'Hitter' honing in on Hatton, but fight with Bradley comes first

LONDON -- If a visitor to the old gym on the outskirts of Sheffield, England -- where boxers of the pedigree of Prince Naseem Hamed, Herol Graham and Johnny Nelson all learned their trade -- were to walk past the 33-year-old hitting the heavy bag, Junior Witter would not bat an eyelid.

Even in his own environment, Witter conveys anonymity.

For years, one of the world's best junior welterweights was ignored while, in a quiet and businesslike manner, he built up an impressive body of work. The reason for people's ambivalence dated back to Witter's failed challenge against then-junior welterweight titleholder Zab Judah in June 2000, when Witter was vilified for his tactics.

"If I knew this was a track meet, I would have brought my track shoes," Judah said then, even though he, too, was culpable for the lack of action. Witter had been boxing for only three years, and he accepted the fight on just nine days' notice, so the onus ought to have been on Judah, the seasoned pro, to initiate fireworks.

In retrospect, Witter -- who will defend his WBC junior welterweight title Saturday against unbeaten Timothy Bradley from Palm Springs on Showtime's ShoBox series -- would have done things differently. But he is proud of the character he showed both in that bout and on his seemingly interminable journey to redemption, during which he was virtually ostracized.

A run of 15 stoppage victories in succession began to justify his sobriquet "The Hitter," elevating him to the verge of a title challenge, but British boxing was going through a lull period and no one outside of the cognoscenti was interested in his exploits.

His breakthrough came in a 140-pound title eliminator in February 2005 in Los Angeles against tough Australian-based South African Lovemore N'dou, whom he defeated on points. The fight was close and competitive, and Witter showed resilience and a firm resolve to secure his shot at a title vacated by Floyd Mayweather.

But even a comprehensive victory on points over DeMarcus Corley in September 2006 at Alexandra Palace in London to become a beltholder failed to quell his critics.

"[Witter] has impressive hand speed and substantial power and there is notable cleverness in his boxing, though his celebrated fondness for switching freely between the orthodox stance and southpaw is a less reliable advantage than he imagines," Hugh McIlvanney, the doyen of British sportswriters, told ESPN.com.

McIlvanney said that some of Witter's antics and showboating displays may turn off fight fans and have them wishing they were somewhere else.

"One of its abiding images will be the occasion in the seventh round when both boxers stood statue-still for so long that ringsiders must have been tempted to paint them silver and cart them off to join the buskers in [nearby] Covent Garden," McIlvanney said.

Certainly, Witter has not always been pleasing to the eye, but no one can question that he is coming off the most impressive win of his career. In a dominating and stunningly convincing performance in September he knocked out former titleholder Vivian Harris, the New York-based Guyanese fighter, in the seventh round, combining power and authority with the elusiveness that is his forte.

Inevitably, there was renewed clamor for a showdown with world champion Ricky Hatton, but the Hitman from Manchester remains on a parallel course.

On May 24 at the City of Manchester Stadium, Hatton will defend his junior welterweight crown against Juan Lazcano and, if successful, will box Paulie Malignaggi later this year at Madison Square Garden or a venue in Las Vegas.

Witter is not on his radar.

"Frank Warren [who promoted Hatton and Witter until a few years ago] built me up and he didn't build up Junior," Hatton said last year. "I was fighting Freddie Pendleton and Vince Phillips and Junior was still fighting six-rounders. Witter has won the British title, the European title, the Commonwealth title, the WBC title and, ultimately, he's had a great career. But I've enjoyed seeing him squirm, fighting nobodies and getting no money. The only way he's going to make any considerable money is by fighting me."

The Hatton-Witter cold war dates back to October 2000 when Witter gate-crashed a live TV interview after Hatton's British title-winning effort over Jon Thaxton, then one of Witter's stablemates.

"He probably regrets [doing that] to this day," said Hatton, who has resisted Witter's relentless pursuit of him.

"Hatton has avoided fighting me for years and he's still avoiding me," said Witter. "Do I think I could beat Ricky Hatton? Of course I do. I have no doubt at all and he knows it, too."

Witter has his suspicions as to why the pair haven't already met in the ring.

"Technically, he's very limited," Witter said. "He has a big heart, he's fit when he steps in the ring and he's driven. He's also very good at what he does, pressuring opponents and wearing them down. But that wasn't enough to beat Mayweather and it wouldn't be enough against me. Hatton hates me and he can't stand the fact that I'll beat him, if we ever get it on in the ring. That's why he and his handlers have never allowed the fight to take place."

For now, Witter can only keep on winning, which he intends to do against Bradley at the Nottingham Arena.

"If the fight with Hatton happens, great," Witter said. "If it doesn't, then it will only be because he's scared to fight me, and that's the truth of why it hasn't happened all these years. I'm not looking past Bradley and I intend to do a good job on him, but me and Hatton is the fight that people want to see."

Brian Doogan covers boxing for The Sunday Times and Ring magazine.