Livefight interview: Junior “The Hitter” Witter
“Matthew Hatton is a tougher fighter than Ricky was” Junior Witter
By Michael J Jones
UPON claiming the British welterweight crown recently with a clear decision over old foe Colin Lynes, Sheffield’s Junior Witter became domestic champion for the second time. This victory came some ten years after first claiming the light-welterweight version against Alan Bosworth. The Ingle-trained veteran, now 41-5-2 (22), has had a stellar career that has seen him win British, Commonwealth, European and WBC titles over the last 15 years, beating some tough fighters along the way. However, Witter is known just as much for the one man he never faced than the scores of contenders he bested.
Witter turned pro in January 1997, boxing a six-round draw with Midlands Area champion Cam Raeside, 8-1 at the time. Taking on dangerous opponents in risky fights was to be a trend all through the switch-hitting fighter’s career. Just four months after turning pro, Junior took on come-backing Andres Panayi on a Sky Sports-televised show in Reading. Panayi was 23-6-4 (12) compared to the prospect’s meagre 3-0-1 (1) ledger. As would be the case throughout Witter’s career, Junior was always at his best with his back against the wall. The inexperienced novice was given a stern test by the St Helens bruiser before a big uppercut brought a sudden end to the proceedings in round five giving Junior his second stoppage victory.
“All the way through my career I took on tough fighters” reflects Junior, now 38-years-old. “I always had to do things the hard way but it made me the fighter I am today.”
The tough early bouts were good for the young fighter’s apprenticeship, yet many thought the Ingles had bitten off more than they could chew when the opponent for Junior’s tenth fight was announced as world-class power-puncher Jan Bergman. The world-rated South African was a formidable 35-1 (27) when he came to Manchester for the six-rounder. To say nobody gave Witter a prayer is an understatement; on paper, it looked like a near-suicide mission. Junior reflects, “They brought him here so he could have a warm-up before another title shot, he’d only ever lost to Kostya Tszyu” remembers Junior. “I was with the biggest promoter here (in the UK) in Frank ******, but still had to do things the hard way. They thought I was a warm-up but, because I beat (Bergman), he never got another shot for two years." Witter won a deserved 59-57 decision over the dangerous South African to move to just 8-0-2 (2). The bout was way down the undercard at the Nynex Arena on a huge bill that also featured Carl Thompson and Naseem Hamed (plus a certain Ricky Hatton), but it was still the first eye-catching win for the 24-year-old.
Witter stayed busy and posted good wins over the likes of former British champion Mark Winters. It seemed only a matter of time before the Sheffield stylist gained a British title shot of his own. Fate however, threw a far bigger challenge at the young prospect’s feet when Jason Rowland was forced out of his IBF clash with champion Zab Judah. The Glasgow bill was headed by Mike Tyson’s short-lived clash with Lou Savarese and it looked like Judah would be forced out completely until Witter agreed to step in with only nine days notice. Again, it seemed an audacious move to match the feather-fisted, 15-0-2 (3) Witter with the 22-0 (17) Judah, a superstar-in-the-making to many knowledgeable fans and experts.
I ask Junior if he really thought he could win the contest beforehand, “I just knew in boxing anything can happen” begins Witter. “I kind of went in thinking I’d try and nick it and run, which I did for the first six rounds. I won the first half of the fight but lost the second half. I know he won the second half bigger than I won the first but it was still close. I was still fresh at the end which angered me as I knew I could have given more in the last few rounds” admits Junior before adding “that fight made me; I’d pushed one of the best pound-for-pound fighters in the game. It made me realise what I was capable of.”
Aside from pushing Judah, Witter also worked hard in the gym to develop his strength; working with weights with Dominic Ingle to improve his punching-power. “I changed a few things with my training, I’d gone twelve rounds easily with Zab Judah and also, it just seemed to click into place, I suddenly had more confidence in myself” explains the former WBC champion.
The resulting difference in Witter was nothing short of startling; going 15-0 (15) over the next five years, picking up the British, Commonwealth and European titles. Gone was the light-hitting back-peddler of old, Junior was now more aggressive, stronger and actively looked for the stoppage in every fight. The red-hot form was eventually rewarded with a WBC eliminator with teak-tough Lovemore Ndou at the Staples Centre, Los Angeles. The bout, which doubled as a Commonwealth title defence, seemed another risky assignment for “The Hitter”. The Australian-based South African was known for being a granite-jawed, come-forward fighter who had pushed several world-class fighters to the wire. Just two fights previously, Ndou had given the 19-0 Miguel Cotto a hard night’s work over the full route and many picked him to be too strong for the Sheffield contender.
