Mark Johnson: An African-American First

By Francis Walker
Updated: February 23, 2006

NEW YORK — On Saturday’s Shane Mosley-Fernando Vargas HBO Pay Per View card, Mark “Too Sharp” Johnson will be featured. A 34-year-old native of Washington D.C., Johnson is the first African-American to capture the IBF flyweight (115) and junior bantamweight (118) championships.

Johnson (44-4, 28 KOs) will attempt to become a four-time world champion, as he challenges WBO bantamweight champion, Jhonny Gonzalez (31-4, 27 KOs).

Johnson has had a successful thirteen-year professional boxing career. Johnson is looking to end his era on a high plateau, as he attempts to win a fourth world title in three separate weight divisions.

“This time at 118, you don’t get an opportunity to be a four-time world champion in three different weight classes,” Johnson said during a national conference call. “So many fighters have tried and failed. I am one of those fighters that look for the opportunity and that opportunity is right at my finger tips.”

Mark Johnson began his career in Feb. 1990 at age 18. Johnson would win his first world championship in May 1996, knocking out Francisco Tejedor in the first round to win the vacant IBF 112-pound championship.

Johnson would make seven successful defenses over the next two years. Johnson moved up to 115 pounds to capture the vacant IBF super flyweight title in April 1999 from Rantanachai Sor Vorapin in an entertaining fight.

Although Johnson was known throughout the boxing community, he was not as popular as the other fighters in the higher weight classes. In fact, it was very difficult for Johnson to earn big-money fights.

The heavyweight division, which featured Mike Tyson, Evander Holyfield, and Lennox Lewis, was the only division that could generate million-dollar purses. Only fighters such as Felix Trinidad, Roy Jones, Jr., and Oscar De La Hoya could command multi-million dollar purses outside of the heavyweight division.

Also, there were not too many fights for Johnson, an African-American 112-115 pound world champion in the United States. To have Johnson fight outside the United States was not an option for Johnson’s promoters.

In an attempt to earn big money fights against marquee opponents, Johnson vacated his 112 and 115 pound titles to lure the biggest names from 118 and 126 into a fight.

Opponents like Naseem Hamed, Johnny Tapia, Danny Romero, Paulie Ayala, Erik Morales, and Marco Antonio Barrera would earn million-dollar paydays fighting from 118-126 – leaving Johnson in a puddle all by himself.

Johnson’s difficulties with his opponents did not start until was competed at 118 pounds. Johnson appeared vulnerable and began losing.

In October 2001, Johnson was docked two points for holding and would lose a close split-decision to Rafael Marquez, a natural 118 pound fighter. Had Johnson not lost the two points, Johnson would have defeated Marquez.

The rematch in Feb. 2002 would be much different. Marquez knocked Johnson out in round eight of a world championship elimination bout. Marquez would go on to defeat IBF bantamweight champion Tim Austin the following year.

It was the first time in Johnson’s professional career that an opponent defeated him twice.

“I think going into the Marquez fight we had a lot of ups and downs in camp,” Johnson said. “We had a controversial decision in the first fight and in the second fight I was going through family problems and a divorce. But I make no excuses about it.”

Johnson would compete once more as a 118-pound contender before returning to the 115-pound weight class in 2004. Johnson won the WBO super flyweight (115) title in 2003, but was knocked out eighth-round of the second defense of his title by then 22-year-old, Ivan Hernandez in September 2004.

“Some people say that I am over the hill,” Johnson added. “That doesn’t motivate me. What motivates me is trying to become a 4-time world champ in three different weight classes.”

Jhonny Gonzalez, 24, Mexico City, Mexico, started his pro career at age 18. Gonzalez has not lost a fight in nearly four years. Gonzalez won the WBO 118-pound crown with a seventh-round TKO of Vorapin (a former Johnson opponent) in October 2005. Gonzalez is looking at his bout with Johnson as an opportunity to boost his place amongst the best 118-122 pound fighters.

“My first step is against Mark Johnson and I want to have a good performance on HBO in front of a good audience,” Gonzalez said. “Then I want to move up to 122 and get bigger fights like Israel Vazquez or Rafael Marquez. Marquez has said he doesn’t want to fight anymore at 118, so Jhonny is willing to chase him up to 122 to be a bigger bout.”