NEW YORK Vitali Klitschko still had his doubters, even after giving Lennox Lewis a scare for the heavyweight title. No more, after a devastating performance that may have given the division a new star in the making.
Klitschko knocked Kirk Johnson down twice Saturday night, battering him with big rights and lefts before stopping him at 2:54 of the second round in a fight he dominated from the opening bell.
The win meant far more than just his 32nd knockout to the giant from Ukraine who lives in Los Angeles. It also validated the claim he made against Lewis that he can be a heavyweight champion.
''I was prepared to be world champion on June 21 (against Lewis) and I was 100 percent ready for this fight,'' Klitschko said.
Klitshcko fought with the confidence of a fighter who had taken Lewis six tough rounds before being stopped on cuts, and the 6-foot-7 puncher showed he has the kind of dominating power that will add excitement to a heavyweight division currently in flux.
Johnson had only lost once and was a top contender, but Klitschko never let him get into the fight, much to the delight of the crowd at Madison Square Garden that waved Ukranian flags and chanted ''Vitali, Vitali, Vitali.''
Klitschko knocked Johnson down with a flurry of punches with 45 seconds left in the second round, then began hammering him with lefts and rights in the corner after he got back up. A right drove him against the ropes and two more rights put him on the canvas, where referee Arthur Mercante Jr. waved the fight to a close.
The dominance was so pronounced that Johnson, who had never been stopped, was credited with landing only nine punches to 55 for Klitschko.
Klitschko earned the right to be the WBC No. 1 contender with the win, and wants a rematch with Lewis. The heavyweight champion, however, has been reluctant to fight lately and may retire.
''Hello, Lennox. I know you saw this fight,'' Klitschko said. ''You're a great heavyweight champion but I can beat you.''
A lot of people thought Klitschko would have beaten Lewis if their June 21 fight in Los Angeles had gone longer. He had staggered the champion several times in a slugfest that ended when the doctor ruled Klitschko could not continue because of bad cuts.
In a battle of big men weighing a total of 510 pounds, Klitschko was both bigger and stronger than Johnson, who weighed 260 pounds and had a roll of fat around his middle.
Johnson, whose only previous defeat was in a WBA title fight to John Ruiz, was tentative and hardly landed a punch as Klitschko pursued him relentlessly around the ring.
''He was the better man tonight,'' Johnson said. ''I had a sluggish night against a guy you can't afford to have a sluggish night against.''
Johnson (34-2-1) was not the opponent Klitschko originally had penned in on his calendar. He expected to meet Lewis in a rematch of the June 21 fight Klitschko was leading when it was stopped after six rounds because of bloody cuts around his eyes.
Lewis, though, said he wasn't ready to fight again this year and needed time to think about whether he would ever fight again. That left Klitschko in need of an opponent and, to his credit, he took a potentially tough one in the once-beaten Johnson.
''To fight a nobody would be a step back,'' Klitschko said.
Klitschko (33-2, 32 knockouts) was backed in his corner by his brother, Wladimir, also a heavyweight contender. Wladimir ran out and helped raise his brother's hand when the fight was waved to a close.
If Lewis retires, Klitschko could fight Corrie Sanders, who beat Wladimir earlier this year for the vacant title. Either way, Klitschko's performance put him in the middle of the heavyweight title mix.
On the undercard, Joe Mesi's coming out party was almost ruined by one big left hand from Monte Barrett.
Barrett knocked Mesi down with a left hook early in the seventh round of their heavyweight fight, but Mesi held on to win a majority 10-round decision and remain unbeaten in 28 fights.
The longest and toughest fight of Mesi's six-year career ended in the hands of the judges after both fighters knocked each other down and both landed some big punches.
One judge had Mesi winning 95-93, a second had it 94-93 and a third 94-94. The Associated Press scored it 94-94.
Mesi may have won, but he looked like a loser, with his left eye swollen and his face marked from Barrett's punches. More importantly, the performance may have damaged his standing among boxing fans who came to watch a fighter touted as one of the heavyweight division's rising stars.
''I hate to say it but I needed to get knocked down. I needed to go the distance,'' Mesi said. ''I'll learn from this.''
Mesi had never gone 10 rounds before, and seemed on his way to winning early when he knocked Barrett down in the fifth round. But Barrett changed the complexion of the fight with a left hook 20 seconds into the seventh round that put Mesi down for the first time in his career.
''Monte is an evasive, slick fighter,'' Mesi said. ''He's more experienced than I am and he caused me a lot of trouble.''
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