Best I Faced: Mark Johnson
In the modern era, Mark Johnson was as one of the finest fighters in boxing’s lighter weight classes, winning three world titles in two divisions.
In his prime Johnson was nigh on unbeatable. He possessed otherworldly speed and devastating power. It was only after a stint in prison and a move up in weight when age caught up with him and dulled his gifted southpaw skills.
Johnson was born in Washington D.C on August 13, 1971. He resisted the lure of gang life. His father Ham ran a boxing team and initially tried to discourage Johnson from fighting but the more the youngster was roughed up, the more he liked boxing.
He weighed 45 pounds as a five-year-old and wanted to enter a tournament but the minimum weight was 55 pounds. Johnson put on ankle weights and filled his pockets with coins to bring his weight up. Such was his talent that he won the tournament, despite the disadvantages.
Johnson went on to have a successful amateur career, notably winning the Golden Gloves, but was unable to qualify for the 1988 Olympics. He resisted the urge to wait for the next Olympics, like his older brother James Harris, who unsuccessfully tried to make three Olympic teams.
He exited the unpaid ranks as No. 1 in the United States, at 106-pounds, with a record of 105-5, turning professional in 1990. Early opportunities were difficult to procure, despite his obvious talent.
“It was definitely very difficult to get the love,” Johnson told RingTV.com of his early career. “As a small guy on the East Coast, it was kind of hard to get fights. My second fight, I lost to Richie Wenton in Belfast, Ireland, on St. Patrick’s Day.”
After returning home, Johnson ran off 11 wins before getting a chance to fight on the West Coast, typically a stronghold for Mexican fighters, under the Forum Boxing banner. “Too Sharp” became a fixture at the Forum in the mid-1990s. However a world title fight eluded him.
“I was the Marvin Hagler of the flyweights,” he explained. “I was the guy that didn’t get the top-notch fights I wanted because not only was I a southpaw, I could also box and punch.”
Finally in May 1996, after Danny Romero had vacated the IBF flyweight title, Johnson fought dangerous former champion Francisco Tejador for the vacant strap.
“I was Danny Romero’s No. 1 contender and he chose not to fight me,” he said. “I knocked out Tejedor in 91 seconds of the first round. I became the first African-American fighter in history to win the title at 112 pounds.”
Over the next three years, he ratcheted up seven successful defenses, looking particularly impressive knocking out Olympian and former rival Arthur Johnson in one round.
“I felt at my peak,” he said. “I felt nobody could beat me as long as I was staying hungry, staying focused.”
Johnson signed with renowned manager Cameron Dunkin, who guided him to a second world title, outpointing iron-jawed Ratanchai Sor Vorapin to claim the vacant IBF junior bantamweight title. Johnson made two defenses.
“Great fighter, one of the greatest fighters who ever lived,” Dunkin said unabashedly. “None better, he was such a talent, it was incredible. Not only did he have lightning speed and boxing ability and defense, he could take you out with one shot, as he showed with so many guys.”
Johnson’s career was then sidelined after spending 18 months in prison.
“(I went to jail) for parole violation for domestic violence,” he said remorsefully. “I was going through a divorce; (his estranged wife) hit me and I hit her and they sent me to prison, while I still had the title.”
When Johnson returned in June 2001, he fought at bantamweight. Johnson admits that the time in jail took it’s toll on him. He won two fights before stepping up to face Rafael Marquez. It proved too much too soon and, despite being initially announced as the winner, he was told in the changing room later there had been a mix-up on the scorecards and he had in fact lost by split decision.
A rematch followed; this time Marquez left no room for doubt, stopping the American in eight rounds. To his immense credit, Johnson whipped himself into shape and took Fernando Montiel’s unbeaten record and WBO 115-pound title. However Johnson lost it in his second defense.
Johnson was presented with an opportunity to become a three division titlist against Jhonny Gonzalez in February 2006. However when he missed weight, it was downgraded to a non-title bout and he was stopped in eight rounds.
“The Gonzalez fight showed me it was time for me to say so long to the game,” he said. “As a boxer, you always feel there’s one more fight in you.”
Politics prevented him facing many fighters. There were a couple in particular with whom he would have liked to have shared a ring.
“Johnny Tapia,” Johnson said without pause. “It would have been a great fight. Great guy, I watched him for several years, I went to a couple of his fights.
“I was willing to go to 126 to fight Prince Naseem Hamed. Even though I was the smaller guy, I was willing to take on that challenge.”
In 2012, Johnson (44-5, 28 knockouts) was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame. “That is something very dear to my heart. It was a very special moment for me.”
Johnson, now 47, is married, has eight children and lives in Washington D.C. He owns his own gym that is funded by the department of recreations and works with seven fighters.
He graciously took time to speak to RingTV.com about the best he fought in 10 key categories.
RAFAEL MARQUEZ: I could never beat (trainer) Nacho Beristain. I lost to two of his fighters, Rafael Marquez and Jhonny Gonzalez. I lost to a great trainer in Nacho Beristain. Marquez had the best jab. What I noticed about Marquez was that his jab was pinpoint; his jab was to control the distance, as well as the fight to make me move my head to one side, so he could throw the right hand.
FERNANDO MONTIEL: He was one of the best Mexican guys I’ve ever seen box. He was slick and hard to hit. He had a lot of good head movement.
MONTIEL: I didn’t fight anybody who had hand speed that could match with me but I think Fernando Montiel was a little closer than most.
MONTIEL: I think Fernando Montiel could box, move and punch. He had good footwork.
ARMANDO DIAZ: I beat him 12 straight rounds. I hit Armando Diaz with everything except the kitchen sink and I couldn’t knock him out. I think you could hit him with a baseball bat (and he wouldn’t move).
MARQUEZ: Marquez is one of the guys I have a lot of respect for. I think he was the smartest guy. He hit me with a lot of body shots to slow me down.
MARQUEZ: I think Marquez was physically strong. He was a bigger, stronger guy. He gained a lot of weight after the weigh-in. I think Jhonny Gonzalez was strong guy as well. At 112 and 115, I was the bigger, stronger guy but at 118, I definitely wasn’t the bigger, stronger guy.
MARQUEZ: To me the biggest puncher was either Marquez or Gonzalez. I think Marquez because he stopped me. I think I was a little old when I fought Gonzalez. I don’t think it was one punch that did it; it was a succession of different punches.
BEST BOXING SKILLS
MONTIEL: The best boxing skills was Fernando Montiel. He was a good boxer. I fought guys who were stronger and bigger but, when it came to boxing and using the ring, I think Montiel was that guy.
MARQUEZ: Montiel had the whole package but I beat him, so Marquez, he beat me twice. I think I pegged Marquez’s career because I was only going to 118 pounds to try to be a three-weight world champion against Tim Austin. Marquez beat me and then he beat Tim Austin and then went on with the wars with Israel Vazquez. Before he fought me, he was just Juan Manuel Marquez’s little brother.
Questions and/or comments can be sent to Anson at [email protected] and you can follow him on Twitter @AnsonWainwright.
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