Mark Johnson is widely recognized in his sport as one of the best pound-for-pound boxers in the world. He has won 38 of 39 professional fights, his lone loss coming in his second fight on a disputed four-round decision in 1990 to Irishman Richie Wenton, in Belfast, on St. Patrick's Day. He has earned championship belts in two weight classes (flyweight and junior bantamweight) and is as savvy in the ring as he is before a television camera.

And though he is only 28, Johnson, a Washington native, says his International Boxing Federation junior bantamweight title defense tonight at the D.C. Armory could be his last fight.

"I have been thinking about retiring every day since I turned 27," said Johnson, who will fight Mexico's Raul Juarez (28-5) in the main event of the ESPN2-televised card. "I'm getting so frustrated by this sport. I can tell you one thing, this is definitely my last fight at 115 pounds. I will go up if it means bigger paydays."

Therein lies the problem. Essentially, Johnson is too good, fights at too light of a weight and is too unknown, despite his considerable accomplishments. He has knocked out 26 of 39 opponents, a staggering number considering his weight class. When he captured the IBF flyweight belt in 1996, he did so by knocking out champion Francisco Tejedor at 1 minute 35 seconds of the first round to become the first African American to become a world champion in the weight class. In April, he added the junior bantamweight belt to his resume by winning a lopsided decision over Ratanachai Vorapin at MCI Center.

But the bigger names and purses are at the higher weight classes. At 118 pounds, there is IBF champ Tim Austin and World Boxing Council champ Paulie Ayala. At 122, there is WBC champ Erik Morales. And at 126 is The Prince, WBC champ Naseem Hamed. All four fighters are on Johnson's radar screen. But is he on theirs?

"Mark is this close," said promoter Cedric Kushner, his thumb and index finger less than an inch apart. "We know the HBO people [who televise Hamed's fights] will be watching Friday night. They are paying attention.

"Certainly, there's a level of despondency and frustration for Mark, especially as he gets older. He is a great fighter, but he is understandably at the point of, 'Why not me?' "

As Johnson pines to fight someone new, he will be meeting a familiar foe in Juarez, whom he knocked out with an eighth-round uppercut in August 1996 in his first flyweight title defense. "I felt like I was a little lackadaisical last time we fought," said Johnson. "This time I will be stronger."

The night's co-feature, which will also be televised, is an IBF featherweight elimination bout between South Africa's Mbuelo Botile (25-1) and Hector Lizarraga (36-9-5) of Fresno, Calif. The winner will own the No. 1 ranking and, presumably, a chance to challenge Hamed.