- The Washington Times - Monday, February 5, 2001

Boxers are looking for the one punch that could change their lives, and in the case of the District of Columbia's Mark Johnson that punch occurred in October of 1999.

Unfortunately, the punch nearly ended Johnson's boxing career, almost destroyed his family and landed him in prison.

Mark "Too Sharp" Johnson, an extremely talented junior bantamweight (115 pounds) who had an impressive 38-1-1 record with 26 knockouts, was frustrated by a sport infatuated with heavyweights and middleweights. For several years he tried to convince boxing's establishment that he could be a big draw and could earn a huge payday. The stress of fighting for small purses, promoting his obscure fights, as well as himself, and providing for his young family wore on Johnson. He finally cracked.

On that night in October less than a month after he had to hustle tickets for an unsuccessful show he put on at the D.C. Armory that ended with his car being broken into Johnson took out his frustrations on his wife, Samantha.

Police came to the Johnson home that night on a domestic violence call. Mark had slugged his wife so hard she suffered a broken jaw. When they took Mark into custody on assault charges, they found marijuana in his pocket, a violation of Johnson's probation, stemming from his 1995 conviction on cocaine possession.

As a result Mark was put in a federal prison in Petersburg, Va. He served nine months there and several more in a minimum security facility in Manassas, Va., before he was released last month. Now, at the age of 29, he is picking up the pieces of his life and his career.

He is about to embark on a quest for what eluded him the first time around the money and respect befitting that of one of the best fighters in the world. This time, he insists, he is wiser.

"It cost me time and money, but it's over with, and now I am ready to move on with my dreams," he said.

One thing his transgressions haven't cost him is his family.

Despite being beaten that October night, Samantha agreed to reconcile. She visited her husband often while he was in prison. How does he explain what happened that night?

"I couldn't get the fights that I wanted," he said. "I was watching guys who couldn't beat me get bigger fights and make more money. I was like a tire with too much air. You touch it, and it will burst and blow. That was what happened to me. I blew up, and did it on someone who I shouldn't have, my wife."

Samantha acknowledges that she was angry and physically battered that October night. But, like Mark, she insists they have put the incident behind them and, with two children ages 4 and 7, are a family again.

"Life is not a straight line," she said. "It has curves. This was something that just blew up one night. I didn't want it to lead to his arrest or not have him with us for a year. I didn't think it was worth breaking up our marriage. We are living our lives fine now. We are making decisions about his career together."

And that is a career that seemed to have a lot of potential several years ago.

Johnson wasn't a no-talent bum who "could've been a contender." Johnson believed he was one of the best fighters in the world and he was not alone in that thinking. Boxing publications ranked him among the top 10 pound-for-pound fighters in the sport. The hard-hitting southpaw won two world championships and became the first black fighter to win the flyweight (112 pounds) and junior bantamweight (115 pounds) titles.

But he found himself on the outside looking in when it came to making all that talent pay. He was earning purses of less than $100,000, despite his status and titles.

Mark and his father, Abraham "Ham" Johnson, who also was Johnson's manager and trainer, were determined to buck the powers in boxing and succeed on their own terms, independent of the managers and promoters that rule the sport. They even went to California, from 1993 through 1996, and fought some of the best Hispanic fighters in Mark's weight division at the Great Western Forum in order to establish his reputation.

The westward trek didn't help and when Mark returned to the area the frustrations mounted until that October night in 1999.

These days Johnson still has his dreams. They include winning championships at bantamweight (118 pounds) and junior featherweight (122 pounds) and some lucrative million dollar purses against such high-profile fighters as Paulie Ayala, Johnny Tapia, Eric Morel and maybe even Prince Naseem Hamed.

"Now things are different," Johnson said. "My wife is working with me in managing my career, and we are looking for new management and promoters to take my career the right way."

That means entertaining offers from a variety of managers and promoters including the likes of Don King and Bob Arum and cutting management ties with his father, who remains Mark's trainer, along with Chris Ray.

"I knew that there would come a time that I would have to eventually deal with these managers and promoters. I went as far as I could, but maybe if I had some help, I would have been in a better position and not have blown. While I was in prison I realized I had to have some management like a Don King or a Bob Arum or a [Lou] Duva to get these fights."

Considering his father Ham is such a forceful personality, going with a new manager is a significant move. Ham has been Mark Johnson's guiding force in boxing since Mark began fighting at the age of 5. It is a familiar tale in boxing, the father and son split Roy Jones and his father, Floyd Mayweather and his father.

"I learned that there comes a time when you can't let family run your business," Mark said.

Ham accepts his son's decision to go with new management.

"That's not a problem for me," Ham said. "I work for him. We have bonded together by working together, and any problems we have, we work out behind closed doors. We still understand each other very well."

Johnson, who is getting back into fighting shape, is in the midst of determining who he will sign with and wants to line up his return match, possibly next month. Johnson has been working out at Finley's Boxing Club in the District, along with his brother, James Harris, who is also a fighter, and nephew Clarence Vinson, the 2000 Olympic bronze medalist who will make his pro debut on Jan. 27 at Madison Square Garden.

"Physically, I'm 100 percent," Johnson said. "I'm in about 70 percent boxing shape. But I feel much better than when I went into prison. It gave me the opportunity to prepare myself the right way. It gave me the opportunity to learn my body, and the foods I was eating. It also gave me wisdom and knowledge."

It gave him the time he needed to come to grips with what he did to his wife, and helped him decide what kind of husband and father he wants to be.

"My wife and I are stronger now than before," he said. "When you stay away from somebody for a whole year, someone you love, and she still stands by you, comes to visit you in prison, and goes through some tough times, you know this is a woman who will be there for me and is important to me.

"This has made me stronger, and made me look at our life differently," Mark said. "I am trying to take this on head on. I don't want to sidestep anything."

His story sounds familiar a boxer with problems with the law but Mark Johnson's story is different. He has fought in order to provide a better life for his family, a life beyond boxing. He has established two businesses a barber shop and hair salon on South Capitol Street and plans to open a restaurant. But it is boxing that remains Johnson's primary business, and his prospectus still looks promising, if uncertain.

"He is an excellent fighter one of the best small fighters in the world," said Kery Davis, head of boxing for Home Box Office. "We have interest in Mark Johnson in a world-class bout, against an Ayala or Morel. But first he has to get his life back together and get back on a winning track. We would want to see him in a couple of fights before setting up a fight against a world-class opponent."

Johnson was once considered world-class. He successfully defended his International Boxing Federation flyweight title seven times and then won the IBF junior bantamweight championship before a hometown crowd at MCI Center in April 1999. That belt was stripped from him after he was sent to prison.

Ham is convinced it won't take long for his son to be considered among the best again.

"He has his best days ahead of him," Ham said. "He has never been hurt, cut or off his feet."

But Mark will always remember that one October night when he took a swing that nearly ended his career and his marriage. And he knows the battle he wages against those forces that made him act out that night is one he can't afford to lose again.

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