26.11.03 – By Janne Romppainen: The universally recognized heavyweight champion of the world Lennox Lewis has all but retired from boxing. It might well be that the long-reigning champion never fights again. That leaves his title open to compete for the other top heavyweights. Unfortunately the situation of the division in the last couple of years could be described as Lennox Lewis and seven dwarfs. Behind the champion there is a large muddle of solid-but-not-great type of fighters who all, it seems, have beaten one top-heavyweight contender and lost to another one, which is why nobody of them is clearly above the rest.
On Saturday the 6th of December this puzzle will get solved at least a bit. Whoever wins the anticipated clash between Vitaly Klitschko and Kirk Johnson will be seen by many as the natural successor for Lewis. In the eyes of some spectators Klitschko already achieved a moral victory over Lewis last June in their clash where Klitschko was unluckily stopped because of a horrendous cut over his eye. If he is able to follow that up by defeating a legitimate top-ten contender, it will solidify his status as the next leader of the pack. On the other hand, if Kirk Johnson is able to beat the giant Ukrainian more decisively than Lewis did, it will raise his stocks a lot.
Not much would have needed to happen differently for that this fight would indeed be for a world championship. Kirk Johnson was scheduled to meet Lennox Lewis last June and many felt that he might have had a chance of upsetting the champion who was coming off from a year-long layoff. Johnson had to pull out from the fight at the final moments and with only two weeks notice, Vitaly Klitschko stepped in for him. He momentarily came close of winning the fight by rocking Lewis badly. Many still feel that had it not been for the cut, he could have gone on and taken the victory. That did not happen though, and so he must give it a new try.
Vitaly “Dr. Ironfist” Klitschko is a Ukrainian citizen who lives in both LA in the USA and Hamburg in Germany. His impressive professional record stands at 32-2 with 31 knockouts. He made his breakthrough to the bigger picture of the boxing world already back in 1999 by dethroning the then-WBO champion Herbie Hide in two rounds. His size and strength quickly made him an interesting figure, but a TKO loss against Chris Byrd in next year spoiled his reputation for a long time. Many boxing fans simply could not forgive him the fact that he quit the fight with just three more rounds to go after dominating it early. Klitschko suffered from a serious shoulder injury, but that didn’t matter. He was harshly renamed as “Quitschko” by some observers and this brand followed him even though he went on with his career and scored some good victories, a knockout over the regarded Larry Donald being the best of them.
His name was finally cleaned again in the Lewis fight. In that bout Klitschko showed that he was all fighter when needed. He stood up for the champion’s best punches and never gave in even though he hardly could see out from his damaged left eye. Klitschko did not become a champion, but he earned the respect of the whole boxing world.
Klitschko’s obvious strengths are his physical size and power. Standing at 6’8 and weighing close to 250 pounds he towers above most of today’s big heavyweights. His reach is listed “only” at 80’’, but it appears to be more and Klitschko uses it very effectively. Even though he always doesn’t get his whole body behind his punches, he still carries some serious power as his record clearly shows. Apart from the fight with Lewis his chin hasn’t really been tested yet, but in that bout he showed that it certainly is not made out of glass: he took some huge uppercuts by the champion without buckling. Klitschko is also active in the ring and he seems to have a great stamina. His best weapons are his long, sharp left jab and the big right cross.
Despite the mighty physical advantages Klitschko has some obvious weaknesses too though. He is not the lightest from his foot and he is often uncoordinated. His punching arsenal also seems limited, he hardly throws hooks or uppercuts. The most glaring shortcoming in his fighting style is that he seems to leave himself vulnerable much too often. He holds his left hand very low, under the waistline even, and doesn’t move his upper body much. Also now there is a serious concern about how his skin will withstand punishment. Against Lewis he suffered two big cuts, and especially the one over his eye was a horrible one, almost a career-ending type. It has had almost six months to heal from that of course, but it is not certain what will happen if Johnson catches it with a good punch.
Kirk “Bubba” Johnson for his part has been considered as a talented fighter for long time. In fact, he has been “on the verge of breaking through” for so long that some have already spoken about him as a “never-was”. After being a Canadian Olympic representative in the Olympic Games in 1992 his career has been developed slowly. He overcame all the usual warm-up type of opponents on his way up, Danell Nicholson, the next proposed opponent of Wladimir Klistchko being the most notable of them.
