in the belly, then go for it.”

The Moss Side gym has always provided a beacon of hope and purpose for a troubled community – work started by pioneer and local legend Phil Martin, the man who mentored Gallagher in the very same premises. But it isn’t just the building and its history providing inspiration. Since returning to the fold, Johnson has once again trained alongside British fighter of the year Natasha Jonas who, aged 39, picked up another world title when she stopped Canada’s Kandi Wyatt at Manchester’s AO Arena on July 1.

“She’s amazing. I think the world of her and look up to her. She is a serious woman. I can’t sing her praises enough. I’ve seen her in the gym. You see the fight against Terri Harper – she won that fight – you see the fight against Katie Taylor, and ok she didn’t quite get it, but it was very, very close. I see how good she is in the gym, she’s a two-weight world champion. She is a true inspiration.”

Another of CJ’s old stablemates and sparring partner Callum Smith is preparing to secure his legacy when he takes on the fearsome light-heavyweight champion Artur Beterbiev next month. Johnson dropped the Russian-born Canadian, before being stopped in four rounds when the pair boxed for the IBF world title in October 2018.

“You’ve always got to give Callum a chance,” CJ reasoned. “Callum’s a great fighter, his left hook’s as good as anybody’s I’ve seen. He has got that chance. You’ve seen me put Beterbiev down with a left hook and Callum can throw a left hook!  It’s a tough ask but has Beterbiev still got it at the young age of 38? He had a lot of amateur fights; he’s done a lot in the sport.

“I don’t like to say it because Callum’s a friend, he’s been a training partner, we’ve shared hundreds of rounds together and I think a lot of the family, but I do have Beterbiev as a favourite for obvious reasons. But I give Callum a helluva chance.”

There is still some way to go for Johnson to realise his dream of mixing once again in elite company. Medicals, licence and such will of course need to be in place. But all being well, he believes he’ll be a live addition to a division in which he feels he can prosper both domestically and at world level. CJ recently watched Chris Billam-Smith wrestle the WBO belt off Lawrence Okolie, and it has only whetted his appetite further.

“When I was light-heavy, I was always sparring cruiserweights, and I never sparred a cruiserweight in my life that was stronger than me. That was when I was killing myself and weighing 13 stone. The way I’m feeling now, I’m not too far from the cruiser limit, and I genuinely feel like a monster. The strength and endurance I’ve got is frightening.


“I’ve never been one to call out people or spoken about people and my main goal is to just get back in there. But if you ask me about Chris Billam-Smith? I’ll tell you straight, give me 10 weeks, I’d beat him first fight back. I know I would.

“People might think I’m crazy, too inactive, blah blah blah. But I’d beat Chris Billam-Smith. That’s my take on it. I’ve always been a respectful person and I don’t want anyone to think I’m being arrogant. What right have I got to say I’d beat Chris really? The way my career’s gone, I was a light-heavyweight, the time I’ve had out, but if you ask me if I think I could beat him then I genuinely think I could.”

The new bulked-up Callum Johnson will not be hanging around – he’s looking at fighting twice before the end of the year. Naturally, social media warriors will have their say and the naysayers will pour scorn on CJ’s ambitions, but it will fall on deaf ears.

“Over the years I’ve always been too concerned about what other people think. I can genuinely say now that I don’t give a toss. I’m past all that. I’ve got nothing to lose anymore. Anything I do now is just a bonus in my eyes. People will say this and that, but no one can really have an opinion about me and my life unless they’ve lived in my shoes.

“I know when I come back there’ll be people that say bad things. I’ll get loads of good comments, but there’ll be that odd one. Before, that used to bother me. Now, I don’t care. I’m back for myself only, and if anyone doesn’t like it, that’s their problem.

“We’ll see what happens, but I don’t want to come back into a six-rounder, I want to come back straight into a 10-round fight against a good fighter and let’s see if I’ve still got it. If I’ve still got it, I’ll go through them and if I haven’t, I won’t!"


*18+ | BeGambleAware | Odds Subject to Change

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