Johnny Bumphus’ Toughest Fight
Not that long ago, Johnny Bumphus supplemented his professional boxing income with a job at the sheriff’s department in Nashville, Tenn.
He worked there four years, in the early ‘80s, in and around training for bouts that took him to a world junior welterweight championship. Bumphus was an extra on the Nashville staff, often relegated to the least-enjoyable aspects of correctional work.
“They had a portable phone the inmates could use and I would take it around to their cells, plug it in and let them have their three-minute phone call,” Bumphus said Tuesday. “Not a whole lot of talking can be done in three minutes, and I had to tell them, ‘Sorry, time’s up,’ and unplug that phone. I’d go up and down the walk from cell to cell doing that. Wasn’t a day went by I didn’t get cussed up one side and down the other.”
Bumphus attended Stadium High School as a sophomore and junior before starting out on a successful amateur career guided by former Tacoma Boxing Club Coach Joe Clough. He relocated in Nashville, where he finished high school and began his professional career.
Bumphus wanted something besides boxing to turn to when the jab was no longer as sharp as it once was. Through Clough, Bumphus met law enforcement people who sponsored amateur boxing cards in Winston-Salem and Nashville.
He remembers walking that row of cells, hearing the crude insults from the prisoners and wondering what made them go wrong.
“Some of those faces I can still see,” said Bumphus, now 29 and 15 months removed from his last pro bout. “They would come in and out of that place like it had a revolving door. They’d get out and two days later, they’d be back again. I used to wonder why.”
For the past week, Bumphus has been in the position of answering those same questions, only now they have been directed at him following two recent arrests in Tacoma on charges involving crack cocaine.
He spent 26 days in jail, with 20 days suspended in lieu of community-service work.
The world champion boxer, the Johnny Bumphus who had 19 network television bouts, is gone, replaced by a remorseful drug addict who has seen it all, literally, go up in smoke.
as low as I’ve ever been,” he said, flopped back on a couch in his sister’s house. “I’m a drug addict. I’m out of money, I don’t have a job or a house or a car. I had it all and then I smoked it all up, gave it all away to cocaine.
“What I want to do now,” Bumphus said, “is make a public apology. I want to apologize to all my fans, all my friends and family, anybody who ever saw me box, anybody I’ve ever known. I made them all proud of me, and now I’ve done this.”
Johnny Bumphus talks in a low voice, with a languid, almost monotone speech pattern. If there ever were a laugh in his voice, it has long since been chased away. He doesn’t smile easily, but there is a grin hiding there behind the blank look of self-betrayal.
Bumphus has been in two drug rehabilitation centers, one in Philadelphia and another in Nashville. There was a time between them when he had more than a full year of sobriety, but he slipped.
He was working with former Manager Lou Duva as a boxing trainer in Nashville, overseeing workouts, busying himself on the fringes of professional boxing. He had a lot of time on his hands.
Duva suspected Bumphus was using again, packed him in the car and started to drive him in for a urinalysis.
Bumphus played it cool, pretending there was no problem, but before Duva got to the doctor, Bumphus broke down. The bluff was over.
He pleaded for another chance, begged Duva to let him try again, promised he wouldn’t use, that he’d stay away from the dope this time.
Duva kicked him out of the car and told him he was through.
“Get out of my life,” Duva said. “If you want to kill yourself, be my guest, go kill yourself.”
Bumphus came back to Tacoma last December just before Christmas and moved into the house he had been left by his deceased parents. The house is located in the Hilltop section of town. Crack Central.
“I was going to go by the Boys’ Club, check in with (boxing coach) Tom Mustin, get myself back in shape and try to get a few more years out of my career,” Bumphus said. “I didn’t come here to do drugs.”
Word spread that Johnny Bumphus was back in town. Friends came over. People who weren’t friends--but said they were--came over. There was a lot of cocaine.
“I avoided it for a couple of days, then I tried some,” he said. “After that, it was off to the races. I was a drug addict again.”
When he was using on the Hilltop, Bumphus had recurring dreams that always featured his 17-year-old nephew, Jermaine.
“It was always the same,” he said. “Jermaine would be there, breaking down, crying, screaming, telling me not to do it, not to keep doing that dope. He would say I was the only one in the family who made it, that I was a champion, and look at me now.”
The dream tore through Bumphus more times than he could recall, while he was smoking crack, while he was coming down, almost every night he slept.
“I had a lot to think about for those 26 days in jail,” Johnny Bumphus said, “and one thing that kept coming back was Jermaine in those dreams. I would remember smoking this drug until I couldn’t stand up or walk, and then wanting more of it right then. I want to get out of it now. I want to make people proud of me again.”
Johnny Bumphus, 29-2, a former world titleholder in the North American Boxing Assn. and the World Boxing Assn., wants to do his community service work at the Boys’ Club, helping Tom Mustin with young boxers. He wants to work himself back into shape, get serious again and make a comeback.
“There’s guys older than me out there who have good careers,” he said, “and I know there’s guys I can beat. I could get back in the ring in three months if I had a place to work out and a job to help me pay some bills. In six months I could fight a contender.”
Not all of these well-intentioned drug rehab stories have happy endings. Some people go to so far to stay sober, but not far enough. They are the ones who find their way back to the streets.
Johnny Bumphus has some help in this fight. David and Angie Lockeridge have been supportive since he has been out of jail. When he was in jail he had one visitor in his 26-day stay -- Ray Seales, another former boxing champion from Tacoma.
“I need to put some things together and get my life going again,” he said. “Drug addicts can count on three things -- institutions, jails and death. I’ve had two out of three and I don’t want to die, not yet. People who read this might not believe me, they might think I’m just talking, but it doesn’t matter.
“It doesn’t matter if they think I’m a lying drug addict or if they think I going to make it,” Johnny Bumphus said, “because either way, I’m the one who has to do it, not anybody else.
“I’ve never been lower than this, I’m smoked out and washed up. I just can’t see myself going out like this, like just another drug addict. I just can’t see it.”