Beyond the Ropes: Aaron Pryor

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By: Heath Harlem
Follow @PittGrad0214

Before 2013 winds down one of the biggest stories that boxing fans will be talking about is all of the star power in the junior welterweight division.  Danny Garcia, Lucas Matthysse, and Zab Judah are some of the most talented stars in the game, and warriors like Brandon Rios and Mike Alvarado are wowing fans with their epic battles.  While this group of fighters may be one of most exciting in recent history, it is worth taking a look back at one of the divisons all time greats.  Aaron “The Hawk” Pryor posed the personality, star power, and talent of Garcia or Judah, along with the heart of Rios or Alvarado.  Pryor reigned as junior welterweight champion for 5 years and was voted by the associated press as the greatest 140lb fighter of the 20th century by the associated press in 1999.

Aaron Pryor was born in Cincinnati, OH on October 20, 1955.  Pryor didn’t begin boxing as a youth until he was 13 years old.  Pryor quickly found success and accumulated an amateur record of 204 wins and 16 losses.  Pryor became a 3 time national AAU champion (1973, 1975 and 1976) and in 1976 he beat Thomas Hearns in the finals.  Aaron was favored to make the Olympic team in 1976 but was upset in the trials by Howard Davis Jr. and was forced to serve as an alternate.  When the Olympics ended, Pryor turned pro and made his debut with a knockout victory on November 11, 1976.  A few days after his pro debut, Pryor signed to be managed by Buddy LaRosa owner of a pizza chain in the Cincinnati area.  This management arrangement turned out to have a drastic impact on Pryor’s career in the future.

Pryor’s career got rolling in 1977 when he fought 8 times, winning 6 by knockout.  After his second decision victory of 1977, Pryor went on to win the next 26 fights of his career by knockout.  On August 2nd, 1980 Pryor fought for the title for the first time against Antonio Cervantes in Aaron’s hometown of Cincinnati, OH.  The fight was broadcasted live on CBS and in the first round an overwhelmed Pryor was knocked down.  Showing the heart of a modern day warrior like Alvarado or Rios, “The Hawk” rose from the canvass and with the skill and power of a Danny Garcia ended the fight by knocking out his opponent in round 4, becoming Junior Welterweight Champion.  Pryor defended his title in November 1980 with a 6th round knockout of Gaetan Hart.  After the fight with Hart Pryor was offered a fight with Roberto Duran that would have paid him $750,000.  Pryor stalled before accepting the fight with Duran due to a contract issue with LaRosa and by the time the management issue was worked out, the opportunity to fight Duran was gone.

With the fight against Duran off of the table, Pryor continued to reign as champion making three title defenses in 1981 and 1982 before being offered a fight against Welterweight Champion Sugar Ray Leonard. The fight with Leonard was going to pay Pryor $750,000.  Pryor had the opportunity to fight Leonard sooner for $500,000 but him and his management team held out for the larger pay day.  Before Leonard was to face Pryor, Leonard had to defeat Roger Stafford in May of 1982.  While Leonard did defeat Stafford in their title fight, Leonard suffered a serious eye injury and the fight with Pryor was off.  With the fight with Leonard off, Pryor made a title defense Against Akio Kameda before he finally had his big money fight against Alexis Arguello.

Much like modern day Junior Welterweight’s Mike Alvarado and Brandon Rios, on November 12, 1982 Aaron Pryor faced Alexis Arguello in the first of their two epic fights.  In front of almost 24,000 people Alexis and Aaron were in an all-out war for the first 13 rounds.  In the 13th round Argeullo was down on the scorecards when he stunned Pryor and took the momentum of the fight.  Between the 13th and 14th round, Pryor’s trainer, Panama Lewis was heard asking “give me the other bottle, the one I mixed”.  Pryor seemed revived in the 14th round, and knocked out Argeullo with a series of viscous power shots.  Many people suspected that there was an illegal substance in the bottle, but there was never any post fight drug testing completed.  Years later another fight trained by Lewis stated that Lewis would put antihistamine pills into the water bottles to help with lung capacity later in fights.  Despite all of the controversy, this great fight was named fight of the decade by ring magazine.  After defeating Sang-Hyun Kim on April 2, 1983, Pryor faced Arguello again on September 9, 1983.  For this fight Pryor was trained by Emanuel Steward after Lewis was suspended for removing padding from another fighter’s glove.  Pryor decisively defeated Arguello dominating the rematch from round 1, and ending the fight via knockout in the 10th round.  The dominating performance silenced many of the doubters who had concerns about the “water bottle” from the first fight.   However, after going through to “wars” together, Arguello and Pryor became friends for the rest of their lives.

After the 2nd Arguello fight, Pryor had a short lived retirement which he describes as a rest.  The IBF was recently formed and upon his return they immediately named him their Welterweight Champion.  Pryor’s first fight at Welterweight was to be against Ray Boom Boom Mancini but that fell through when Mancini was stopped by Livingston Bramble.  Pryor instead defended his title against Nick Furlan on June 22nd, 1984.  Pryor was a lopsided decision against Furlan.  However, this decision ended Pryor’s knockout streak.  In March of 1985 Pryor won a split decision against Gary Hinton, his last fight before his title would be stripped for failure to defend.  During the mid-1980’s Pryor became consumed by drug abuse and did not fight again until August 8th, 1987 when he was defeated by Welterweight journeyman Bobby Joe Young.  Pryor, addicted to drugs was a shell of his former self and fought only three more time over the next three years against three journeymen before finally retiring in 1990.  After arrests in his hometown that helped guide Pryor to the proper treatment, Pryor finally was able to kick the drug habit in 1993.  In 1996 Aaron Pryor was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame, and in 1990 he was named the greatest Junior Welterweight of the 20th century by the associated press.

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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.