How Great Was Stevie Johnston?

By James Slater - 02/27/2024 - Comments

Two-time WBC lightweight champion Stevie Johnston of Denver, Colorado was a special talent in the ring. Sharp, slick and, as his nickname proclaimed “Lil’ But Bad,” Johnston showcased immense skill at both amateur and pro level. It was on this day 25 years ago when southpaw stylist Johnston defeated Cesar Bazan to regain the WBC lightweight title he had lost to the the Mexican the previous summer.

By this stage of his career, Johnston was at or around his peak at age 26, and he very much wanted a big fight with rival lightweight ruler “Sugar” Shane Mosley, who held the IBF title at the time. These two had engaged in a three-fight rivalry in the amateurs, with Mosley coming out on top 2-1. But the pro rematch never came, leaving Johnston to get busy making defences against good fighters such as Angel Manfredy, Billy Schwer, and Jose Luis Castillo.

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During his first run as champion, with Johnston winning the WBC 135 pound title in March of 1997, this by decisioning Jean Baptiste Mendy in Paris, France, he made three retentions before being upset by Bazan. Now, in his second reign, Johnston managed four successful defences. Then Johnston fought the at the time largely unknown Castillo.

A great fight ensued, with lots of up close stuff, but the Mexican who would go on to become a household name as the man who “defeated” Floyd Mayweather (but was “robbed,” this in the opinion of some fans, who make the claim to this day) edged it via majority decision. The fight won Ring Magazine’s Upset of the Year award for 2000. A rematch saw the two great but perhaps could have been greater 135 pounders box to a draw. Quite astonishingly, the result was initially announced as a Johnston win. Later, when things were cleared up, a classy Johnston took the belt to Castillo’s dressing room and gave him the good news.

Now 30-2-1, Johnston of course fought on. After going on a five-fight wining streak, Johnston faced Juan Lazcano in a WBC eliminator, the fight taking place on the Mosley-Oscar De La Hoya II card in Vegas. Lazcano, in one of his best performances, stopped Johnston in the 11th round, in so doing becoming the first man to halt Stevie. Then came a near-fatal car smash, with Johnston being sent through the wind-shield and with him having 100 stitches put in his face. “I’m lucky to be alive, never mind fighting,” Stevie said after recovering.

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Johnston launched a comeback two years later, with him campaigning initially as a 140 pounder before he dropped back down to his natural 135. But although Johnston was no ‘shot’ fighter, far from it, he was past his best, and stoppage losses to Vivian Harris, Rolando Reyes and, in his final fight, Edner Cherry came. Johnston did, however, manage to win both the IBO 140 and the IBA 135 pound straps at this late stage of his career.

The loss to Cherry came in May of 2008, and Johnston knew it was time to hang ’em up, which he duly did. So how great was Johnston? He was very, very, very good, if that answers it. Slick, clever, speedy and and accurate puncher, Stevie could also mix it up and fight in the trenches if he had to do so. And at amateur level, Johnston compiled a 260-13 record, with him facing the likes of Mosley, Vernon Forrest (who defeated both he and Mosley to make it to the 1992 Games) and Terron Millett. Johnston won a gold at the 1991 Pan Am Games in Cuba.

It really is a shame that pro rematch with Mosley never happened. Had it done so, who knows, Johnston might be a fighter who is far more appreciated and acclaimed today?

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