Going out in style

2/23/2006 - Boxing

Mark "Too Sharp" Johnson is nothing if not blunt when asked about his upcoming title shot.

"Of course it will be my last chance at a world title," he said. "You know what they say in any sport: Out with the old and in with the new."

At age 34 and in one of the smaller weight divisions, Johnson qualifies as an old-timer in a sport of young men. But with a championship resumé that features three world titles in two divisions -- one at flyweight and two at junior bantamweight -- Johnson is getting another crack at the big prize.

He'll challenge exciting bantamweight titlist Jhonny Gonzalez (31-4, 27 KOs) of Mexico at Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas on Saturday night (HBO PPV, 9 ET) in the co-featured bout on the card headlined by the junior middleweight showdown between former champions Fernando Vargas and Sugar Shane Mosley.

"People always say that a great fighter has one great fight left," Johnson said. "Hopefully, this will be my one great fight, and me and Jhonny Gonzalez will put on a great show."

For Johnson (44-4, 28 KOs), a loss probably would signal the end of a mostly brilliant 16-year professional career in which he became the first African-American flyweight champion and compiled a 12-1 record in world championship fights. But the lone title-fight loss came in his last bout 17 months ago. That's when Ivan "Choko" Hernandez knocked out the Washington, D.C., native in the eighth round to take Johnson's junior bantamweight crown.

"I think this is the last stand for a guy who has been a great warrior and a great champion," said Lou DiBella, Johnson's promoter for the past few years. "If he doesn't win it, I think you'll see Mark walk off into the sunset and await his Hall of Fame induction. I think Mark knows he's done if he doesn't win it. But I also know the type of fighter Mark is. He's the kind of fighter who will leave it all in the ring."

Gonzalez, 24, will be making the first defense of the title he won via a seventh-round knockout in October against Ratanachai Sor Vorapin, who lost a junior bantamweight title fight to Johnson in 1999, the same year Gonzalez turned pro.

Although Johnson has dominated at 112 and 115 pounds, he had problems in his two previous trips to 118, losing twice to current bantamweight champ Rafael Marquez in nontitle fights, the first on a split decision in 2001 and the second in an eight-round TKO in 2002.

Johnson said the opportunity to fight for another title was too good to pass up, even if it isn't coming in his best weight class.

"Right now, I don't have to come down as much as when I was fighting at 115," he said. "Since I am older now, I know my body a lot better. I think going into the Marquez fight I had a lot of ups and downs in camp and, of course, you know we had a controversial decision in the first fight. In the second fight, I was going through family problems and a divorce. But I make no excuses about it.

"You don't get an opportunity to be a four-time world champion in three different weight classes. So many fighters have tried and failed. I am one of those fighters that looks for the opportunity, and that opportunity is right at my fingertips."

Johnson is the clear underdog as Gonzalez attempts to build his resumé against a respected but aging former champion, a scenario that has played out for as long as boxing has existed.

Johnson understands it well.

"You have Mark Johnson, who is older and he lost his last fight," Johnson observed, "so [Gonzalez's handlers are saying], 'Let's give him a big leap,' and that's what they are doing. I'm just happy to have the opportunity. I am not one to get mad because they are trying to build him and they think I am over the hill. That doesn't motivate me. What motivates me is trying to become a four-time world champ in three different weight classes. I want to do something that not too many people have done."

This isn't the first time Johnson has been in this situation. When he was matched against rising young junior bantamweight champion Fernando Montiel in August 2003, Johnson was considered a used-up fighter, and the bout was expected to serve as a showcase for the flashy Mexican.

Instead, Johnson took the young champion to school, winning a decision and claiming his third world title.

"It is almost the same thing with this fight. They were building Fernando Montiel, and I got in great shape and I beat him," Johnson said. "There is always a situation where they want to build young fighters against older names."

Said DiBella, "In that fight against Montiel, Mark proved you can't take him lightly. He's a future Hall of Famer. The question is, does he have one more great performance left in him?"

Gonzalez and Johnson were supposed to meet in September in a nontitle fight. But Johnson tore his triceps in his left arm. The fight was called off, and Gonzalez beat a late substitute before winning a title in his next fight. Johnson was paying attention.

"I've watched Gonzalez, and he is good," Johnson said. "He was great in that fight [against Vorapin] and very strong. Now I am 100 percent and I'm ready to go."

Gonzalez said he isn't underestimating Johnson, despite his age and the long layoff.

"It is special to fight Mark Johnson," he said. "He's going to come out and do a lot of things. He's going to move a lot and use a lot of the ring. He is very experienced, and I respect his career and all he has done in boxing."

Johnson said he appreciated the kind words from Gonzalez and his bravery for agreeing to fight him.

"This shows a lot about Jhonny Gonzalez, even though I am at the age I am. Look at the fighters that wouldn't fight me, like Michael Carbajal, Chiquita Gonzalez, Paulie Ayala, Bones Adams and Danny Romero," Johnson said, forgetting to include Johnny Tapia in the group of fighters that somehow found a way not to fight him in his prime. "So it says a lot about Gonzalez and the heart he has to step in the ring with me. I am overwhelmed by this opportunity to become a four-time world champ."

Dan Rafael is the boxing writer for ESPN.com.