Beyond the Ropes: Mark “Too Sharp” Johnson

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By: Heath Harlem
Follow Heath @PittGrad0214

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(Photo courtesy of Mysanantonio.com)

The 2012 International Boxing Hall of Fame class was headlined by the induction of Tommy “Hit Man” Hearns.  The Hit Man is a household name to both fight fans and general sport fans due to his success winning titles at five different divisions over the course of his career.  Mark “Too Sharp” Johnson was also on the program that day and to many fight fans he was the “other” American fighter inducted that day.  It was fitting for Johnson to be “other” fighter inducted that day, since throughout his career Mark was often seen as the “other” fighter in his own division and in the larger fight world.  However, when we take a look back at the career of Mark Johnson we find a trailblazing fighter who dominated a division like no American had ever dominated before.  Unfortunately, due to politics of the game, fight fans missed out seeing how great Johnson really was.

Born in Washington D.C on August 13, 1971, Mark was the son of a boxing trainer.  Being born into a fight family, it didn’t take long for Johnson to join the family trade.  Mark entered the ring for the first time at five years, and quickly became a dominant amateur.  Mark was given the Nickname “Too Sharp” by his best friend, and his amateur career was capped off with a U.S. Amateur championship in 1989.

The American fight game historically has been dominated by fighters in the 140lb and higher weight classes.  Mark turned pro in 1990 and despite the historical trend; “Too Sharp” took the Flyweight division by storm, winning 38 straight fights at the flyweight division.  While most fighters with Mark’s type of talent prefer to take safe and easy fights in their hometown, Mark took a different route.  Mark had a desire to face the best in the game on the biggest stages.  This competitive fire took Mark away from D.C. and he became a regular fighter on the West Coast at the Great Western Forum when the Forum was the biggest stage in boxing.  Despite fighting many big fights outside of D.C., “Too Sharp” never wanting to be away from his family, never held a training camp.  Instead he trained in his own gym in D.C. and that training formula turned wildly successful.  On May 4, 1996 Mark defeated Fransisco Tejedor via an impressive 1st round KO to become the IBF Flyweight Champion.  No African American had ever held a Flyweight Championship before Johnson accomplished this historic feat.

Mark successfully defended the IBF Flyweight Title seven times before moving up to the Super Flyweight division.  In his first fight at Super Flyweight, Johnson defeated Ratanachai Sor Vorapin via a 12 round unanimous decision on April 24, 1999 to win the IBF Super Flyweight title.  Johnson defended this title three times before moving to Bantamweight.  Mark’s 3rd and final Super Flyweight defense was declared a no contest when an all-out brawl broke out due to low blows.  The fight was called in the 4th round and Mark was ahead three rounds to none on all three judge’s score cards. 

Johnson moved up to Bantamweight and after two easy wins, stepped into the ring to face Rafael Marquez on October 6, 2001.  Mark lost via split decision in what is considered one of the worst refereed fights of all time.  Referee Robert Gonzalez took 2 points away from Johnson for holding and that proved to be the difference in the fight.  Mark then lost the rematch with Marquez four months later via knockout.  Many fight observers thought that after the 2 fights with Marquez that Johnson was finished as a top level fighter.  However, Mark had different plans and dropped back to the Super Flyweight weight class and on August 16, 2003 Mark defeated Fernando Montiel via a 12 round majority decision to become the WBO Super Flyweight champion.  Mark successfully defended the title twice before he lost it to Ivan Hernandez on September 25, 2004.  Johnson fought one last time in February 2006, suffering a final defeat at the hands of Jhonny Gonzalez.

