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Too Big, Too Old?.

BY Steve Kim ON May 12, 2004
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It was just a few years ago that Mark 'Too Sharp' Johnson was among the best pound-for-pound fighters in the game. This slick southpaw was blessed with blinding speed and quickness, defensively he could disappear right in front of his opponents and he wasn't just a fancy-Dan. The greatest compliment he ever got was that 'he went to the body like a Mexican'. High praise indeed.

Back then he was plying his trade at the Great Western Forum during his run as the IBF flyweight champion. Fast forward a few years later and he's a fighter on the comeback trail performing at the DC Armory in his hometown of Washington D.C. against a Mexican journeyman by the name of Ricardo Medina.

Johnson, would bang away at the hard-nosed Medina for eight rounds in winning a unanimous decision. But it wasn't easy as the bigger Medina hung in there the whole way. But considering that Medina came in with a career mark 27-26-5, it begs the question, is Mark still 'Too Sharp' or simply 'too big' and 'too old'?

It's one thing to get beat by Rafael Marquez at bantamweight, after all Marquez would go on to knockout IBF bantamweight titlist Tim Austin this past February, so there's no shame in losing to him like Johnson did in February of 2002. But it's one thing to go life and death with Medina. Bottom line is that prized thoroughbreds shouldn't go stride for stride with trial-horses. Is it time for Johnson, who's 33, to be taken to the glue factory? Or does he simply need to migrate south to jr. bantamweight?

" It was a great fight," said Johnson, afterwords." he was a very tough guy. We had a great showing, it just showed me that this guy- he weighed in at 121, I weighed in at 119 with my clothes on, it just showed that those extra pounds they make a difference but it was a great fight. He was bigger and he was more physical than me. It was a lil' harder fight than I thought."

So is it clear to him that he should be fighting at 115 pounds?

" Yes," says Johnson, who won titles at 112 and 115 pounds in the late 90's." the right fights I can do at 118 but I think the main thing at 115 there are better match-ups for me: Luis Perez, Fernando Montiel, Alex Munoz and of course Eric Morel if he moves up to 115."

It's interesting, but decades ago Johnson would have been in boxing's no-mans land, since the jr. bantamweight division was really a creation hatched along with the plethora of championships that sprouted in the last 30 years. Back then you were either a flyweight or a bantamweight- it was black or white, no gray area. Does three puny pounds make THAT much of a difference?

" Yes, it really does," he insisted." and that's one thing that I always had to convince myself that those couple of pounds really didn't make a difference because in the gym you're working with so many different bigger guys but in a fight it's a totally different thing from the gym and those extra pounds do really make a difference."

While Johnson may hold his own with DC based jr. welters like Sharmba Mitchell and DeMarcus Corley during sparring sessions, the equation changes once you take off the headgear and start wearing eight-ounce gloves. Hey, how may guys look like Ted Williams during batting practice only to become Mario Mendoza when pitchers start throwing up-and-in and breaking stuff in live action?

Maybe Johnson was effected by his layoff, it had been well over a year since he was knocked out by Marquez or perhaps, even gun-shy.

" I think any fight going in there, the first fight back off of a big loss, just to get the jitters away first is tough," Johnson explained." And then say,' Ok, lemme take this first punch, now I know I can do it again' But I felt a lil' rusty but again with this was a physical guy I fought, he wore me down, there was a lot of rasslin', holding and he was so much bigger and stronger, he kinda wore me down."

But back in his heyday, he fought one tough, rugged Mexican after another. Guys who's record didn't hover around .500, fighters with much better skills and he fought them at the Forum- aka, 'Mexico North' if you're an African-American fighter taking on Latins in Southern California. In the past, he had faced better fighters in tougher circumstances and performed much more proficiently. Could it be that he's simply aged?

" Not as of right now because I didn't really feel the effects of age," he insisted." I still feel sharp, I still feel a lot faster but I was fighting a bigger guy. I think right now the main thing is that with the age that I am right now, the main thing is that there's no sitting around, it's time to step on the gas and go forward and I'm looking to go again in August. I think that's where I have to be, with this age you can't take off."

But what if he steps on the gas pedal and there's an empty tank? That could be the case, he's a veteran of 44 professional bouts- some of them of the grueling variety- and in the past his lifestyle outside the ring wasn't always conducive to longevity. In his younger days he may have burned up his fighting fuel at the rate of a SUV.

It's a shame that Mark Johnson never did get to showcase his skills and shine in front of bigger audiences. Like a great jazz artist who is condemned to perform in underground clubs, his artistry was never truly enjoyed by the masses. Johnson agrees with this notion, to a point.

" I want to say yes on the east coast," answered Johnson, if his prime was squandered away or ignored." But on the west coast everyone knew how great I was and everybody knew I was a great fighter. So then everyone knew I was in the top, three or four pound-for-pound. I say,' Hey, I took a lot for granted when I was in the pound-for-pound and I kinda lost it'

" Now, I'm back to the Mark Johnson that I want to be, back to refocus and rededicate my career. But of course yes, when I had the match-ups like the Johnny Tapia's, Danny Romero's or even the Michael Carbajal's or Chiquita Gonzalez's- that would have been the point in my career where nobody can say,' Well, he was a great fighter but he never had the great match-up' I needed those match-ups to make me a greater fighter."

We may have already seen the best of Mark Johnson. It's too bad not enough people were there to see it.

JOLTING' JOE

Joe Calzaghe made another successful defense of his WBO super middleweight title by stopping the hard-punching Byron Mitchell in two rounds this past weekend.

Now, his promoter Frank Warren and Showtime boxing czar Jay Larkin are talking about matching Calzaghe up with the mercurial Bernard Hopkins. I don't know but call me skeptical, Hopkins, the undisputed middleweight champion of the world, seems more adept at breaking up fights than making them. 

It's doubtful that Hopkins, who blew up prospective bouts against Roy Jones and James Toney since downing Felix Trinidad in September of 2001, would agree to a bout with Calzaghe.

Well, he might agree to fight, but actually getting him in the ring, well, that's another story altogether.

LENNOX

Steve Springer of the LA Times reported that Lennox Lewis is a bit peeved about the booing he received after his bout with Vitaly Klitschko and might be hesitant to have the return match with the Ukrainian at the Staples Center in Los Angeles.

Hey, big fella, grow up. If you didn't show up grossly out of shape and take, first Kirk Johnson and then Klitschko so lightly, maybe you wouldn't have been showered with the boo's and the catcalls that you deserved.

It's funny but wasn't it just a few years ago that Lewis lost his title to Hasim Rahman in South Africa by neglecting his training to work on, among other things, 'Oceans Eleven'.

What's that old saying? Lennox Lewis always repeats himself.

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