On a bill topped by Bernard Hopkin’s boring points win over Howard Eastman, Witter out-classed Ndou, dropping him twice and taking a unanimous decision on the judges’ cards. Towards the end of the bout, Witter, knowing he was streets ahead, slackened off the pace and stayed out of trouble. Ndou finished strongly but it was too little too late as Witter impressed again. “A lot of people thought I’d lose that fight” states Junior, “I knew he was good and tough but I knew after going in with Bergman and Judah what I could do.”
Witter, now highly ranked by the WBC, didn’t rest easy with his new rating and posted distance wins over Andres Kotelnik and Colin Lynes in defending his titles. The Kotelnik victory was particularly note-worthy as the talented Ukrainian would go on to lift the WBA crown three years later as well as handing Argentine banger Marcus Maidana his first defeat.
Witter eventually got his longed-for world title fight in September 2006 at Alexandra Palace, London against American southpaw DeMarcus Corley. Fighting for the title vacated by Floyd Mayweather (who had just moved up to welterweight), Witter boxed sensibly to take a deserved 118-112, 117-112 and 116-113 verdict over Corley, who recently stopped Paul McCloskey.
“It was brilliant” says Witter with pride when remembering that night. “It was the realisation of a dream. I boxed well but Corley never really committed to his punches, he just tried to steal it. If he’d have come-forward more and opened up I would have knocked him out but I still controlled that fight and won well.”
Witter made his first defence against fringe contender Arturo Morua before taking on a far tougher opponent in Vivian Harris in Doncaster. Former WBA champion Harris had just seen off Stevie Johnston and Juan Lazcano back-to-back and seemed at his best again after losing his title in shocking fashion to unheralded Carlos Maussa two years previously. Witter, by now 33-years-old, was aware of the danger Harris posed. “He was the favourite definitely, he was 6’2” tall (actually just under 6’) and on a good run. He came in absolutely tremendous shape; one of the reporters even told me before the fight he felt sorry for me!”. Witter boxed a master-class against Harris, dropping his bewildered challenger several times before ending matters in the seventh stanza. The WBC champion looked better than ever and a long reign seemed ahead of him....or so it seemed.
In May 2008 Witter signed to face mandatory contender Timothy Bradley. Not many people had heard of Bradley despite his good-looking 21-0 (11) record, but the shaven-headed Californian proved a revelation during his bout with Witter. The early rounds were a chess match but in the sixth “Desert Storm” unleashed a powerful overhand right to deck Witter heavily (only the second time to date Witter's suffered a trip to the canvas). The dazed champion rose to see out the round but Bradley kept the pressure up to win a split decision in a bout most saw as a clear one for the new champion. I ask Junior if he, like everyone else, had underestimated the stocky Bradley before the contest. “I did underestimate him yes. I should never have gone through with that fight; my head wasn’t in the right place.” Witter reveals a little about the run-up to the Bradley defence, “my Dad had his first bout of chemotherapy just days before the fight. For weeks I was running him to and from the hospital every day and fitting my training around it. When it came to the fight, I just didn’t want to be in there. I thought I’d just win, that I was good enough to prevail anyway” admits Witter sadly. “I still thought I just about nicked it” Junior surprisingly adds. Between his first defeat to Judah and the loss to Bradley, Witter had gone an incredible 21-0 (17). Witter didn’t fight much in the next two years. He had been inactive for nine months when facing off with unbeaten Devon Alexander for the WBC title vacated by Bradley. Witter injured his left hand and was getting a steady beat-down when pulled out by his corner after the eighth session. He would endure another 18 months hiatus after the painful defeat.
After the layoff there would be no easy comeback fight as the former champion ventured all the way to Canada to take on local fighter Victor Lupo Puiu over ten rounds. Puiu was a decent fighter at 18-1-2, but facing him on home turf after a long absence from a boxing ring seemed a recipe for disaster. It proved to be the case as the returning fighter was beaten unanimously. “It was a mistake I guess (taking the fight) but I knew the risks before the fight and I still thought I’d win. I didn’t box well but, even giving him the fact that it was on his promoter’s show, I still thought I earned a draw” reasons Junior.
Four months later, the former champion took part in Prizefighter, beating Nathan Graham and Kevin McIntyre before being edged by Yassine El Maachi in the final. “The biggest surprise for me is the fact that El Maachi got that decision over Colin Lynes. When their bout finished I thought ‘it’s a rematch with Lynes in the final’, I couldn’t believe it when they gave it the other way” says Witter. “I thought I just about beat him in the final but I thought Lynes beat him easily” states Junior who lost a majority decision in the final.
