posted on Dec, 6 2003 @ 01:46 PM
Associated Press - December 5, 2003
NEW YORK (AP) - Before the year began, Vitali Klitschko wasn't even considered the best heavyweight in his family, much less the best in the world.
Sure he could pack a punch, but Klitschko was slow and awkward, and some questioned his heart.
One bloody and somewhat brutal fight in June against Lennox Lewis did a lot to quiet the critics and redeem Klitschko's reputation in the ring. On
Saturday night, he meets Kirk Johnson in a heavyweight elimination fight to prove it all wasn't a fluke.
``Vitali obviously showed a lot with that courageous effort against Lennox Lewis,'' said Ross Greenburg, president of HBO Sports. ``The question now
is: Can he capitalize on that and become a heavyweight champion? This fight will tell everyone if Vitali is for real.''
Johnson is not the opponent Klitschko originally had penned in on his calendar. He expected to meet Lewis in a rematch of the June 21 fight Klitschko
was leading when it was stopped after six rounds because of bloody cuts around his eyes.
Lewis, though, said he wasn't ready to fight again this year and needed time to think about whether he would ever fight again. That left Klitschko in
need of an opponent and, to his credit, he took a potentially tough one in the once-beaten Johnson.
``To fight a nobody would be a step back,'' Klitschko said. ``Many boxing experts can't give an answer to who will be the winner. It will be a tough
Oddsmakers give Klitschko the edge, making him a 7-2 favorite in the scheduled 12-round fight at Madison Square Garden. The card will be televised by
HBO, beginning with an attractive undercard bout between unbeaten heavyweights Joe Mesi and Monte Barrett at 9:45 p.m. EST.
The Klitschko-Johnson winner is guaranteed nothing except the WBC's No. 1 ranking and a shot at the title should the 38-year-old Lewis retire. For
Klitschko, that's more than enough.
``I want to be the official challenger for the world championship and get a second fight against Lennox Lewis in the next year,'' Klitschko said.
``But right now nobody gives me a guarantee Lennox Lewis will fight me.''
Johnson, a member of the 1992 Canadian Olympic team, is even more desperate after losing his only shot at a title when he was disqualified for low
blows against John Ruiz. Things got even worse when was injured two weeks before he was to fight Lewis in June.
Klitschko stepped in as Johnson's replacement, and the rest is history.
``If it was baseball, three strikes and I'd be out,'' Johnson said. ``I understand this opportunity. I'll get in the ring and do what I have to
Johnson (34-1-1, 25 knockouts) said he overtrained for Ruiz, though some said it looked like he was out of shape. He weighed in at 260 pounds
Thursday, 17 pounds heavier than in his last two fights.
The 6-foot-6 Klitschko, whose dream is to become heavyweight champion at the same time as his brother, Wladimir, weighed 250. Wladimir will help work
his brother's corner, as he always does.
``I don't want to underestimate Johnson,'' Klitschko said. ``He's a very strong fighter. I prepared for this fight like a world championship.''
Klitschko, a Ukrainian who lives in Los Angeles, planned to fight on the Lewis-Johnson undercard when Johnson tore a chest muscle in training, and
Klitschko stepped in to take his place. He gave Lewis all he could handle, rocking the heavyweight champion on several occasions.
Klitschko (32-2, 31 knockouts) was leading on all three ringside scorecards and protested that he wanted to go on when the fight was stopped. It was a
far different scene than his only other loss, which came after he tore a rotator cuff and quit on his stool against Chris Byrd.
That fight largely defined his reputation until his courageous stand against Lewis.
``It was the only fight of me the U.S. public saw,'' Klitschko said, referring to Byrd. ``People said Klitschko had no guts, but if you're injured you
can't bring your best show. That's why the fight with Lennox Lewis was so important to me. I feel that people pay attention to me now.''
The main event will follow an intriguing matchup between Barrett and Mesi, who is undefeated in 27 fights and knocked his last two opponents out in
the first round. Mesi recently signed a three-bout contract with HBO and says he wants to fight for the heavyweight title next year.
``Baby Joe'' has been carefully brought along by his manager-father, fighting a collection of mediocre and washed-up heavyweights over the last six
years. Barrett (29-2) is considered a step up in competition, and Mesi says he is ready.
``I think this is a bit of a coming-out party in a way,'' Mesi said. ``This fight is more important than any of the others. I think I've got great
hand speed, great power and good boxing ability, and people are starting to recognize that. I think I've matured into the whole boxer I'm trying to