In 1993, when Mark Johnson was in the nascent stages of his professional boxing career, the District native made the unconventional decision to negotiate the parameters for his next bout on his own.
The result of a telephone conversation with promoters in Los Angeles was a fight at the Great Western Forum against Rudy Bradley, whom Johnson dispatched in the sixth round. The flyweight received no prize money, and he recalled even having to cover travel and hotel costs for him and his father, Ham Johnson, who also served as his trainer.
Even though the deal was anything but a financial windfall, Johnson was well on his way to national acclaim. One fight later, Johnson beat Alberto Jimenez to win the World Boxing Board flyweight title for the first of his four belts over two weight classes.
The triumph against Jimenez earned Johnson the distinction of becoming the first African American champion at 112 pounds during a career in which he helped set the standard for achievement in the lighter divisions.
On Sunday, the fighter affectionately nicknamed “Too Sharp” joins the likes of Thomas Hearns, trainer Freddie Roach and ring announcer Michael Buffer as part of the International Boxing Hall of Fame’s Class of 2012. Johnson, 40, also is set to become the first fighter born and raised in the District to be inducted into the Hall of Fame in Canastota, N.Y.
“To be honest, I set my goal to become the first African American in history to win the flyweight title,” Johnson said Tuesday at Woodland recreation center in Southeast Washington. “Going to the Hall of Fame, that’s a dream come true, something I never thought of.
“I’m most proud I did it my way. I stayed with the same camp I had from the first fight to the end of my career. I didn’t get caught up all that stuff where people said I could have done more if I had left my dad and went with [Hall of Fame promoter] Don King. What people failed to realize was Don King had no small fighters, so I’d just be sitting on the shelf.”
So respected was Johnson, who reached No. 3 in the world pound-for-pound rankings, that other boxers preferred to go up in weight rather than risk facing him.
When Johnson was the No. 1 contender for the International Boxing Federation flyweight title in 1996, champion Danny Romero vacated the belt to move to super flyweight. Johnson then won the vacant title with a first-round knockout of Francisco Tejedor.
Three years later, when Johnson became the top contender for the IBF super flyweight belt, Johnny Tapia vacated that title and moved to bantamweight. Johnson won the belt by beating Ratanachai Vorapin via 12-round unanimous decision at MCI Center, becoming the first person to win a boxing world title in the building now known as Verizon Center.
Johnson twice defended that title, including once at the D.C. Armory, before being forced to vacate the belt when he began an 11-month prison sentence. The jail time was the result of an altercation with his then-wife that violated his probation from a previous drug charge.
“I felt to me it was the best thing,” Johnson said of his incarceration. “It gave my body that time to heal because I had been boxing since the age of 5. So it gave my body time to heal, and I came back and won another world title.”
That came in August 2003 when, at 32, Johnson defeated Fernando Montiel by 12-round majority decision for the World Boxing Organization super flyweight belt. Johnson defended that title twice, including the second time at Baysox Stadium in Bowie, before losing to Ivan Hernandez via eighth-round knockout.
Johnson retired after one more fight, another eighth-round knockout, in February 2006 to finish 44-5 with 28 knockouts.
These days, Johnson has aspirations of becoming a boxing referee. Meantime, he works for the D.C. Department of Parks and Recreation’s Roving Leaders program and is based out of Spingarn High School. Among Johnson’s duties is mediating between gang members, home visits for truancy, writing referrals and reports for court appearances and appearing in court with at-risk youth.
“It gives me the opportunity to let them know I’m still humble. What I did you can do better,” Johnson said. “Boxing changed my life, and I think certain people come into different people’s lives for a reason. Right now at Spingarn, all the kids look up to me because they know I’m going to fight for them and help them.”