27.01.05 – By Steve Mckenna: JUNIOR Witter finally has a chance to back up his boasts on the biggest stage when he takes on Gianluca Branco in Los Angeles next month. The Bradford light-welterweight, ranked number three by the WBC, takes on Branco, ranked second by the same organisation, on the Hopkins-Eastman undercard. It’s a huge opportunity for ‘The Hitter’ to stake a claim that he, and not Ricky Hatton, is Britain’s top ten-stoner, as well as showing that he can be the dark horse of a division that contains Kostya Tszyu, Floyd Mayweather, Miguel Cotto, Vivian Harris and Arturo Gatti. But it won’t be easy.
The Italian is undoubtedly Witter’s toughest challenge since he was outpointed by Zab Judah in an IBF title fight in 2000. Like Witter, Branco’s only lost once. That was a brave 12-round clash with Gatti a year ago. He showed in that fight that he was a competent technician who, despite being floored with a peach of a punch late on, could take a good shot. But he’s 34 now and Witter, who is four years his junior, is brimming with confidence. Since his failed title challenge in Glasgow, Witter has racked up 15 knockout wins on the bounce – including crushing defeats of Branco’s compatriots Guiseppe Lauri and Salvatore Battaglia – and all have come within five rounds. But, ironically, he’s still been suffering from his display against Judah. Although he did well, at short notice, to last the distance with the New Yorker, who was then a rising star, let’s not forget, American TV bosses were not impressed with Witter’s negative tactics. And, despite claiming British, Commonwealth and European titles, he’s even been frozen out of big fights on the domestic scene, with Hatton – and his promoter Frank Warren – having nothing to do with him. While it’s unfortunate that Witter and Hatton have never met in the ring, you can hardly blame Warren for not wanting to risk his most prized asset with Brendan Ingle’s charge, who has morphed from an awkward, light-hitting counter-puncher into a devastating, knockout artist.
Witter is cocky and brash, Naseem Hamed-style, but, like Sheffield’s former world featherweight king – a former stablemate – he can definitely fight. Granted, Witter’s recent opposition hasn’t been the greatest and you wonder what will happen when he faces someone who can stand up to his power and put him on the backfoot, but he looks genuine world class. He has improved beyond all recognition from the fighter who was brought in as a lamb to the slaughter against Judah and should have enough to get past Branco. A convincing win on February 19 should put him right in the mix for a major title shot and a crack at one of the division’s top men. The switch-hitting Witter still has his doubters, but one man who truly believes in him is veteran trainer Ingle, who says he’s potentially even better than Hamed. To be fair to Ingle, he hasn’t jumped on the bandwagon after all those stoppage triumphs. He’s always lauded his man’s talents. Indeed, after one of Witter’s first fights following the Judah defeat, Ingle, pointing to his boxer, told the Sky interviewer, in his excitable Irish tone: “This guy here is the next Marvin Hagler.” I laughed. I’m sure I wasn’t alone. After all, how could Ingle compare his fighter to the legendary ‘Marvellous’ one? What Ingle was trying to say, I suppose, is that, like Hagler, Witter would be a late bloomer; that it would take a few years for us to appreciate how good he can be. And, although ‘The Hitter’ still has a lot to do before he can even be considered in the same breath as Hagler, the suggestion doesn’t seem quite so ludicrous now.