Shortly before 35-year-old Leavander Johnson of Atlantic City, New Jersey, traveled to Milano, Italy, to challenge local hero Stefano Zoff for the vacant IBF lightweight on June 17, his brother Craig Johnson, who serves as his manager, told him he had to make the mother of all statements in order to come home with the crown.

Having fought professionally since 1989, Johnson had lost three previous world title challenges – to Miguel Angel Gonzalez, Orzubek Nazarov and Javier Jauregui – but had always acquitted himself well. Knowing he was fighting Zoff in his home country, he was smart enough not to leave anything up to the judges and scored an impressive seventh-round TKO.

“I told Leavander he couldn’t just knock the door down, he had to take it off the hinges,” said Craig. “And that’s exactly what he did. For our family, it was like the day our children were born. It was just so memorable and happy. We waited so long, and it finally happened. Beating Zoff and winning the title was just a springboard for great things to come.”

Johnson, whose record now stands at 34-4-2 (26 KOs), lobbied hard to get a match with Erik Morales, who opted to fight Zaheer Raheem instead and wound up being exposed as a mere mortal after all.

Johnson now finds himself squaring off against former WBC junior lightweight king Jesus Chavez, 41-3 (28 KOs), on Saturday night as one of the televised preliminaries to the Marco Antonio Barrera-Robbie Peden pay-per-view show from Las Vegas. If he is able to get past Chavez, which many consider a big if, he hopes to fight Barrera in the very near future.

“We just want to fight the best fighters out there,” said Craig. “We were the ones lobbying hard for the Morales fight, and he wanted no part of us. After what Raheem did to him, I can see why. Barrera, though, is always up for a challenge. He and Leavander are like fine wine – they just get better with age. And they’re real people; humble, responsible and respectable champions.”

How, one might wonder, has Johnson been able to retain his youthful exuberance after so many years and no shortage of promotional entanglements and professional disappointments along the way. He credits his wife Diedre and three children, as well as his extended family, conditioning coach and spiritual guru Shuwn Muhammad, and adviser Sampson Lewkowicz for not only keeping him grounded but for enabling him to believe that good things were always in store for him if he just kept his eye on the prize.

“I always knew that if I was in shape, mentally and physically, there was nobody that could beat me,” said Johnson during a recent visit to New York. “I always had a lot of distractions, which made it difficult to prepare properly. Still, I never took any real beatings, always kept myself in tiptop shape, and I’m a young 35.”

After recently signing with Lou DiBella, Johnson finally saw his ship come in. The fact that it took so long only made it more special for him. “I knew that [the Zoff fight] was probably my last opportunity to win a title, so nothing was going to stop me. Nothing! I didn’t care who or where I was fighting. I got a great opportunity and I took advantage of it.”

Now is time for Leavander to make history,” proclaimed DiBella, while trying to make a match between Johnson and Morales. “This is his time. He’s been around a long time, so he certainly earned it the hard way.”

Craig says that brother Leavander is on no official timetable, but his mission is clear and it all starts on Saturday night against the extremely aggressive Chavez. “We trained in the mountains near Las Vegas, and this is the best camp we’ve ever had,” he said. “Our doctor told him he is in superb shape, with the heart of a 25-year-old.

“We are putting the lightweight division on notice that we want only the biggest and best fights out there. Leavander wants to leave a legacy, not only as a boxing champion but as proof that nothing comes easy in life. If you stay motivated, never give up on yourself, and stay consistent, your dreams will come true. Leavander is proof of that.”