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23 DECEMBER 2014

 




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Thomas Hauser








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Champions Forever - World Heavyweight Champs
Ali, Frazier, Foreman, Holmes, Norton. For more than twenty years, these kings of boxing ruled the rings as they passed the heavyweight title from one to the other. Now, for the first time, see them all come face to face - gloves off - in an unprecedented video event.




The Heavyweight Follies


Wladimir Klitschko: photo by Holger Keifel
Wladimir Klitschko: photo by Holger Keifel

By Thomas Hauser

“The greatest tragedy for heavyweight boxing,” James Lawton has written, “is not so much the decline so visible in the remnants of a once compelling trade, but the way what is left of the carcass is still fed upon so ravenously.”

Two recent fights (Wladimir Klitschko vs. Sultan Ibragimov and Oleg Maskaev against Samuel Peter) exemplify that phenomenon.

Klitschko-Ibragimov was trumpeted as “the first heavyweight title-unification fight” since Holyfield-Lewis in 1999. But let’s get real. Holyfield-Lewis was for all the marbles. Klitschko (IBF) vs. Ibagimov (WBO) matched two of four beltholders; that’s all. Klitschko, despite his accomplishments, is perceived by many as a flawed fighter. And the WBO belt has NEVER been carried into the ring by the true heavyweight champion of the world.

The first WBO heavyweight beltholder was Francesco Damiani, who won the bauble by knocking out Johnny DuPlooy in 1989. Other WBO titlists included Ray Mercer, Tommy Morrison, Michael Bentt, Herbie Hide, Henry Akinwande, Corrie Sanders, Lamon Brewster, Sergei Liakhovich, Shannon Briggs, and Ibragimov. Michael Moorer, Riddick Bowe, Vitali Klitschko, Wladimir Klitschko, and Chris Byrd also held the WBO crown. But in each instance, it was when someone else was acknowledged to be boxing’s true heavyweight champion. For example, Vitali won the WBO belt by beating Herbie Hide at a time when Lennox Lewis was the WBC-WBA-IBF king. And Vitali’s brief reign with the WBO hardly set the world aflame. His only successful “title” defenses were against Ed Mahone and Obed Sullivan.

Klitschko-Ibragimov didn’t set the boxing world on fire either. As their February 23rd match-up at Madison Square Garden approached, a series of press releases advised the public that fans were “snapping up tickets at a breakneck pace” and anticipation was reaching “a fever pitch.” Tom Loeffler of K2 (Klitschko’s promoter) proclaimed, “We are on track to sell out the Garden,” while Leon Margules of Seminole Warriors Boxing (Ibragimov’s promoter) declared, “I would advise any fight fans that want to see this historic fight live to get to the box office as soon as possible because we expect a sellout."

Meanwhile, more than one writer compared Ibragimov to Barney Rubble of The Flintstones. At the final pre-fight press conference, Tim Struby of ESPN: The Magazine mistook Sultan for a limo driver.

On fight night, the mezzanine at the Garden wasn’t open. So much for “sellout” and “fever pitch.” Klitschko entered the ring as a 4-to-1 favorite. At 6-feet-6 inches, 238 pounds, he’s an imposing presence and towered over Ibragimov (who was generously listed as five inches shorter and weighed 219 pounds).

The fight was pretty boring (although there’s no truth to the rumor that, during the middle rounds, fans circulated a petition asking that it be cut from twelve rounds to ten). Wladimir is a safety-first fighter, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But boxing (like all sports) is a form of entertainment, and Klitschko-Ibragimov wasn’t very entertaining.

According to CompuBox, through the first three rounds, Klitschko threw a grand total of three “power punches” and landed NONE. And keep in mind; according to CompuBox, a “power punch” is any punch other than a jab. Then Wladimir upped the ante, landing a total of three out of eleven power punches (one per stanza) in rounds four, five, and six.

The crowd had come to cheer Klitschko, but wound up booing and jeering instead. Ibragimov fought as well as he could (which wasn’t very). Each time Sultan tried to jab, Wladimir slapped the southpaw’s right hand down with his own left in a modified form of Patty-cake. Meanwhile, Ibragimov was rarely able to move past Klitschko’s jab. And on the few occasions when Sultan did get inside, Wladimir simply darted away.

The best action occurred in round ten, when Ibragimov body-slammed Klitschko to the canvas. But before he could go for the pin, referee Wayne Kelly intervened. Wladimir also landed some good right hands in the second half of the fight. But Ibragimov took them well and Klitschko opted not to go for the kill.

Before the final round, Emanuel Steward told Wladimir, “Unless you knock him out, it’s not good at all. You have to try to knock him out. Otherwise, it’s gonna be bad.”

It was bad. Klitschko won a unanimous decision, but the reviews were not kind. A sampling of headlines on both sides of the Atlantic told the tale:

New York Daily News: “It Was A Fight to Stay Awake”
New York Times: “Klitschko Wins Fight Marked by Inaction”
Boston Globe: “Effortless Win by Klitschko”
The Associated Press: “Clunker of a Heavyweight Title Fight”
The Guardian: “Cautious Klitschko Claims Title But Few Plaudits”
The Telegraph: “Wladimir Klitschko’s Forgettable Victory”

In other words; Klitschko-Ibragimov was supposed to be a coronation but wound up resembling an abdication. A charitable appraisal would be that Wladimir’s defense was impenetrable and he fought like Lennox Lewis might have during an intense sparring session. Don Turner (who once trained Evander Holyfield and Larry Holmes) offered a lesser view, opining, “Klitschko looked like a giant who was afraid of a midget.”