Throughout his career fight fans were consistently entertained by Mark’s charismatic personality and exciting performances.  Johnson never had a consistent style, instead he had an incredible ability to adapt to his opponent’s style.  Fighting in an age where tape study was a key part of most fighter’s training camps, Mark never watched a minute of tape during his career.  He simply had natural instincts that allowed him to scientifically box when needed or simply start a slugfest with his opponent if that was in his best interest.  This natural boxing ability made Mark one of the most dangerous potential opponents for his contemporaries.  Throughout his career, Mark called out the best in the game including Johnny Tapia, Danny Romero, and Michael Carbajal.  Top Rank promotions owned the promotional rights to many of the top fighters in Johnson’s weight class and they kept their fighters away from Mark.  Due to the top name fighters ducking Johnson, Mark was never able to secure the marquee fights he deserved or fight fans wanted to see.  This cost Johnson millions in personal income as well as left a void when his career ended; disappointed that he never got to show the world how much better than the other “names” he really was.

Boxing has always been in Johnson’s blood and when he retired he continued to be part of the game.  He began training young fighters, sharing his love of the game and keeping the kids off of the streets at the same time.  He also worked as a fight commentator, a job he simply loved and can’t wait for the next opportunity.  Mark is best known for his historical accomplishment of  becoming the first African American Flyweight Champion as well as a two time Super Flyweight Champion.  Despite these accomplishments, when Mark first retired he felt that he didn’t get his just due, since he never got the marquee fights due to the politics of the game.  However, that all changed in 2011 when Mark got the call from International Boxing Hall of Fame letting him know he was going to be inducted into the hall of fame in his first year of eligibility.  It isn’t often that fighters are voted in on their first year of eligibility.  Despite not making the millions the marquee fights would have brought, Mark’s career was capped with the boxing writers acknowledging to him and the fight world just how great of a fighter Mark “Too Sharp” Johnson really was. 

Beyond the Ropes: Bernard Hopkins Silences Doubters & Redefines History

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BhopBy: Heath Harlem
Follow Heath @PittGrad0214

At approximately 11:00pm Bernard Hopkins entered the ring at the Barclay’s center in Brooklyn, NY to face Tavoris Cloud as the underdog according to“experts” in Vegas. While Hopkins relishes playing the role of underdog (the only role he has ever played in his life), he entered the ring for this fight with a legacy as one of the greatest fighters of his generation. Despite the legacy, the underdog had a fire burning inside. He was desperate to settle an old score, while proving to the many who have doubted him over his four decade career in the ring how wrong they were. Approximately one hour later Hopkins left the ring once again proving the Vegas odds wrong after putting on a picture perfect boxing clinic and gaining IBF Light heavyweight Championship Belt. At 48 years of age Hopkins broke his own record for being the oldest belt holder, eliminated his former promoter/adversary from boxing relevancy, and sent another strong message to those who doubted him for this fight, or at any point in his life by showing them how wrong they were about him.

Bernard Hopkins grew up in one of the toughest neighborhoods in Philadelphia. At a young age he turned to a life of crime and was ultimately arrested and sentenced to 18 years in Graterford prison for multiple felonies. Built in the 1920’s Graterford prison is a maximum security facility in Pennsylvania with a reputation of hosting one of the toughest inmate experiences for its residences. Hopkins felt the wrath of that experience while in Graterford witnessing murders and rapes. Despite being in an environment surrounded by such horror, Hopkins was able to change his outlook on life and he also discovered the sport of boxing. Statistics showed that most of Graterford’s inmates return to prison shortly after leaving and when Hopkins left prison via an early release he was told that he would be back by the warden when leaving. Hopkins vowed to the warden he would never be back and instead of returning to his old ways, devoted himself to the sport of boxing. 25 years later, Hopkins has proved the doubters wrong and is living a life that is nothing at all like life in Graterford as the warden and the statistics predicted.

Shortly after his release from prison, Hopkins made his pro boxing debut on October 11, 1988 against Clinton Mitchell. Mitchell was also making his pro debut that evening and beat Hopkins via a four round unanimous decision. Clinton Mitchell did not go on to have a significant boxing career, as one may think beating a future legend in his pro debut would. Mitchell went on to only fight three more times in his career with his next fight not taking place until 1995. When you lose your pro debut to a fighter of such low stature in the boxing world, you’re not expected to become a fighter of any stature let alone become one of the game’s greats. However Hopkins stayed devoted to the sport and returned to the ring 18 months later and secured his first win defeating journeyman Greg Paige at Philadelphia’s legendary Blue Horizon. Hopkins would go on to win 22 straight fights and 47 of his next 48 counting his win against Paige. During this stretch Hopkins became Middleweight Champion of the world. After such an anonymous debut not much was expected of Hopkins’ pro career. However, Hopkins proved those doubters wrong by becoming one of boxing’s all-time greats during a career that has spanned four decades and has yet to end.

