Professional boxer Leander Johnson discussed overcoming his past troubles, enduring homelessness, and his subsequent determination to lead a productive life Wednesday with students at Broadmoor Elementary School.
A native of Pine Bluff, Johnson, 23, asked students to raise their hands if they like to fight and be difficult with teachers. Many students raised their hands, prompting Johnson to warn the children to behave.
“I am here to help change lives,” Johnson, who stands 6-feet 5-and-one-half inches and weighs about 340 pounds, said. “I am up here out of the kindness of my heart. This is for free. This is my city. I am trying to help my city any time I have a chance to shed light on positivity.”
A 2013 Pine Bluff High School graduate, Johnson said he did not get along with his mother, and on 40 occasions from ages 12 to 18, the quarrels landed him in the juvenile justice center. He has also been homeless and arrested.
“I don’t want to see y’all go down that path,” Johnson told the group.
He also warned the children to stay away from gang members, even those who may be relatives.
He asked students to raise their hands if they have both parents at home. Many students raised their hands, while many others did not. He advised the students to do their school work, obey teachers, respect each other, avoid drugs, avoid fighting and avoid gangs.
“I didn’t have both parents at home,” Johnson said. “Don’t let this discourage you or hinder your future. I grew up in what we call poverty and it was hard for me to get clothes.”
Referencing his black skin, Johnson told the students they have opportunities to make a productive life.
“Statistics show at a certain age, you will be a prostitute, you will be dead you will be a drug dealer, you will drop out of school,” Johnson said. “You shouldn’t like fighting. I am a professional boxer. I do it for my livelihood. I never liked fighting when I was younger.”
Johnson advised the girls to avoid provocative dancing, equating them as queens worthy as respect. He advised the boys never to hit females. After his lecture, he took questions from students, posed and mingled with them. One child asked what his future dreams are.
Johnson grew up in the Christian church yet still became homeless and made reckless decisions. He used to sleep in a park, enter an out-of-service gas station to shower, and walk to a job. He used to wait outside restaurants to get discarded food. After a 2015 arrest, Johnson said he was alone in a jail cell and admonished himself for his foolish decisions. He looked himself in the mirror and asked why he was cheating himself out of success.
“When I got out of jail, I had two jobs while homeless,” Johnson said. “Y’all ever heard of Oak Park School? I used to sleep in the jungle gym behind Oak Park, and I hid my clothes behind the building nearby.”
Even while he was homeless, he had won a national title as an amateur boxer, Johnson told students Wednesday. During that time, he saved his money and managed to rent an apartment unit in Little Rock. He warned kids against suggestive dancing, and morally bankrupt television programming. He said that he sees older women engaging in suggestive dancing, which reflects that they do not respect themselves.
“If you don’t respect your women as they get older, no one will respect them. You had better know your schoolwork. I bet all y’all know how to dance, keeping up with the latest trends. But what about your education? You want to be successful.”
Broadmoor Elementary School counselor Glenda Hayes introduced Johnson, imploring students to make wise choices and avoid trouble. After his lecture, she thanked him for his frank message.
“The older you get, the more peer pressure you will experience,” Hayes said.
Johnson fights as a heavy weight in the USA Boxing Amateur League and recently signed with Elephant in the Room Boxing in New Haven, Connecticut, after being pursued by manager Devonne Canady. Johnson met recently with Pine Bluff Mayor Shirley Washington to offer his story to her and ideas about ways to improve the city.
“He is a great kid who works hard,” Canady said. “He has been a joy.”
As recently as five weeks ago, Johnson tipped the scales at 408 pounds but has been working hard to lose weight. He has since dropped nearly 70 pounds through a grueling training regimen in Connecticut. He expects his next fight to be in late 2017, and he intends to drop to 240 pounds.
“Obviously, I want to be a great boxer and I want to leave a legacy,” he said. “My ultimate dream is to open elementary schools to give more children a chance at education. To help end violence and the crime rate and getting people in church, closer to God.”
To continue his success, Johnson said he is keeping God first, being physically fit and mentally focused.
After his presentation, the children clapped for him.
Johnson was accompanied by his girlfriend Cessiley Johnson, who pledged her support for him. She described herself as “being by his side and supporting him in everything he does to make sure he stays on the right track.”
Pine Bluff Commercial Managing Editor John Worthen contributed to this report.