After Prizefighter, Colin Lynes lifted the British welterweight title against favoured Lee Purdy and many gave him the edge in his rematch with his former conqueror. The fight at the Hillsborough Leisure Centre, Sheffield, never quite caught fire but Witter looked solid in winning unanimously to be domestic king again. Junior admits Lynes was better than when first they faced, I ask what is next on the horizon. “Depends on what the politics allow. I’m not gunning for anyone in particular I just want to win more titles and earn good money. I like the thought of a (Paulie) Malignaggi fight; he’s got a world title and I know I can beat him” says Witter matter-of-factly.
A Junior Witter interview wouldn’t be complete without discussing his long-time rival in the light-welterweight ranks. Ricky Hatton turned pro the same year as Junior and developed at roughly the same rate. The two were both title holders in the division and a bout between the two would have been a massive event at any point from 2000 to 2007. That the eagerly anticipated bout never took place is commonly seen as a gross injustice.
Witter called out Manchester’s “Hitman” at various points, but was at first advised that the clash would happen once the two fighters had gained in popularity by Frank ****** (who promoted both). Frustratingly, the excuses never stopped as the British fans were denied a genuine grudge fight between two evenly-matched UK fighters. Witter has clearly mellowed towards Ricky and spoke without bitterness about his former nemesis. “Ricky is known to be a decent guy, one of the lads and I hold no animosity towards him at all. I understand it was the politics that kept us from fighting, at the end of the day, nobody wants to get beat-up do they?”. Junior continues “I’m annoyed the fight never took place because it robbed the British public of a great fight. It would have sold-out absolutely anywhere and been a real event.”
What did Witter make of the many excuses given to him for the fight not taking place? “He said to me that he’d never fight me because I had called him out; six weeks later he called out Floyd Mayweather live on TV!” laughs Witter. I’ve played out the Ricky Hatton-Junior Witter fight many times in my head; I ask Junior what his tactics would have been if the fight had happened? “I would have boxed him on the back-foot and let him walk on to everything” states the British champion, “then I would have come forward and hurt him.”
There has been talk of the new champion defending against Ricky’s younger brother Matthew in the near future. The bout makes sense for both and Witter would welcome the challenge “I’ve no qualms about fighting Matthew, if (team Hatton) fancy it I’d take the fight in a heartbeat.” I have to ask whether beating the brother of Ricky Hatton would bring satisfaction to Junior after his frustrating history with the older sibling. “No, it wouldn’t be about Ricky if me and Matthew fight. There’s still a bit of needle, me and Matthew have never had an argument, but we’ve never seen eye-to-eye either” reveals the 38-year-old. “Matthew is tougher than Ricky was, but Ricky was a bit more skilful so they are different to fight tactically” concludes Junior.
Another top-rated welterweight in this country is Witter’s friend and stable mate Kell Brook. The two have sparred often and Brook has been quoted recently as saying he would favour a Witter-Matthew Hatton clash. “Kell’s strong” Junior explains about his friend, “he believes in himself and really wants to hurt you in there. That can be an advantage, having that attitude. He has a tough fight coming up with Carson Jones, who’s coming to win and has stopped his last eight opponents but if he wins that will open doors. I believe he can go all of the way.”
It’s been a long road for Junior Witter but he remains upbeat. He still believes in himself and wants to win more titles. “It’s onwards and upwards now, I’ll fight anyone” promises Witter, now sporting a purple hair-style. “I’ve always had it hard but I’m proud of what I’ve achieved. There’s been the odd fight I was expected to win but most have been tough assignments I’ve never had an easy ride. I’ve had to work really hard for what I’ve achieved”
Witter has clearly slowed down over the last few years and has lost to a few fighters he would have toyed with in his prime but he still has the experience and durability to remain a test all but the very best. The recently-engaged “Hitter”, who lives with his partner in Sheffield, still has his final chapter to write in boxing. A match-up with Matthew Hatton would be an intriguing fight as would a contest against highly-rated prospect Frankie Gavin at this stage. There’s also plenty of other names out there in a good domestic division such as Lee Purdy, Commonwealth champion Denton Vassell plus great prospects such as Ronnie Heffron and Bradley Skeete. Witter will do well to keep his British crown for any length of time but don’t rule out an Indian summer either; count him out at your peril