Strobe lights flickered over cheering fans as Mark "Too Sharp" Johnson was introduced as a former three-time world boxing champion. He walked to center stage, grabbed a microphone and began: "You got to know when to hold 'em; know when to fold 'em ... "
"I'm not the greatest singer, but the people didn't seem to mind," said Johnson, recalling his version of Kenny Rogers' "The Gambler" during a July visit to an Ocean City karaoke bar. "I've always been a gambler - that's why I'm taking this next fight. The song sums up my whole career."
Johnson (44-4, 28 knockouts), a Washington, D.C., resident, will be gambling on his 16 years of ring experience tomorrow night at the Mandalay Bay Hotel in Las Vegas when he faces World Boxing Organization junior bantamweight (118 pounds) titlist Jhonny Gonzalez (31-4, 27 KOs).
A left-hander who is considered one of his era's best pound-for-pound boxers and a future Hall of Famer, Johnson will turn 35 in August. The father of eight children will meet, in Gonzalez of Mexico City, a 24-year-old who has won 17 straight.
Their fight will take place on the undercard of a junior middleweight title elimination bout between ex-champions Fernando Vargas and Sugar Shane Mosley.
"Of course, it will be my last chance at a world title shot," said Johnson. "You know what they say: 'Out with the old, in with the new'," said Johnson, whose children range in age from 6 through 16. "But I wouldn't have signed for this fight if I was just looking for a good fight. I want to become a four-time champion, make no mistake about it."
Johnson made history in May 1996 by dethroning International Boxing Federation champion Francisco Tejedor via a first-round knockout that made him the sport's first African-American flyweight (112 pounds) champion.
In April 1999, Johnson dominated Thailand's Ratanachai Sor Vorapin to become the first black fighter to win an International Boxing Federation 115-pound title.
Knocked out in September 2004 by 115-pounder Ivan Hernandez in his last fight, Johnson is 4-3 since October 2001, when he suffered the first of two consecutive losses to Rafael Marquez to end his 40-bout winning streak.
Johnson made his 118-pound debut against Marquez, whose victories over Johnson by split decision and eighth-round knockout helped earn him accolades as among the sport's pound-for-pound best.
"Gonzalez wants this for the same reason Marquez did: A great name to put on his resume," said Johnson, who said rapid weight loss physically depleted him against Hernandez. "Then they can come back to HBO and say, 'I beat Mark Johnson, and now we can make the big money fight with Marquez.' "
Similar ideas motivated 115-pounders Fernando Montiel and Luis Bolano, who were a combined 67-1-1 before losing to Johnson by 12-round decision and fourth-round KO, respectively in August 2003 and March 2004.
Johnson hopes for a similar result against Gonzalez, who stopped Vorapin in seven rounds in his last fight in October.
Johnson still owns a laminated copy of the November 1998 cover of KO magazine that depicts him alongside such fighters as Roy Jones, Bernard Hopkins and Evander Holyfield as among the finest in the sport at that time.
"I've got a great chance to be a four-time champ if I play my cards right," Johnson said. "If not, then like the song says, I'll fold 'em up and walk away."