By Scott McNutt
Born with a malformed right leg that forced the amputation of his foot and fusion of his knee, Jake Johnson nonetheless began wrestling at age 5. He excelled at the sport, despite naysayers who tried to bar him from it, including a high school wrestling coach.
“He was afraid I would hurt myself,” Johnson says. “So he did everything in his power to keep me from wrestling, even though I was the best in my weight [class]. I had to win seven times before I could compete on varsity.”Born with a malformed right leg that forced the amputation of his foot and fusion of his knee, Jake Johnson nonetheless began wrestling at age 5. He excelled at the sport, despite naysayers who tried to bar him from it, including a high school wrestling coach.
Having proved two decades ago that he could compete in sports, Johnson wants to know why organizations like USA Boxing (USAB) won’t allow him to prove himself as an amateur boxer.
Johnson started boxing 18 months ago when he realized he missed the athleticism and competition of his high school wrestling days. Seeking an activity to help maintain his conditioning and offer the zest of competition, he found the “sweet science,” as boxing is sometimes known.
He began training, and eventually received his USA Boxing passbook, which authorizes boxers to compete in USAB matches. However, the organization soon reversed itself and refused to sanction him. Dismayed, Johnson inquired with various USAB representatives to learn the justification for the reversal.
Eventually, he was told that the USAB couldn’t certify him to box because his right leg would hamper his ability to maintain his balance and defend himself.
To Johnson, that smacks of a rigged game.
“I don’t think it’s fair, especially in sports, for a governing body to say, ‘No, you can’t do this.’ Just give me a chance. Don’t tell me what I can and can’t do. Let me say what I can and can’t do.”
(Author’s note: A request for comment from USAB went unanswered.)
In the meantime, to slake his desire for competition, the 36-year-old sometimes wrestled with members of the Kansas State University wrestling team, where he attends classes. However, he still desired to box. Looking for options, Johnson discovered the National Amputee Boxing Association (NABA), head-quartered in San Antonio (see pg. 23). What he learned about NABA’s participants moved him.
“A lot of them are from the military,” Johnson says. “I watched an interview with one of them, which made me want to compete with them just to show support.”
Johnson says that the interviewee grew up boxing, then went off to serve his country and came back having lost a leg in the service. When he tried to regain some sense of normality by resuming boxing, he was told he could no longer compete.
“That really hurt him because that’s what he grew up doing, that’s what he really liked, and it mattered to him a lot,” Johnson explains. “I thought, ‘Well, shoot, I should go support guys like this.’ I just wanted to show that there is a lot of stuff you can do; you are not limited by that situation.”
To demonstrate his solidarity, Johnson boxed in his first NABA bout earlier this year, paying for the trip to Texas out of his own pocket.
Although he lost the fight in a judges’ decision, the new amateur acquitted himself well against an unbeaten opponent. To stay in shape and hone his competitive edge, Johnson plans to continue training and fighting.
“Amputees need to be healthy as much as anyone else, and if we find boxing is the way to do it, why not let us?” he says, noting that boxing offers good cardiovascular and strength training, as well as the goal of winning in competition.
“Just shutting boxing off is disheartening and can be hurtful for people’s health,” Johnson says. “It’s a big health concern for me to be able to do this. And I’d like to keep the goal in mind. What’s the point if I can’t compete?”
The National Amputee Boxing Association
IN 2013, PERSONAL TRAINER SHAMAN OWENSBY was working with an amputee who wanted to box competitively. Unfortunately, amateur boxing, with the exception of wheelchair boxing, is not sanctioned in the United States for amputees. So, Owensby decided to form the National Amputee Boxing Association (NABA).
It took him about a year to convince the Texas Department of Licensing and Registration to license the nonprofit organization. Now, NABA encourages amputee boxers like Jake Johnson to train and compete in the ring—albeit only in Texas.“
Every state has their own rules, so even when you have a national organization, each state is still your boss,” Owensby explains.
At any time, 20 to 30 amputees are training and boxing under the auspices of NABA. Ultimately, Owensby aims to have NABA chapters or similar groups sanctioned in more states, expanding the pool of competitors.
Owensby is working toward three goals for the strictly volunteer organization to achieve national sanction:
- Expand the organization for interstate competition, so that boxers can be matched against fighters with similar levels of amputation
- Persuade governing bodies to certify that NABA fighters who want to compete with able-bodied boxers may do so
- Have the International Paralympic Committee expand sanctioning of amputee boxing beyond wheelchair boxing
For Owensby, the motivation behind these goals is simple: “There are a lot of amputees around the world who box,” he says. “It’s insulting to them if their skill level is up there with other amateur boxers, and they are told no, they can’t fight.”
For more information on NABA, visit www.nationalamputeeboxingassociation.org.