Vitali Klitschko batters Kirk Johnson to set up possible rematch with WBC champ Lewis
by Roman Kernitski and Andrew Nynka
NEW YORK - Using only two rounds and a combination of punishing punches, Vitali Klitschko knocked out Canadian Kirk Johnson in front of 10,823 screaming fans at Madison Square Garden on December 6. The Ukrainian so thoroughly routed Johnson that many people in the world of boxing now see the 6-foot-8-inch heavyweight as the man to beat.
"All the good things came together on Saturday and multiplied. I was very well prepared. And I wanted to prove to the world that I am the best heavyweight. I am not afraid of anybody," Klitschko said after the fight.
"He was the better man tonight," said Johnson during a post-fight press conference. "I had a sluggish night against a guy you can't afford to have a sluggish night against. He stuck to his game plan and I came off my game plan."
Klitschko, a stand-up European-style fighter not known for dancing in the ring, hammered Johnson with a series of calculated lefts and rights throughout the fight. Johnson survived the first round, but hit the canvas with 45 seconds left in the second round. After a standing eight count from referee Arthur Mercante Jr., Johnson resumed the fight with blood coming from his mouth.
Klitschko then pushed the Canadian onto the ropes with a series of strong left jabs and a shot to Johnson's belly. Johnson tried to retreat and covered his head with his hands while the chant of "Klitschko, Klitschko" echoed in the Garden. Klitschko pounced on the overmatched Johnson and, with six seconds left in the second round, sent a final straight right to the jaw, knocking Johnson out to end the fight.
The crowd, filled with yellow "Go Vitali!" and "Dr. Iron Fists" t-shirts, waved large Ukrainian flags and chanted Klitschko's name before the fight began and "Ukraina" as the second round started, and then erupted when Johnson was dropped to the mat.
Klitschko's younger brother Volodymyr, who, as usual, was in his older brother's corner during the fight, ran out to the center of the ring to congratulate Vitali when the fight was waved to a close. Vitali climbed the ropes at each of the four corners of the ring and blew kisses and gestured a thank you to the crowd.
Johnson, from North Preston, Nova Scotia, had lost only once previously and was a top contender coming into the bout with Klitschko, but the Ukrainian never let him get into the fight. Johnson appeared tentative and hardly landed a punch as Klitschko pursued him relentlessly around the ring. Johnson's only previous defeat came at the hands of John Ruiz during a World Boxing Association title fight.
Klitschko (33-2-0, 32 knockouts) had not fought since June 21, when he took on World Boxing Council heavyweight title-holder Lennox Lewis. He appeared well prepared for the fight with Johnson.
"I was prepared to be world champion on June 21 (against Lewis) and I was 100 percent ready for this fight," Klitschko said.
The win made Klitschko the official No. 1 heavyweight challenger for the WBC belt, and it also appears to prove that his performance this past summer against Lewis was no fluke. There has been some recent speculation that a rematch between Lewis and Klitschko could net the aging 38-year-old British boxer nearly $20 million, although the Lewis camp has hinted that Lewis might retire prior to a rematch.
"Hello, Lennox. I know you saw this fight," Klitschko said in the ring immediately after the fight, addressing the HBO camera. "You're a great heavyweight champion, but I can beat you."
Lewis won their previous fight after a ringside doctor stopped the bout after six rounds because of a major cut above Klitschko's eye. Klitschko was leading on all three judges' scorecards at the time.
HBO commentator Larry Merchant said after the Johnson fight that Klitschko "harpooned the whale," referring to Johnson's 260-pound overweight physique, and Dino Duva, Johnson's promoter, said Klitschko's performance would "give Lennox Lewis motivation to fight Vitali."
Klitschko, who landed 55 punches to Johnson's nine, had much of the crowd's support behind him. "I was surprised and really glad when I entered the hall and saw that they all supported me. Many of the fans had come all the way from Germany, Ukraine and Russia. It was wonderful to have them all united at the place where Ali, Frazier and all the others made boxing history," Klitschko said.
Klitschko was originally scheduled to fight Lewis on December 6, but the Briton backed out of the fight and the WBC decided to have an official elimination contest instead. Lewis said he wasn't ready to fight again this year and needed time to think about whether he would ever fight again. Klitschko needed an opponent for the December 6 fight and he took what many regarded as a tough one in the once-beaten Johnson.
"To fight a nobody would be a step back," Klitschko said.
If Lewis choses to retire, Klitschko could potentially fight Corrie Sanders, who beat Vitali's younger brother Volodymyr earlier this year, for the vacant title.
Former heavyweight champion George Foreman weighed in on the likelihood of a Klitschko-Lewis rematch, saying: "If Lewis does not sense the money at stake, then he must be sent to a psychiatrist right away. He must face the challenge to go down as one of the greatest champs in boxing history."
Speaking at the post-fight press conference, where the controversial heavyweight boxer Mike Tyson also made a rather strange appearance, Johnson addressed his performance in the ring. "I'm not making excuses - he beat me fair and square. But I helped him beat me because I did everything he wanted me to do - stand there and throw big, giant punches at him."
Klitschko, who later entered the press conference, approached Johnson from behind and put his arms around the seated Johnson. He told the Canadian he was sorry and Johnson replied, "Don't worry. It's just business."
Copyright © The Ukrainian Weekly, December 14, 2003, No. 50, Vol. LXXI
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