Former WBA junior welterweight champ, “Vicious” Vivian Harris, put himself back in the hunt with a resounding performance on HBO’s Boxing After Dark. Never mind that the opponent was late replacement Stevie Johnston, a once-great lightweight champion whose skills have decidedly eroded.
What matters is that Harris’ meltdown against Carlos Maussa in June 2005 is now behind him. On Saturday, he exhibited a calm and maturity that wasn’t always there—now he’s talking with his fists. Fight fans should be thankful for the tall Guyanan’s recovery; this once-bottomless division has become noticeably shallow since the big fish—Ricky Hatton, Floyd Mayweather, Jr. and Miguel Cotto—have ventured north.
While Harris’ victory ought to be put in perspective, one can’t help marveling at the potential of his long-armed, 5’11’’ frame. What impresses is not simply that he knocked Johnston down four times, prompting referee Raul Caiz, Jnr. to stop the bout at 2:15 of the seventh. It was his accurate punching, fluid combinations, his attentiveness to the body, and a certain caginess in setting traps. His Roger Mayweatheresque straight right didn’t desert him, either.
With a minute left in the first, Harris, now 27-2-1 (18), dug right and left uppercuts to Johnston’s body. Like the nickname says, they were vicious, thrown with maximum leverage. This was an impressive feat considering the 5’5’’ southpaw wears his cup high—it’s a small space to work with. Most people associate the prime Johnston, who fell to 39-4-1 (18), with superlative skills but he’s also one of the grittiest athletes you’ll ever see—wholly deserving of his handle, “Lil’ But Bad.” Rather than retreat, he charged back at Harris, pinning him in a corner.
As Stevie readied himself to pounce, Vivian lifted his head with a left uppercut. The compact man got off a wide overhand right, but before it arrived a short, downward arching right cracked his chin. He went down fast. And got up just as quickly, with a big smile on his face.
Again, Johnston attacked after the ref gave permission. Violent exchanges followed. With two seconds left in the round, another short right from Harris sent the Denver native down. He popped back up—smiling.
On-air analyst Lennox Lewis, who has improved markedly since his first B.A.D. show, complimented those signature rights of Harris. They’re thrown “right from the chin,” with no warning, no tell. (Imagine if middleweight champ Jermain Taylor had this down.)
At 2:15 of the second, Johnston hit the deck for the third time. It was another right hand, this one harder than all the others. It was ruled a push, though, since Harris offered an elbow after the blow, just to ensure Johnston took a seat. Amazingly, Johnston rose quickly, once again grinning. The defensive wizard seemed incredulous that this was really happening.
Denial favors Johnston. The third was a decent round for him. HBO’s unofficial ringside judge Harold Lederman still gave it to Harris, because his lethal rights were still finding their mark. Going into the fourth, Johnston’s corner wanted more lead lefts; Harris’ trainer implored him to work the jab.
The third official knockdown occurred at 2:35 of the fourth. No surprise, a picturesque lead right did the damage. A follow up jab made sure the deed was done. As awesome as Harris’ right hand was, Johsnston’s will to win was even greater. “He’s not a game loser,” Max Kellerman noted. Of course, but you can’t come to a gun fight with a knife and expect to win. He didn’t stay on the canvas for long, and told his corner he was fine. And, somehow, he was. He pressed and attacked and tried to make a fight of it. This, in spite of the fact a cut had opened up over his left eye and his power was no match for the man dwarfing him.
Or maybe he could pull the upset? The fifth was Johnston’s. A succession of overhand lefts had Harris dazed—he played it off well. Johnston still had his moments in the sixth. He could box with Harris and out-jabbed him all night, but couldn’t avoid the dreaded right. His eyes were swollen and his nose bled as they entered the seventh.
In what would be the final round, Harris got up on his toes and boxed, demonstrating a new look. Like Tommy Hearns before him, it was surprising to learn this sleek destroyer could win by less cruel means—but one’s temperament doesn’t change. A wicked lead right put Johnston down hard. This time the proud former champion did not spring back to his feet or wear a smile. He got up ponderously, and faced down what ought to be his last round in the ring. Harris closed in again, landing a series of answered blows, until the ref jumped in.
In the lower co-feature, the Ghanaian welterweight Joshua Clottey raised his record to 29-1 (18) by besting Colombian Richard Gutierrez, now 19-1 (12), in a rough, foul-riddled 12-rounder.
Judges scored it a majority decision: 110-116, 111-115, and 113-113.
Clottey was too much too soon for Gutierrez—but it was a stern challenge he won’t soon forget. From the outset Clottey applied a relentless body attack that weighed heavily on speedy left hooks. His handspeed was such that he could get his gloves behind the other’s elbows before there was time to react. The punches weren’t always turned over, though, and Gutierrez possesses massive physical strength. He also likes to work the body every bit as much as the African, who now trains in the Bronx, New York.
In the fourth, Gutierrez must have taken a body shot he respected. He answered with an intentional low blow, seemingly out of nowhere. The ref took a point without giving a warning. In the following round Clottey let one fly south that was equally blatant. The ref deducted him a point.
Clottey’s defense was sound in the first half of the fight. He protected his face behind a high guard like a fortress—similar to Ike Quartey but without the jackhammer jab. The holes in this style were eventually exploited when Gutierrez worked under and around his elbows.
As the fight wore on, Clottey began to hold and grapple more and more. The body work had clearly taken its toll. Guttierrez, however, grew stronger as the fight progressed—or at least never tapered off—especially during the championship rounds.
It was not a pleasing fight to watch. In spite of Gutierrez’s better work rate late in the bout, Clottey had piled up enough early rounds to edge him out. (A score of 116-110 is too wide a margin.)
Clottey did not earn many new fans with this fight, but he did put himself in a position to possibly affect the landscape. His promoter Bob Arum said the winner of the bout would get Antonio Margarito for a December 2 date on Showtime. And this bout was also designated as an IBF Title Eliminator. (Yet, another eliminator for the same vacant belt is rumored to happen between Mark Suarez and Kermit Cintron. Whatever.)
Clottey is as deserving of a shot as anyone, but for the fan’s sake and his, a more scintillating performance is expected. Gutierrez had fought no one of consequence before this bout and should be applauded for stepping up. He had a lot to do with Clottey not looking his best.