After rising to an up-and-comer status however Johnson started to fight very seldom for a young prospect. In years 1997 and 1999-2002 he only fought twice in each year. In 2000 he scored the biggest victory of his career so far by knocking out the noted Oleg Maskaev, but he didn’t follow it up with anything notable. A victory over a ranked contender Larry Donald later opened him a chance to fight John Ruiz for the WBA heavyweight title. This was supposed to be Johnson’s chance to finally prove himself at world level, he was 3-1 the favourite, but he blew his chance by getting himself disqualified for repeated low blows. Now Johnson is looking for a new opportunity, and a very impressive third round knockout over Lou Savarese in his last fight made most observers take a note on him again. Overall he has gathered a record of 34-1-1 with 25 knockouts.
Johnson is a well-schooled boxer-puncher. Among today’s heavyweights he is not a giant, but standing at 6’3 and usually weighing at about 240lbs he does have the size needed. He is one of the best technicians of the division at the moment. He moves well, slips punches neatly and throws his own shots in good combinations. He isn’t a knockout artist, but his accuracy and hand-speed make him a dangerous foe to anybody. Johnson usually waits for his opponent to come in and looks for places to counterpunch them. His biggest wins, knockouts over Maskaev and Savarese have come just in this manner: the bigger foes have taken the fight at him and Johnson has made them pay for it.
Johnson’s biggest problems so far have been on his mental side. He is often soft from his waistline, which indicates that his training habits are not all that they could be. He also has had a bad tendency to punch low in the past: because of that he lost to Ruiz and only got a draw against Alfred Cole in a fight that he should have easily won. Also although there is only one official knockdown registered against him (in the first Cole fight), it seems that his chin might not be granite. Most people think that John Ruiz knocked him down at least twice in the ninth round of their fight (Johnson was down total of three times), but the referee missed both calls.
Looking from outside, Vitaly Klitschko should be every counter-puncher’s dream opponent: he moves forwards, holds his left hand down and doesn’t move his head. What else can a quick-fisted, sharp-countering opponent like Johnson ask? This is what it looks like but that isn’t the whole truth. Lennox Lewis only landed a couple of overhand rights against Klitschko and nobody in the division masters that punch better than him. Klitschko’s trick is that even though he comes forwards, he doesn’t rush to his opponents and thusly he doesn’t easily let himself open. Another thing is his huge reach. He can throw his shots from way outside compared to his opponents. This is why he can be in his punching range but the opponent’s are still not able to counter him. Lastly Klitschko seems to have very slick defensive reflexes, which enables him to slip most punches. He has a bad habit of pulling straight back from them but few opponents have been able to take advantage of that.
Also, even though stylistically Johnson does have the abilities to frustrate a bigger and slower opponent such as the Ukrainian is, there are concerns for his part too, especially after the Ruiz fight. In that bout, Ruiz landed his jab on Johnson with surprising ease, and Klitschko’s jab is far rangier and it carries more snap. Also Johnson clearly didn’t enjoy Ruiz’ grapping tactics. Klitschko has a huge upper body strength and in the Lewis fight he demonstrated that he is very hard to push back in clinches. It is probable that if and when clinching occurs, it will take more out from Johnson than from Klitschko.
What would be Johnson’s recipe to come out as the winner? First of all, he should use the ring, which he probably will do. He has to be alert for Klitschko’s punches, but at the same time he needs to be ready to counter them. Johnson does have a good left hook and a solid uppercut which he should try to land on Klitschko. Also the Canadian would have to get Klitschko’s respect early on. He won’t most probably knock him out, but he should hurt him enough to make him think twice before coming. By doing this, Johnson’s technique and speed might enable him to take a decision. And, there is always the chance that Klitschko would get cut again. So Johnson should at least try to test the skin over his eyes.
This all is possible, but still I’d pick Klitschko to win this fight. If I had a betting office, I’d probably make Klitschko 3-1 the favourite. Even though he hasn’t faced as good opponent as Johnson before apart from Lewis, he has showed that he can deal with quicker boxers. He systematically broke down and knocked out Larry Donald, who went full rounds against Johnson. Klitschko did this by spearing his opponent with the left jab and dropping his right hand to the head or body when possible. Also I can’t think about this fight without remembering how John Ruiz put Johnson to the canvas. Even though there was no count, it was a knockdown and Klitschko is, as a puncher, in different class compared to Ruiz.
If Klitschko is able to dictate the tempo, the fight should turn for him. Klitschko seems to have a better stamina than Johnson and I think that might be the deciding factor in the end. I expect this fight to be about even for about five rounds, with Klitschko landing more often but Johnson countering effectively. After that I see Klitschko taking over with his continuous pounding which will wear Johnson down. He will drive Johnson back and pound out a unanimous decision victory or possibly a late stoppage.
This is a make-or-break situation for both of the fighters where only one can come out on top. Both fighters and their camps have made a brave move by accepting this fight instead of waiting for a possible title shot. Though this time there is a universal recognition on line and seemingly both fighters appreciate it more than the title belts. And I, for one, am very happy for that.