In honor of Black History Month, RingTV.com is profiling former two-division titleholder Mark “Too Sharp” Johnson, who blazed the trail for African American fighters before retiring in February of 2006.
A slick-boxing puncher with a solid chin, dazzling footwork and the ability to deliver blows from an any angle whether coming forward or moving in reverse, Johnson joined Thomas “The Hit-Man” Hearns, trainer Freddie Roach and ring announcer Michael Buffer, among others, in being elected to the International Boxing Hall of Fame’s class of 2012.
Johnson retired with a mark of 44-5, including 28 knockouts, and was the first African American to win belts in both the flyweight and junior bantamweight divisions.
He did this while being largely avoided by top 108- to 115-pound fighters of the day, such as Johnny Tapia, Danny Romero, Michael Carbajal and Ricardo Lopez.
“I was the first African American flyweight champion and the first African American [junior bantamweight] champion,” said Johnson, 40. “That tells you a lot about my work ethic. You have guys that get five and six title shots and they don’t win it, but I did it.”
Ranked as high as No. 3 in the sport’s pound-for-pound ratings, Johnson dethroned IBF titleholder Francisco Tejedor by first-round knockout in May of 1996 to become boxing’s first black 112-pound titleholder.
Johnson defended that crown seven times until April 1999, when he rose to win the IBF’s 115-pound crown with a unanimous decision over Ratanachai Sor Vorapin in the first-ever fight at Washington, D.C.’s MCI Center, which is now the Verizon Center.
“I was the first fighter to fight at the Verizon Center — the first person to win a world title in that building, so I’m the first on a lot of stuff,” said Johnson.
“But as the most feared fighter from my weight class to probably two or three weight classes above me, I could never get the endorsement and sponsorship deals or the fights that I truly wanted.”
Johnson, nevertheless, remained 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,” said Johnson, who was trained by his father, Ham Johnson.
“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.”
Johnson was on hand in December when his former proteges and fellow Washington, D.C., natives, the Petersons brothers, were triumphant in consecutive wins at the Washington Convention Center in September.
“I remember when I fought over at the D.C. Armory when Lamont and Anthony were there. They were about 10 or 12, and I fought Arthur Johnson,” said Mark Johnson. “I told them that this is the stage and the platform that you’re going to one day be on. I told them to embrace it now, because it’s coming.”
Barry Hunter, manager and trainer of the Peterson siblings, is “a huge Mark Johnson fan.”
“When Mark came through, he did a lot of what he did on the West Coast in a weight class that was dominated by the Latino fighters. And Mark did it during a time when you had fighters such as Danny Romero and Johnny Tapia and the list goes on and on. There was a reason why those guys wouldn’t fight Mark Johnson,” said Hunter.
“I remember when Anthony and Lamont first started boxing, I would show them film of Mark Johnson up to the time that he became world champion and all of the fights that it took him to get there. So Mark was a major, major influence on Anthony and Lamont.
“Between Mark and Ray Leonard, they stand out to me as pound-for-pound two of the best fighters ever to come through the Washington, D.C., area. He never got the credit that he deserved, and, pound-for-pound, Mark Johnson always will be one of the best fighters I’ve ever seen.”
Another great milestone for Johnson was his win over former three-division titleholder Fernando Montiel, of Mexico, who was 27-0-1, with 21 knockouts before Johnson won a majority decision for the WBO junior bantamweight crown in August of 2003.
Defeating Montiel helped Johnson to rebound from consecutive losses to a young Rafael Marquez by split-decision and eighth-round knockout in October of 2001 and February of 2002, respectively.
Johnson retired following his second straight loss in February of 2006 after falling by eighth-round knockout to current WBC featherweight titleholder Jhonny Gonzalez.
“Let me tell you: Mark Johnson was a great fighter. Mark Johnson is right up there with the top guys that I have ever had. Right at the top. He’s a special guy and a special fighter,” said Johnson’s one-time manager, Cameron Dunkin, who also handles WBO’s vacant junior featherweight beltholder Nonito Donaire.
“Mark Johnson didn’t just look like a great fighter, he was one. I said the other day to somebody that I feel sad that he never really got his chance to show how great he really was, because to me, he’s up there with the greatest that ever lived in any weight class.”
Johnson works as a specialist training at-risk youth, one of the many ways that he continues to give back to the sport of boxing.
“Nowadays, I’m more focused on being in the gym working with my young ones. Right now, we’re in Southeast Washington, D.C. area where the Petersons grew up homeless. Some of the kids, we’re training as fighters,” said Johnson.
“But I’m also in Spingarn Senior High School and I do mediation and home visits and court visits. A lot of these kids come to the gym and they train, and I work with them as their mentor. But I would like to get into commentating, or, if not that, I would definitely like to begin a career as a referee. I think that’s going to be my next move.”
Photo by Delane Rouse, Hogan Photos, Golden Boy Promotions
Lem Satterfield can be reached at email@example.com