- Brian Doogan
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NOTTINGHAM, England -- Timothy Bradley had amassed a perfect 21-0 record, but he had never been tested at the highest level.
"I'll be glad when it's over," he said to Showtime commentator Steve Farhood when they encountered one another in the lobby of their hotel at 3:30 a.m, the morning of the fight.
Some 20 hours later, the unbeaten 24-year-old from Palm Springs, Calif., was the new junior welterweight titleholder, having floored Junior Witter for the first time in the 34-year-old British boxer's career en route to a split-decision victory.
Two judges scored the bout in Bradley's favor by margins of 115-113 and 114-113, while the third, inexplicably, saw it for Witter by 115-112.
A knockdown near the end of the sixth round had proven pivotal. It was then that Bradley's overhand right, which clipped Witter on the jaw, sent him crashing to the canvas and it was clear, from Witter's perspective, that the title was in jeopardy.
Bradley had secured his position as mandatory challenger to Witter by winning 21 straight fights, 11 by stoppage. His list of prior opponents had been unimpressive but his speed, elusiveness, punch placement and deceptive power -- especially in his right hand -- made him ascendant.
And as the fight slipped inexorably away from Witter's grasp, so did a possible showdown against his British archrival, Ricky Hatton, which appears to be destined never to happen.
"No, I don't think he'll fight me now," Witter said later. "But there is still a lot more in the tank and I'll be back as world champion. This was just a bad day at the office."
There had been little hint of the danger to come in the opening round in which Witter managed to control the range and set up Bradley for a solid left cross to the jaw, which caused the challenger's knees to dip.
Ominously, however, Bradley began to find a place for his right hand counters in Round 2.
Physically, Bradley seemed to be not nearly as imposing as Witter, but he refused to be dominated and he hit back hard with his right hand after Witter had connected with his left.
A surprise development was Witter's inability to pin down the nimble Bradley or to mount any sustained assault.
"He was harder to hit cleanly than I thought he would be," Witter said. "My timing just wasn't there tonight."
Witter's frustration showed in the fourth, when he missed wildly with a right uppercut and left hook and Bradley made him pay with a left and right to the head. They exchanged left hooks and Bradley continued to achieve success in the fifth, landing another left hook to Witter's jaw.
The most significant round of the fight was the sixth, when Bradley put his punches together with a surgeon's precision. The right hand over the top floored Witter and stunned the British fighter and his supporters.
"He pulls back with his chin in the air, so I figured to fire the right hand, a punch that I've worked on in the gym after watching his tapes and tonight it worked like a charm," Bradley said. "I kept jabbing to the body to set him up for the right over the top and I knew I hurt him as soon as I landed it in the sixth round."
Bradley credited Witter for his heart and resilience.
"He's a champion and he got back on his feet and fought back hard," Bradley said. "But I was coming on strong and he wasn't able to hold me off."
Bradley landed another overhand right at the start of the seventh, but Witter rode the punch and he managed to survive. But the American had the momentum.
Remarkably, Witter could not raise his game and he got rocked again by a left hook in Round 10, and by another overhand right in the penultimate round.
"But a lot of the punches which he threw did not land," Witter said.
Enough did, however, and Bradley deserved the decision. An immediate rematch, to which the American revealed he would be agreeable, would appear to offer Witter his only route back to the top.
Brian Doogan covers boxing for The Sunday Times and Ring magazine.