Cleveland contenders: Tiger Johnson, Dante Benjamin Jr. aim to be boxing world champions

Tiger Johnson, Donte Benjamin Jr. boxing Cleveland
Posted at 8:43 AM, Jan 24, 2022

CLEVELAND — Two young boxers who share a similar journey into the sport and the same career goals have been putting in the work at DNA Level-C Boxing Club in Maple Heights as they battle their way to the very top.

Olympian gone pro
Delante "Tiger" Johnson, 23, began boxing at the age of 7. For him, it began as an outlet after getting into fights with older kids on the way to school.

“I had to go to school with older kids. My school went from kindergarten to eighth grade, so I was catching a bus with a lot of older kids. So I was just fighting every day, basically,” he said.

While the starting age to box was 10, Johnson's dad pushed for him to get an early start, teaching him both discipline and self-defense after a rocky experience with fighting at school.

What began as an outlet quickly became a passion for Johnson, who got early lessons from the late Clint Martin. After some molding from one great coach, Johnson was introduced to Renard Safo, another prominent local boxing coach, who took over training the young boxer after Martin's passing.

“Ever since, we just keep progressing, winning and everything—winning nationals, I made the USA team at 17 and from there all the way up to the Olympics.”

Blow by blow, Tiger bobbed and weaved his way to the top, fighting in the Tokyo Olympics last summer— an experience Johnson called a "dream come true.”

Johnson made the quarterfinals of the Tokyo Olympic Games, keeping a promise he made to Martin when they first started working together.

"Coach Clint always told me that he believed I would be his next Olympian. And I'd be the next one to go to the Olympics and do big things in the pros. I basically just held on to that dream," Johnson said.

After the Olympics, Johnson decided it was time to begin his professional career.

“I'm professional now. I had my debut in November. I was able to fight on Shawn Porter and Terrance Crawford's card for my debut, and that was a huge blessing," Johnson said. “That's a card that's going down in history, and I was able to start my career there.”

During that fight, Johnson got his first win over Antonius Grable, a TKO in the fourth round.

With the stage set Johnson's pro career, he’s working with another young boxer following the same path.

A familiar path
Dante Benjamin Jr.'s journey to boxing was similar to Johnson's.

“I started when I was 7 years old. I used to fight a lot outside of school—in school, too—and my dad was like, 'You might as well just do something with this since you want to fight a lot,'" Benjamin said. ”So, he got me into boxing."

What was only supposed to be an intro to the sport quickly became something Benjamin wanted to continue working at after experiencing the feeling of a win.

"I ended up winning my first tournament, which was Silver Gloves, and I beat somebody that had like 50 wins, and that was my second fight. So I just liked the feeling of winning so I just stuck with it, even when times got hard," he said.

Benjamin found himself taking out his anger, frustration and feelings that would have led him to fighting at school to the gym instead, using boxing as his motivation to stay out of trouble.

It wasn't an easy path to get to where he's at. Benjamin loved boxing but also worked extremely hard to hone his craft.

“When I first started boxing, I wasn't good. Like, I used to fall down and everything like that. So it was really hard for me to get into it and even times where I wanted to quit, but my dad kept me going,” Benjamin said.

His father died in March 2021, but his legacy lives on in Benjamin as he continues crushing the goals the two had set, working with coach Safo alongside Johnson.

"I made the USA team for the first time and talking Safo, talking to my dad was like, 'This is it,'" Benjamin said. "This is my destiny."

It's early in Benjamin's boxing journey, but there's been a piece of advice he's been given that sticks with him and keeps him grounded while he pushes forward into his career.

"Have fun,"Benjamin said. "That's the most important thing. If you're not having fun with something you're doing—if you're just doing it to do it, just to get by—you shouldn't be doing it."

Representing Cleveland
Benjamin, now 19, has been preparing for his upcoming pro debut on Jan. 29 in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where he'll fight in a four-round light heavyweight bout against Herman Rendon (2-0) on the Robson Conceição-Xavier Martinez undercard.

Johnson will also take the ring as an undercard of the Jan. 29 fight, taking on Xavier Madrid (3-0) in the welterweight match-up. Johnson and Benjamin have been working together at DNA Boxing Club, pushing each other every step of the way.

“Being along Tiger is great," Benjamin said. “Just being around him and seeing his work ethic pushed me harder and keeps me motivated.”

The work is being guided by coach Safo, who saw the potential in both fighters from an early age.

“Dante...when he first started, he was like falling down and falling down and his father said, 'He ain't got it. He ain’t got it.' I said, 'Dante, he's going to get it, it takes time,'" Safo said. "Then he started winning. He started getting better and better and better.”

Safo also saw the potential in Johnson after coach Martin introduced them and has seen a shared love of the sport from both boxers.

“Tiger and them, I just saw they love the game. They love it," Safo said.

With a passion for the sport, neither fighter is pulling their punches when it comes to their future, both looking to represent Cleveland well through their professional careers.

"I just got to keep working hard and listen. That's the most important thing. Listen more, talk less. No complaining, and just really working hard and staying on the right path. And don't let nobody outside distract me or get in my head," Benjamin said.

Johnson already has a few lessons learned from his pro debut, but as he embarks on his second fight, he's still taking in all of the lessons he can.

“Whatever my coaches need me to work on," he said. "Progressing every day, we're taking it one fight at a time. So, whatever I did wrong in my last fight, we're going to fix that for this fight. Just continue to represent Cleveland and do big things in the pros."

Johnson and Benjamin share similar paths into boxing, share a coach, share a gym—and ultimately share the same overall goal.

“World champion," they both said.

Camryn Justice is a digital content producer at News 5 Cleveland. Follow her on Twitter @camijustice.

Download the News 5 Cleveland app now for more stories from us, plus alerts on major news, the latest weather forecast, traffic information and much more. Download now on your Apple device here, and your Android device here.

You can also catch News 5 Cleveland on Roku, Apple TV, Amazon Fire TV, YouTube TV, DIRECTV NOW, Hulu Live and more. We're also on Amazon Alexa devices. Learn more about our streaming options here.