Former Mayweather challenger Justin Juuko discusses Floyd, Miguel Cotto, Diego Corrales and much more with James Slater
UGANDA’S Justin Juuko was a talented super-featherweight well known to UK fight fans back in the mid 1990s. “The Destroyer,” as Juuko was known, boxed in Britain many times from 1993 to 1998, before challenging for world titles in America at the end of the decade.
Most well known to many fans for his 1999 challenge of a then 20-0 Floyd Mayweather Junior, Juuko also faced big names such as Diego Corrales and Miguel Cotto. Today a trainer at The Wild Card gym in L.A, the 42-year-old who retired with a 45-12-1(30) record in 2013 says he feels healthy and happy and is proud of his achievements.
Here Juuko speaks exclusively with Boxing News:
Q: It’s 25-years since you won the gold medal at The Commonwealth games in Auckland. Does it seem that long to you?
Justin Juuko: “No, time runs real fast. I can’t believe it. I was just a kid at the time, I was 17. I didn’t have a lot of experience but I just wanted to win.”
Q: You were a fine amateur and then of course a great pro. You boxed all over the world: Uganda, the U.K, all over America…
J.J: “Yeah, I made some noise over in London [laughs]. I’d say around 20 percent of my career was fought in London. I want to come over and visit, I haven’t been for a while. They are my people in London and I want to come say hi. I was a popular kid there [laughs]. Of course boxing in Uganda was the best. When I went back after winning the Commonwealth medal, everyone was chanting, “Juuko! Juuko!” I didn’t realise the impact my win had had. I met the President. I was thinking, why all this [fuss].
“Then I went to Vegas. I had to wait until I turned 18, so I could get my pro license. I made a big splash there, it was great. And in London, there were a lot of Ugandan people there and it’s good to have your people around you. But there was a lot of pressure on me; I had to win. Juuko had to win no matter what (laughs). But sometimes having pressure on you helps you perform better. They were good times.”
Q: You won the Commonwealth title and the International WBC title as a super-featherweight and most everybody thought you were a definite future world champion. But you fell just a littler short.
J.J: “Yeah, in 1998, 1999, I was with Top Rank. But I had been with Frank Warren and Frank Maloney and I was highly ranked in all the organisations. I almost had a fight with Arturo Gatti, I was the WBC number-two. There was no number-one [contender] at the time (laughs). I asked Frank why I wasn’t the number-one then. He told me my problem was, I was too good for my own good. He told me I was too big a risk for these guys to fight. This was when I first learned the business of the sport. So I went with Top Rank and they got me a fight with Antonio Hernandez [for the interim WBA super-featherweight title, in February of 1999]. HBO offered Hernandez a fight with Floyd Mayweather [Junior] instead of me, but I got the fight.
“I had trouble making weight for that fight. I was training with Freddie [Roach] and I remember telling the promoters I didn’t feel well, and maybe I shouldn’t fight. They told me if I didn’t fight it would be two years before I got another world title fight. I lost that fight. I had him down two or three times but I was getting weaker and weaker. At the time of the stoppage [Juuko lost via 11th-round TKO] I was ahead by two points on two of the cards. I then planned to move up to box at lightweight. But I was offered the fight with Floyd. I was called three days before that fight [laughs].”
Q: You gave Mayweather a pretty hard fight in May of 1999 before being stopped in the ninth-round.
J.J: “Oh yes. I had trained for another guy but they called and offered me the fight with Floyd. HBO had refused two or three guys [as challengers for Mayweather, who was the WBC super-featherweight champion) and they called me. I said, if I could fight at five-pounds over [the super-featherweight limit], okay. But they said it had to be a world title fight. I was 140-pounds the day before the fight (laughs). I ran six miles that night and again the next morning. Everything was [focused] on making weight for that fight. I did what I could, and he knows I gave him a good fight. Years later, when I was working with Manny Pacquiao and he was getting ready to fight Floyd, he told me that if I’d prepared properly, maybe I’d have beaten Floyd and there wouldn’t be the big fight there was now [between Mayweather and Pac-Man]. I used to spar Pacquiao, I sparred with him as he was getting ready to fight Erik Morales, we did maybe 180-rounds. But he told me [this year] that maybe I’d have beaten Floyd had I prepared properly and I said maybe it was meant to be because if I’d have beaten Floyd there wouldn’t have been The Fight of The Century [laughs].”
Q: How great is Mayweather in your opinion? He says he’s T.B.E, the best ever.
J.J: “I think each generation has its different great fighters. I think I’d put Floyd in the top 10 of all time, because he has dominated for a long time; 15 years or so. And he’s made it a big thing staying unbeaten and everyone he fought was trying their best to win. Floyd is smart. He knows when he has to do what he needs to do. He’s a very disciplined fighter so he gets props for that. He trains like he’s a poor man. Most guys, when they reach that level, you’d think they would take things easy, but he still trains very hard. So I can have him top-10 but not the best ever. There are other great undefeated fighters, look at [Julio Cesar] Chavez, who got to something like 80-0 [before he lost]. And Joe Calzaghe, who got to 46-0. Floyd has made a big thing out of being unbeaten but most people don’t care about that as much as they want to see good fights. There are fighters from different generations that people haven’t heard of and Floyd doesn’t talk about.”
Q: You and Floyd have some common opponents, in Diego Corrales and Miguel Cotto. What are your memories of your fights with those two?
J.J: “Diego was a big guy, a tall guy. I had a very good fight with him. When they stopped it [Corrales winning via 10th-round KO], it was a draw on one of the cards. He was very tough. He wasn’t that good technically but he was tough. I met up with Floyd when he knew he was going to be fighting Corrales and he asked me about him, about his power and everything. I told Floyd that he’s [Corrales] not that technically good and that he cannot box with you. I told him he is big and tough but he doesn’t have one-punch power. I told Floyd how he just keeps punching and that it’s an accumulation and that he uses his strength and weight. I told Floyd to jab to the body, to break him down and that he could beat him up. And that’s just what Floyd did. Floyd got that from me [laughs].
“Myself, I think that was the toughest fight I ever had. I had a shoulder injury before that fight and I didn’t tell Freddie as he’d have stopped the fight. I met Diego the next day, after the fight, and I couldn’t recognise him. He had swellings and bruises all over his face! It was a tough, tough fight. Miguel Cotto (who was 9-0 when he stopped Juuko in the 5th-round in 2002), he was just so physically strong. You see, people mistake being strong for being a hard puncher. Cotto hits hard, but his thing is his physical strength. I got close to him in the fight and tried to push him, you know, like the old timers do, and I was like, ‘Wow! This guy is a rock.’ For that fight, I was something like 146-pounds [on the day] and he was around 154. I couldn’t believe how he’d got so big. I knew Cotto would beat Maravilla [Sergio Martinez] when they fought at middleweight. Cotto is so strong, he has great balance and he’s an all round guy with a great level of boxing skill.”
Q: And you train fighters now at The Wild Card in Los Angeles?
J.J: “Yeah. I’m not working with any big names at the moment, but we have all kinds of people at Wild Card: amateurs, pros from all over the world and Hollywood people, who train as they want to look good (laughs). Let me tell you, The Wild Card is the best boxing gym in the world. Freddie is the main man. He talks to all the fighters. It’s a real boxing gym, that’s why the great fighters come here.”