Junior Witter: When the Cult Goes Mainstream

BY David Payne ON February 14, 2005
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'I'm a cult hero, I'm ahead of my time
You'll never rule me, 'coz I'm all mine
Bounce off of me 'coz I'm so strong
My time is coming and it won't be long'   
                                                The Cure
      

Britain’s other world-class light welterweight, Junior Witter, has a rare opportunity to emerge from the long shadow cast by Mancunian ticket seller Ricky Hatton next weekend when he tackles Australian handful Lovemore N’Dou.

The bout, effectively serving as an eliminator for the WBC mandatory position, was to feature Italian Gianluca Branco in the 2nd defence of Witter’s European belt. But Branco got cold feet and opted out, claiming a lack of preparation time or some other flimsy exit strategy. Which is where N’Dou comes in. The always fit, always available N’Dou is probably uncomfortable with the gatekeeper tag, but that’s the script he’s meant to read. The proud South African-born “Black Panther” isn’t too keen on scripts though, having pushed Sharmba Mitchell and the much-feared Miguel Cotto closer than expected in the last 12 months.

For Junior Witter the fight represents the penultimate step on his quest for recognition, glory and in no small part redemption. The irony that the audience who rejected him for so long following his over-cautious late notice challenge to Zab Judah in 2000 will play host to the fight that establishes him amongst the elite at 140-pounds won’t be lost on Witter.

Junior bounced back from the defeat to Judah with a procession of knockout victories, earning him a reputation for power punching that ultimately turned him into something of a boxing cult. Not the ticket buying kind that cheer every Hatton fight; more the whispering variety who believed the slick boxer with the knockout punch could actually derail the Hatton gravy train.

For a while, around 2002, a fight between Witter and Hatton looked a distinct possibility as both were under Frank Warren’s Sports Network banner. However, it never quite came to fruition, despite a much publicised contract clause request by Hatton stipulating that Witter had to be one of his next three opponents. The reason? Well, like any cult following, the conspiracy theories swirled: Warren knew he’d beat Hatton or the fight couldn’t be sold to America were the most popular in the buzz that surrounded the potential clash.

Witter eventually left the Sports Network camp under something of a cloud and looked set to wither and die away from the public eye, but since working with Hennessy Promotions his career has flourished and the cult following grows.

Now 30, Witter is a hard fighter to describe. He’s been pigeonholed as a boxer-puncher, which I guess is true, but it doesn’t quite encapsulate the eccentricity of Junior’s modus operandi. Leaning heavily on the Brendan Ingle house style previously exemplified by Naseem Hamed, Johnny Nelson, Ryan Rhodes and of course the original himself, Herol “Bomber” Graham, Witter is awkward, elusive and reflex based.

Due to necessity and/or physical development, he’s added power, aggression and confidence to his armoury and is not averse to staying in range and punching with an opponent.

At his best he’s a fearsome sight, with lightening combinations, knockout power in both hands, good footwork and an elusive chin. He represents a difficult assignment for any of the leading contenders and champions.

And it is in that uneasy paradox of being a stiff, awkward test and lacking box-office appeal that Witter’s progression is often stifled, scuppering the Hatton fight along the way too.

For years Witter goaded Hatton, not with any realistic hope of securing the fight, but because Hatton was news, the “golden boy” of British boxing, and through him Witter could gain column inches. Reviled by the American public, fights with marquee fighters like Gatti, Mayweather, Cotto, Harris and Mitchell were pipedreams. Witter was the definitive “Who needs them?” club member. In fact, he probably chaired the meetings and wrote the newsletter.

On February 19th at the world-famous Staples Center he tackles Lovemore N’Dou live on HBO for the right to face the winner of Gatti vs. Mayweather for the WBC title. And nobody is mentioning Hatton, except maybe me.

Junior Witter has finally arrived.

(The Cult Goes Mainstream on Saturday February 19 LIVE on HBO in the US and Setanta Sport PPV in the UK.)

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