During Hopkins’ ascent through the middleweight division, the division was dominated by James Tony and Roy Jones Jr. Hopkins was seen as second tier to this pair, and it was never on top of his management team’s list of priorities to secure the “big payday” fights. Second tier fighters are supposed to become great contenders but not champions. This was highlighted when Hopkins’ promoters were never able and/or willing to secure a rematch when Hopkins suffered his unanimous decision loss to Roy Jones Jr., despite Hopkins’ prominence in the Middleweight division. Despite being seen as second tier, Hopkins became IBF Middleweight Champion on April 29, 1995 when he defeated Segundo Mercado. While not promoted as a top tier talent, Hopkins went on to hold that title for 10 years. During 2001, Hopkins was promoted by Don King and King’s biggest box office draw, Felix Trinidad moved up to Middleweight after dominating the Welterweight and Light Middleweight divisions. In an effort to set Trinidad up as champion and dominate box office draw in boxing, King organized a Middleweight tournament matching IBF Champion Hopkins, WBC Keith Holmes, WBA Champion William Joppy and Trinidad. While Trinidad was seen as the up and coming younger star and favorite, Hopkins was seen as too old at 36 years of age to win the tournament.

Feeling cheated and angered due to Trinidad getting King’s attention, Hopkins used those emotions and feelings as motivation to train harder than ever and shocked the world by winning the tournament, defeating first Holmes then Trinidad. Don King couldn’t present the trophy to Hopkins that night and many people believe it was because Trinidad’s name was already engraved on it. While King and Hopkins had many battles during their working relationship, the issues surrounding this tournament and the trophy presentation have stuck to the top of Hopkins’ mind. By winning the tournament, Hopkins became the WBA, WBC, and IBF Champion of the World. Hopkins held those titles through July 2005 when he lost them to Jermaine Taylor via split decision. Taylor also defeated Hopkins in the rematch via unanimous decision in December 2005. Despite being seen by many in the boxing world including his own promoters as a second tier attraction, Hopkins made a successful ascent through the Middleweight division, ultimately becoming champion and holding belts for over 10 years. He also proved the boxing world wrong by dominating the Middleweight tournament setup by his own promoter to crown another younger, more marketable champion.

After the Taylor fights, it was easy for many to assume that Bernard Hopkins was finished as a world class fighter. Hopkins was after all 41 years old and coming off two losses in 2006. However, Hopkins once again determined to shock the world, decided to continue his career by moving up two weight classes to face former Lightweight Champion Antonio Tarver. Tarver had recently become the first fighter to knockout Roy Jones Jr. Hopkins was a 3-1 “Vegas” underdog but had no doubts in his own ability, and made a $250,000 bet with Tarver on the outcome of the fight. Hopkins shocked the boxing world again, by scoring a dominating unanimous decision victory. Determined to go out on top but not willing to leave the ring for the last time just yet, Hopkins made a commitment to himself to stay in the spotlight he felt he deserved to be in for years. In order to do so Hopkins committed to face only the highest level of competition the Light Heavyweight division had to offer. Over the next three years Hopkins defeated Ronald Wright, Kelly Pavlik and Enrique Ornelas. His only loss was a split decision loss against Joe Calzaghe, in a fight where Hopkins sent Calzaghe to the canvas in round one. After his great success in the Light Heavyweight division it was only natural for Bernard Hopkins to decide to take on his biggest challenge in his career; a fight to become the oldest boxing champion. On December 18, 2010 Hopkins almost 46 years of age faced Jean Pascal for the Light Heavyweight Championship of the world. The fight which many boxing experts felt Hopkins won easily, ended in a majority draw. Determined to right the wrong, Hopkins returned for a rematch against Pascal on May 21, 2011 in Pascal’s hometown of Montreal. Hopkins 46 years of age, dominated the fight, tormented Pascal with head games (highlighted by doing pushups in between rounds late in the fight while the 17 year younger Pascal sat gasped on the stool) and won the Light Heavyweight Championship of the world. At 46 years of age Hopkins became the oldest fighter in boxing history to become a World Champion, passing the previous record set by the legendary Heavyweight George Forman. While it would have been easy to walk away from the sport on top (or at least end facing lesser competition) after the second Pascal fight, Hopkins was determined to prove that he wasn’t finished.

