The End of one of Boxing’s All-Time Greats

BY Steve Kim ON September 27, 2004
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This past weekend in Memphis, Tennessee, we saw the conclusion of a Hall-of-Fame career. One of the best prizefighters of this past generation was stopped by a heavy underdog. Oh, wait, you think I'm talking about Roy Jones?

Sorry, but the boxer I'm talking about is one Marcellus Joseph Johnson, known to most of you as Mark 'Too Sharp' Johnson. Johnson came into Saturday night as the reigning WBO jr. bantamweight champion but would get halted in eight rounds by the previously unknown Ivan Hernandez.

It's a shame it had to end this way, long before the bright lights of HBO came on—where Jones would later be knocked cold for the second consecutive fight—Johnson would fight in near anonymity. But perhaps it was appropriate because in his heyday in the mid-to-late 90's, when Johnson was one of the best flyweights you'll ever see, but he was basically a hidden treasure on the west coast at the Great Western Forum.

During that time while smaller fighters like Marco Antonio Barrera, Kevin Kelley and Erik Morales were cashing in on the 'Boxing After Dark' bonanza, for some reason Johnson never broke through that threshold. Instead, many of his sterling performances were on regional telecasts out west, the casual boxing fan would never get to see the best of Mark Johnson.

But what a fighter he was. Although he was a quicksilver southpaw who could be elusive as winning lottery numbers, he chose to bang it out with one tough Mexican after another. Developing a reputation as a smaller version of Roger Mayweather—the original 'Mexican Assassin'—Johnson wore the black hat every time he fought inside the Forum in front of the partisan crowds in Inglewood, California.

Johnson could simply do it all. He was the complete package, but unfortunately flyweights are the migrant workers of boxing. The work is hard, and the pay is meager.

It was once said about Marvin Hagler that he had three strikes against him. One, he was a southpaw. Secondly, he was black. And lastly, he was simply too good for his own sake. Johnson was all this, and he was a 112-pounder to boot.

Johnson was willing to take on all-comers, which he did, but the few marquee names surrounding him didn't reciprocate those same feelings. Both Danny Romero and Johnny Tapia decided to move up in weight instead of fighting him, Michael Carbajal and Ricardo Lopez refused to come up and face him.

Much like a Mike McCallum, Johnson is a fighter who, in many respects, will be judged and defined by who didn't want to face him.

Instead of being involved in big 'small' fights, he was stuck with making one meaningless title defense after another and inevitably, it seemed that complacency and boredom set in. Then would come legal problems stemming from a domestic dispute with his former wife that had him incarcerated for over a year in 2000.

When he became a free man in 2001, he made a run at the bantamweight division—where he would lose two bouts to current 118-pound ruler Rafael Marquez—before settling back in at jr. bantamweight. Time, it seemed, had eroded 'Too Sharp'.

But last August Johnson was tabbed to face Fernando Montiel on HBO for Montiel's WBO title. Johnson was brought in to play the role of the old lion who would soon be the sacrificial lamb to the young, rising Mexican star.

But a funny thing happened. Johnson, using his guile and savvy, somehow hustled Montiel over 12 rounds, winning his third major world title. He would then follow up that performance with an impressive fourth round knockout of Luis Bolano on Showtime. Perhaps, Johnson would finally get his shot at the big time.

But alas, he was still a little guy, which meant that unlike most Saturday Night Live cast members of the past, he would always be a 'Not Ready for Prime Time Player.'

In July, he would struggle in a non-title bout against Paulino Villalobos (who came in with a mark of 23-24-2). But the biggest indignation was that he was on the undercard of Laila Ali—which is akin to 'the Temptations' opening up for Milli Vanilli. It just ain't right.

Then came the fateful day this past weekend. Within a span of seven days, Oscar De La Hoya, Jones and Johnson were knocked out—and maybe out for good in the game of boxing. Three of the best fighters we've seen in recent years, falling like dominoes.

But while De La Hoya's and Jones' losses generated plenty of headlines, Johnson's loss was barely a blip on the radar and something that probably couldn't even be found in the small print in the 'transactions' section.

He was an all-time great, his only downfall was that he wasn't blessed with 30 more pounds.

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