Wednesday, October 04, 2023  |



Johnny Spell III stared down death before reaching his national TV debut on ShoBox

Fighters Network

The round dark blotches dot his abdomen, the inner portion of his left leg, his left forearm and right hand. Johnny Spell III looks at them every day. They serve as a raw reminder of a steamy August Saturday night in 2022, when he was lying there supine on the red grass of a Pittsburgh recreation park, his left hand holding aloft a cell phone in the hopes a passing police car would see it, and his disfigured right hand over the holes of spitting blood from his stomach.

Spell, 27, was shot five times outside a bar after a Pittsburgh Steelers’ preseason game—and survived. The junior lightweight will be making his national TV debut on Friday night against Julian Gonzalez (10-0-1, 9 knockouts) in an eight-rounder on Showtime’s venerated ShoBox: The New Generation, from Wind Creek Events Center, in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania (9 pm ET/PT).

Perhaps no fighter in boxing history ever got back into the ring after being shot five times. There have been fighters that have been shot at five times, however, none unique like Spell (8-0, 4 KOs) that managed to climb back in within a year’s time after possibly dying in a field, while staring up at the stars while their body is pocked by red fissures.

A father of four, whose ages range from 5 to 9, including twin girls, Spell feels fortunate to be breathing let alone fighting again.

This will be Spell’s second fight back since that tragic occurrence, when on August 13, 2022, he was shot twice in his stomach, once through his right hand, once through the inner thigh of his left leg, inches away from the femoral artery, and once through his left forearm. This came from an argument that went bad with someone he knew from the neighborhood. The guy who shot Spell was a handshake’s distance away. This occurred in a residential area along a strip of bars.

“I remember running away while the guy was shooting at me, and I remember no one being able to find me,” recalled Spell, who signed with Marshall Kauffman’s King’s Promotions in February. “I ran with five bullet wounds in me. I fell on the ground in a local park. I thought it was over for me. I remember just thinking I wanted the night to be over. I was there lying on my back. I remember the pain. You can’t believe the pain. I remember calling the police. It took the police about five minutes to find me.”

Five minutes felt like 25 hours to Spell.

Lying there helpless in Pittsburgh’s South Side Park, he had the police on speaker, screaming into his phone, “I’m here, I’m here,” trying to remain conscious enough to speak and breathe while choking up blood.

“Once the ambulance got to me, that was it, I don’t remember anything after that, except the pain,” Spell said. “After I got on the ambulance, I wasn’t really aware. I was in critical condition. I remember when I recovered, the doctors telling me that it was a blessing that I’m alive.”

Spell spent 10 days in the hospital. Through the ensuing months, he eventually underwent three surgeries, the initial the night of the shooting to remove the two bullets that were lodged in his stomach, and two additional surgeries to reconstruct his right hand. The first time he saw himself in a mirror, he was hunched over, and tears fell from his face. He couldn’t recognize himself. He was unable to walk, with boxing being the farthest thing on his mind.

Still, Spell had to don a brave mask. He had doubts about his boxing future, though those feelings never surfaced in front of family and friends. What yanked him through was his stubbornness. He prides himself on his independence, and here, he had to be helped to the bathroom, assisted on opening a ketchup bottle, rely on someone to drive him to various therapies. He hated it. After three weeks, the wounds were cleaned out and the second surgery on his hand went extremely well. By late September, Spell was given clearance by doctors to use his right hand. He could not make a fist.

Therapy enabled him to make a fist by mid-October. The bones in his right hand were healing far quicker than anticipated. The limp in his left leg was gone. By November, Spell was freed to wear gloves and hit the heavybag—and he did it without pain.

Spell’s team, which is comprised of trainer Calvin Ford, Tank Davis’ trainer, and his father and co-trainer, Johnny Spell II, took baby steps.

Spell’s first fight back was a six-round unanimous decision over Antonio Dunton El Jr. (3-2-2) on March 10 in Bethlehem, and his second fight will be taking place Friday night against the largest test of his career, the undefeated Gonzalez, 21, from nearby Reading, Pa., fighting before a partisan hometown crowd.

After he was medically cleared, Spell went down to train with Davis in Miami, Florida, as he prepared for Ryan Garcia. Ford liked what he saw from Spell.

“The first fight back was big for my confidence, and it showed me mentally I could be ready for anything,” Spell said. “I didn’t trust my right hand. I think I used it 10 times during the fight. I handicapped myself. I trust my right hand now. I look at my wounds every day. I think about how blessed I am. I was finished. I was dead. It’s almost a year ago and I look at every day as a blessing. I’m very more religious. I’m more discipline. I’m humbler. I’m a very different person than I was last year. I put value on everything.

“I have four children. I want to see them grow up. I look back over my journey and it is this attitude to never give up and believe in God. I consider myself a walking miracle. I worked with elite fighters during this camp. I know Gonzalez very well. Before I went to Miami, I helped him get ready for his fight in January (against Rosalindo Morales). Gonzalez has some skills. He’s a good fighter. I’m looking forward to the task.”

Task or not, Spell has already won his biggest mission.

Not many fighters can say they survived five bullets—and lived to fight again.

Joseph Santoliquito is an award-winning sportswriter who has been working for Ring Magazine/ since October 1997 and is the president of the Boxing Writers Association of America.
Follow @JSantoliquito