Immediately after the Pascal fight, Hopkins called out Chad Dawson (seen by many as the top Light Heavyweight in the world). Dawson agreed and they first met in October 2011. During the second round Hopkins injured his shoulder as a result of an accidental foul. After shoulder surgery Hopkins returned to face Dawson on April 28, 2012, and he was defeated via a 12 round majority decision. Hopkins’ performance against Dawson was not up to the standard the boxing world had become accustomed to seeing and he was seen after that fight by many as a finished top level fighter. After his two defeats against Jermaine Taylor at middleweight, Hopkins determinedly shocked the world by coming back and dominating the Light Heavyweight division over a five year period. Hopkins once again proved his doubters wrong by climbing through the ranks of the division. While his ascent to the top of the Light Heavyweight Division and reign as champion was not as long in tenure as his Middleweight experience, it was seen by many as more remarkable as it began when Hopkins was 41 years of age. It appeared to have ended with Hopkins as the oldest boxing champion in boxing history at 46 years of age, something his doubters never thought would happen.

After the loss to Dawson almost everyone in the boxing world felt Father Time had finally caught up to Hopkins and we had finally seen the last of him in the ring. However, after almost a year away from the ring Hopkins returned on March 9, 2013 to, make history once again, prove his doubters wrong, and also to settle an old score. Hopkins returned to the ring to face Travoris Cloud, the IBF Light Heavyweight champion. Hopkins’ first goal was to take Cloud’s belt and break his own record as oldest belt holder and prove the doubters who said he was finished after the Dawson fights. Hopkins also wanted to use this fight to settle an old score. Cloud is promoted by Hopkins former promoter and adversary Don King and is the last fighter of significance under Don King’s control. Never forgetting how King set him up as second tier during his time in the Middleweight Division, as well as setting up Trinidad to win the Middleweight tournament, Hopkins was determined to get even and put King out of the boxing business. Once again Hopkins entered the ring as the “Vegas” underdog and many in the fight world thought Hopkins would be disposed of and we wouldn’t see him again. Once again Hopkins proved his doubters wrong. Putting on a clinic, showing the world how the sweet since is meant to be seen, Hopkins dominated the fight and won via a 12 round unanimous decision. Once again Hopkins made history (becoming the oldest belt holder in boxing history), and also proved his doubters wrong. Immediately after the fight, Hopkins confronted King in the ring, proud that he accomplished his secondary goal of putting King out of the boxing business.

From the day that Hopkins left Graterford prison in 1988 through today, Hopkins has proved doubters wrong time and time again. Statistics and doubters said that he was going to return to prison, and his pro career wasn’t going to amount to anything. Hopkins proved the statistics and doubters wrong. He has had a legendary boxing career that has spanned 4 decades and he is living a lifestyle nothing like life in prison. Hopkins was doubted every step of his career, including his accent through the Middleweight division, his improbable jump to the Light Heavyweight Division, and is age defying run holding championship belts. Hopkins has proved the doubters wrong again and again, most recently when he entered the ring March 9th, 2013 at 11:00pm with intentions to make history and settle old scores. After his dominating and history making performance against Cloud, Hopkins announced that he isn’t done with boxing yet. When Hopkins returns to the ring there will be many doubting his ability to accomplish his next goal. Those doubters should look at history, and think twice before they bet against Hopkins again.

