- Dan Rafael, ESPN Senior Writer
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American heavyweight hopeful Kevin Johnson feels a bit patriotic as he prepares to challenge titleholder Vitali Klitschko.
"Bringing the heavyweight championship back to America is more important to me than anything," said Johnson, who faces Klitschko on Saturday (HBO, 10:15 p.m. ET/PT, same-day tape) in Bern, Switzerland.
HBO will first carry live coverage of two junior welterweight bouts, a rematch between Paulie Malignaggi and Juan Diaz, who claimed a controversial decision in their August fight, and 2008 ESPN.com Prospect of the Year Victor Ortiz against Antonio Diaz.
Johnson (22-0-1, 9 KOs), one of the few American heavyweight contenders, knows what a big deal the heavyweight title used to be in the U.S., and he wants it to be again.
"For the entire 20th century there wasn't a bigger prize in all of sports than being the heavyweight champion of the world. Since the Europeans took over the heavyweight division, boxing lost some of its appeal," Johnson said. "The average American walking down the street couldn't tell you who the champ is. When I think of great fighters, I think of Jack Johnson, Joe Louis, Muhammad Ali, Larry Holmes and Mike Tyson. When these guys were champs, they were icons in this great nation.
"The Klitschkos are a temporary mistake, and I'm going to fix that mistake for good. Winning the world championship and bringing the belt back to America, where it rightfully belongs, will be a huge step in that direction. Like those great heavyweights did in the past, I will restore the shine to heavyweight boxing."
Klitschko (38-2, 37 KOs) and his younger brother, Wladimir Klitschko, control three of the four sanctioning organization titles. England's David Haye holds the fourth.
No American has held a piece of the title since Shannon Briggs, who lost it to Russia's Sultan Ibragimov in June 2007.
Johnson, 30, of Atlanta, who relies on an outstanding jab, is relatively untested and knows he will be facing a seasoned pro.
"I give Vitali a lot of respect for giving me this opportunity," Johnson said. "He is a true champion that doesn't duck anybody. Of all the champions, he is the only one who has stepped up and given us young guys, such as Cris Arreola and myself, a chance to fight for his championship."
Johnson's most notable victory came in May, when he knocked out 2004 U.S. Olympian Devin Vargas in the sixth round on ESPN2. But, like Johnson, Vargas had never faced anyone close to the top 10.
Johnson had been scheduled to fight undefeated 2004 Cuban Olympic gold medalist Odlanier Solis in October. But promoter Joe DeGuardia got him out of the fight after Klitschko offered him the title shot. Johnson is convinced he will pull the upset.
"There are always going to be people that hate on me, but just as much as my supporters motivate me, the haters motivate me, too," Johnson said. "I love proving people wrong. I have done it for my entire career, and I don't plan on stopping anytime soon.
"These so-called critics can say what they want, but the bottom line is, my time is now. I am in the prime of my career; none of the other top contenders or prospects want to fight me, so what should I do, sit around and pad my record with meaningless wins like most of these other guys do? I have studied Vitali for a long time, and I've watched him destroy a lot of guys, but in each of those fights, I've seen him show a lot of flaws. The problem is that none of the guys he fought, other than [Lennox] Lewis, had the skills, stamina and technique to take advantage. Despite what everyone says, I know what I can do and how I'm going to do it. I know I'll be the underdog going into this fight and that's fine with me."
Klitschko, of Ukraine but living in Los Angeles, dominated Arreola in a 10th-round TKO in September and is returning just 77 days later to face Johnson, a very fast turnaround for a heavyweight titleholder.
Klitschko will be making the third defense of his title since ending a nearly four-year retirement to knock out Samuel Peter and regain his old belt in October 2008.
Injury problems caused Klitschko's retirement, but he is not concerned that he is pushing himself too hard by coming back so soon after the fight with Arreola.
"I am in an excellent shape and had a perfect preparation," Klitschko said. "I can hardly wait to step into the ring again. Kevin Johnson is very dangerous. He already had 23 fights as a pro and is undefeated. He is technically much better than my last opponent, Arreola. I know I can't underestimate Johnson but I have no doubt to keep the WBC belt."
Johnson, of course, does not agree.
"There will finally be an American heavyweight champion again," Johnson said. "I am sorry for ruining Klitschko's Christmas holidays."
Dan Rafael is the boxing writer for ESPN.com.
13hMarc Stein and Ramona Shelburne