In July of 2004, Mark “Too Sharp” Johnson was a few days away from scoring a unanimous 10-round decision over featherweight opponent Paulino Villalobos in the final victory and the third from the last bout of his illustrious career.
That triumph would be the fourth straight for Johnson, who was a month shy of his 33rd birthday.
The win took place on the undercard of a women’s super middleweight main event at a minor league baseball facility in Bowie, Md., during which Laila Ali, daughter of Muhammad Ali, stopped Nikki Eplion in the third round.
To that point, Johnson’s largest purse had been $125,000, exactly half of what the then 26-year Ali had earned in her previous fight.
A sad statement for a slick boxer-puncher who ended his career with a record of 44-5 that included 28 knockouts, and who was ranked as high as No. 3 in the sport’s pound-for-pound ratings.
Johnson retired following his second straight loss in February of 2006 after falling by eighth-round knockout to current WBC featherweight titleholder Jhonny Gonzalez, who has knocked out 10 consecutive opponents in as many straight wins since last losing in May of 2009.
If Johnson’s resume was largely devoid of star names, it was because standout fighters of the day, from 108 to 115 pounds, such as Johnny Tapia, Danny Romero, Michael Carbajal and Ricardo Lopez are widely considered to have avoided him.
“I was the most feared fighter from my weight class to probably two or three weight classes above me, but I could never get the endorsement and sponsorship deals or the fights that I truly wanted,” said Johnson, now a 40-year-old recreation specialist working with at-risk youth.
“Yet I was persistent. I was determined to pave the way. I put Washington, D.C. on my back, because after Sugar Ray Leonard, boxing was dead in the D.C. area. Then you have a guy like me, as a flyweight, I was No. 3, pound-for-pound, in the world. After Roy Jones, there was Shane Mosley and then me.”
Despite being one of the sport’s all-time under-exposed, under-appreciated and underpaid fighters, Johnson earned three title belts over the course of two divisions, and retired as the first African American to win a 112-pound title belt.
“All I heard was that there has never been an African American flyweight champion. But there was never any pressure being the only black guy anywhere near my weight class. I never ran from it. In fact, I embraced it,” said Johnson, who was trained by his father, Ham Johnson.
“I paid my own way and my father’s way on a lot of flights, and I went into a lot of guy’s back yards and fought them and beat them on the West Coast coming all the way from the East Coast. People would see me shut these guys out, and they had no choice but to respect me and to be on my team.”
Johnson joins Thomas “The Hit-Man” Hearns, trainer Freddie Roach and ring announcer Michael Buffer, among others, as the most notable newcomers who are listed on the 2012 ballot as potential inductees to the International Hall of Fame in Canastota, N.Y.
The other newcomers include former lineal light heavyweight champ and cruiserweight titleholder Dariusz Michalczewski, of Poland, German promoter Klaus-Peter Kohl of the powerful Europe-based Universum Box-Promotion, and Showtime Sports color commentator Al Bernstein.
Thanks to his dazzling speed, his uncommon punching power for his size and an uncanny yet accurate delivery of his blows from an array of angles, Johnson dethroned IBF titleholder Francisco Tejedor by first-round knockout in May of 1996 to become boxing’s first black flyweight titleholder.
Johnson defended that crown seven times until April 1999, when he rose to win the IBF’s junior bantamweight crown with a unanimous decision over Ratanachai Sor Vorapin at Washington, D.C.’s MCI Center, which is now the Verizon Center.
Johnson also owns a signature victory over former three-division titleholder Fernando Montiel (46-3-2, 36 KOs), of Mexico, who was 27-0-1, with 21 knockouts, before Johnson defeated him for the WBO junior bantamweight crown by majority decision (117-110, 115-112, 114-114) in August of 2003.
“My whole career was about making sure that I could make things happen that weren’t done before, so that win over Montiel, I was motivated. I mean, that kid Montiel, he could box like I had never ever seen a Mexican box,” said Johnson.
“But I wanted to out-box him, and I knew that I could out-box him. It was a real treat for me to be back on HBO, let alone, to beat a guy that they weren’t giving me a ghost of a chance against.”
The win over Montiel helped Johnson to rebound from consecutive losses to a young Rafael Marquez, by split-decision and eighth-round knockout, respectively, in October of 2001 and February of 2002.
“They said that I was too old against Montiel, and that my father couldn’t take me to the next level, and that Rafael Marquez had taken too much out of me. Montiel was supposed to box circles around me. But all of that motivated me,” said Johnson.
“I always wanted to be the one who broke all of the records, and being first African American flyweight champ was a big deal for me. Now, it’s a real honor being nominated to the Hall of Fame ballot, but that’s only half the battle. Now, you guys have got to let me in there.”
Lem Satterfield can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org