Dib & Gradovich Promise Fireworks: Plus 50 Cent To Perform Live

NEW YORK, NY (February 27, 2013) – Co-promoters Lou DiBella, of DiBella Entertainment, and 50 Cent, of SMS Promotions, hosted the final press conference today at the Strand Hotel in New York City for this week’s (Mar. 1) ESPN Friday Night Fights  at the MGM Grand Theater at Foxwoods Resort Casino in Mashantucket, Connecticut. 
 
In the 12-round main event, SMS Promotions’ IBF Featherweight Champion Billy “The Kid” Dib (35-1-0-1NC, 21KO’s) puts his world title on the line against Russia’s undefeated IBF #11 rated Evgeny Gradovich (15-0, 8KO’s).  In the televised co-feature, former amateur standout and now top-ten rated junior middleweight contender Willie Nelson (19-1-1, 11KO’s) squares off against Michael Medina (26-3-2, 19KO’s) in a 10-round showdown for Nelson’s NABF super welterweight title. The Nelson-Medina bout is promoted in association with Rumble Time Promotions. The event is sponsored by SMS Audio.  Both bouts will air on ESPN’s Friday Night Fights beginning at 9:00 p.m. ET.

LOU DIBELLA – “First and foremost, I want to thank everyone here for coming out and also everyone that is involved in this event, particularly 50 cent, Foxwoods and our great sponsor, SMS Audio. 

“We have an outstanding event coming up this Friday and I think it is important for everyone to know that we are not doing this event to make a ton of money.  We are doing this to give the public an opportunity to see a great event and also to give this great champion, Billy Dib, the exposure that he truly deserves here in the US.  
 
“We have a terrific card from top to bottom, including a dynamite co-feature with NABF Junior Middleweight Champion Willie Nelson defending his title against Michael Medina. It is a co-feature that easily could have been a main event on its own, in fact, it was originally, but then we had this great opportunity to put Billy Dib in the main event, defending his world championship live on ESPN and we just couldn’t pass that up.  I want to thank Doug Loughrey from ESPN for giving us this opportunity and for working so hard on making this a reality.
 
“There are an awful lot of haters when you start a new business, especially in the boxing world. No one has laid out a red carpet for Curtis “50 Cent’ Jackson. Everything that he has achieved thus far he has worked to get.  I am totally impressed by working with him to see his intellect and how hard he actually works.  I only see great things for him in this sport moving forward and just wanted to say it really is an absolute pleasure to work with you and your company.”
  
CURTIS “50 CENT” JACKSON – “I am excited about Friday night. This has been a great partnership I have formed with Lou (DiBella) and it has just been an amazing process for me.  This is the first boxing event that I have been involved with for the entire process, from beginning to end, and it really is going to be a special night for me on Friday night.
 
“To actually be in Billy’s camp and to see the sacrifices that he makes day in and day out is really something special.  It makes you realize really what these fighters go through. It gives you a whole new appreciation for them and for this great sport.
 
“The level of the actual talent involved in this promotion is exciting for me and excites me for what the future has to hold for me in this sport. I believe by combining the right elements we can bring back that younger demographic to this sport, and that is something we are going to be working on constantly.”
 
BILLY “THE KID” DIB – “I want to thank everyone who was involved with this promotion. March 1st is going to be a great event. The whole team has worked very hard. This is my second coming. I am coming back here to America to showcase my ability. I am a completely different animal right now and you will see that Friday night.  I know Gradovich is going to fight out of his skin, being this is his first world championship opportunity, so I can promise you that this is going to make for fireworks in this fight. We respect Gradovich; we know that he is ready, and these are the type of fights we want.” 
 
EVGENY GRADOVICH – “Thank you for this opportunity, I am very excited. I know that this is going to be a great fight. We trained very hard for this fight, and I know it is going to be a very good fight for everyone involved, especially the fans in attendance and those watching at home on ESPN.”