The powers that be -- the promoters, managers and television executives who dictate who gets the money, the big fights and the title shots -- made Johnson pay for his insistence on punching his own path to the top.
He was one of the best pound-for-pound fighters at one point in the 1990s, but the former flyweight (108 pounds) and junior bantamweight (112 pounds) champion was invisible on the big fight radar.
Those who know the craft of boxing, though, were watching and admiring, and Johnson finally will get his due Sunday when he is inducted to the International Boxing Hall of Fame in Canastota, N.Y., along with greats like Thomas Hearns.
"It's a dream come true for me," said Johnson, 40, who now works in youth programs for the D.C. Department of Parks and Recreation. "I knew when I was fighting I could be one of the all-time greats."
Johnson fought from 1990 to 2006 and compiled a record of 44-5 with 28 knockouts. Johnson became the first black fighter to capture the flyweight championship when he knocked out International Boxing Federation title holder Francisco Tejedor in May 1996. In April 1999 he moved up to junior bantamweight and captured the IBF championship at that weight class at the building then known as MCI Center.
Yet he never got fights against the biggest names of his time in his weight class -- guys like Johnny Tapia or Danny Romero -- because Johnson refused for many years to sign any long-term promotional contracts with the controlling promoters.
"I never fell into the trap of being with one of the big promoters who could sign you and sit you on a shelf," Johnson said. "I think I paid a price for that."
He was a unique fighter, a black fighter in weight classes dominated by Hispanics. So Johnson went from the District into the lion's den -- the Los Angeles Forum, where the top Hispanic flyweights battled on a regular basis.
Johnson fought every tough flyweight fighter who would get in the ring with him -- and won.
"My father [Ham Johnson] and I paid our own expenses to go out there and do that," Johnson said. "We just needed an opportunity to prove ourselves."
Johnson served 11 months in prison in 2000 for a probation violation after a domestic dispute with his then-wife.
"That was the low points of my life," he said.
But Johnson came out of prison and continued his career, winning the World Boxing Organization super flyweight championship in 2003.
He now works with youth at risk in the District and hopes to become either a boxing commentator or referee. On Sunday, he adds Hall of Famer to his resume.