Then the scene shifted to Cancun, where, on March 8th, Oleg Maskaev defended his WBC heavyweight belt against WBC “interim champion” Samuel Peter. Don King promoted the fight (having won a purse bid as Peter’s co-promoter). WBC president Jose Sulaiman presided as circus ringmaster.

Ten days before the fight, Dennis Rappaport (Maskaev’s promoter) said he was “extremely concerned” that Oleg wouldn’t receive fair treatment from the referee and judges. "There’s no doubt,” Rappaport maintained, “that with the WBC picking the officials, the cards are stacked against us.”

That engendered a lengthy response from Sulaiman, who declared in part, “Mr. Dennis Rappaport is mercilessly attacking the WBC and myself after owing almost every penny that he has made in boxing to the WBC’s support. By Rappaport putting on my back so many accusations of libel and slander, he is betraying the support, trust, and friendship that I have given him through a quarter century. Oleg Maskev should know that the WBC would never betray its priority of justice. I promise and commit myself to Oleg Maskaev that the WBC will stand by unwavering rightfulness and that there is nothing to substitute our backbone principle that the winner in the ring will be the winner on the cards. The referee [Guadalupe Garcia] is one of the best ten of the world; one judge [Daniel van de Wiele] among the absolute best in Europe; the second judge [Ken Morita] the very best in Japan; and the third judge [Herman Cuevas] the absolute best in Mexico.”

Here, it should be noted that Ken Morita (“the very best” judge in Japan) had Mike Tyson ahead of Buster Douglas after nine rounds in Tokyo.

There was little of the sweet science in Maskaev-Peter. Samuel has a well-deserved reputation for being lazy in training camp and came into the ring looking like the winner of a pie-eating contest. At 251 pounds, he was eight pounds heavier than Oleg. But the relevant numbers were 39 (Maskaev’s age) and five (the number of times that “champion” Maskaev previously had been knocked out).

The fight boiled down to two big guys lumbering around the ring like World War II tanks slogging through the mud. Peter’s signature blow is a clubbing righthand behind the head. He also paws occasionally with his jab. It ended in the sixth round with Maskaev still on his feet but absorbing too many blows.

After the bout, there was a lot of blathering on the HBO telecast about Samuel being a heavy puncher and heavyweights needing to knock people out in order to satisfy the fans. True boxing historians will recall that no one asked for money back after Ali-Frazier I, Norton-Holmes, or Holyfield-Bowe I even though each of those fights went the distance.

Looking to the future, Wladimir Klitschko will be the focal point of the heavyweight division in the near term. He’s physically-gifted, uses his height well, and (despite his showing against Ibragimov) has the potential to turn out the lights with one punch. Emanuel Steward (Klitschko’s trainer) says, “I consider Wladimir one of the best heavyweights in history.” Of course, before Taylor-Pavlik I, Steward told the world, “In all the years I’ve been training fighters, I’ve never had a fighter in better shape mentally or physically than Jermain is now. Even if I was Marvin Hagler or Sugar Ray Robinson, I wouldn’t want to be fighting this Jermain Taylor.”

Unfortunately, Wladimir has taken the easy road as of late. His activity for 2007 consisted of fights against Ray Austin and Lamon Brewster. 2006 saw him against Chris Byrd and Calvin Brock. The Brewster fight was particularly unappealing. Lamon was on medical suspension in the United States at the time it occurred. And two of his sparring partners told Keith Idec of the New Jersey Herald News that, prior to fighting Klitschko, Brewster (who had previously suffered a detached retina on at least two occasions) had difficulty seeing out of his left eye.

It’s precisely because Wladimir is the best of the current heavyweights that he should be held to a higher standard than the one he has adhered to as of late.

HBO is hopeful that it can facilitate title unification in the heavyweight division in the not-too-distant future. But that’s a misplaced goal. In today’s world of multiple sanctioning bodies, title vacancies, mandatory defenses, and stripped titles, the belts don’t mean much. The focus now should be on the best fighting the best. The biggest problem with Klitschko-Ibragimov (and HBO’s support for it) is that it gave credibility to the sanctioning bodies and their belts. Just because someone has a belt doesn’t mean he’s a champion.

Ruslan Chagaev is now the WBA heavyweight beltholder. Most fans wouldn’t recognize Chagaev if he sat next to them in a restaurant. Few, if any, knowledgeable insiders think that Chagaev would beat Klitschko. So forget Klitschko-Chagaev.

As for a rematch between Klitschko and Samuel Peter, Samuel’s improvement has been minimal since he lost a unanimous decision to Wladimir in 2005. Indeed, he might have regressed because his chin seems to have been rewired for the worse since then. And let’s not forget; five months ago, Peter was life and death with Jameel McCline (who lost ten of twelve rounds to John Ruiz on the undercard of Maskaev-Peter).

Klitschko-Peter II is also problematic because of a silly WBC edict that Samuel make his first title defense against “champion emeritus” Vitali Klitschko (who hasn’t fought since 2004 and, in recent years, has shown an inability to get through training camp without injuring himself).

There are all sorts of other possibilities floating around. Wladimir against “mandatory” IBF challenger Alexander Povetkin; Wladimir vs. mandatory WBO challenger Tony Thompson. Wow! Those two match-ups excite people.

In truth, the most interesting heavyweight fight right now would be Klitschko against 7-foot-2-inch, 320-pound Nikolay Valuev.

Valuev is slow, and Wladimir’s mobility would give him trouble. Also, Nikolay has never been hit as hard as Wladimir would hit him. But Valuev is a composed fighter. He takes a good punch and has never been on the canvas. His skills are improving and his size would pose considerable problems for Klitschko (who is used to controlling fights with his own size and tends to wear down late).

Meanwhile, the heavyweight throne is still vacant and the theory of intelligent design remains inapplicable to boxing.

*****
MEMO TO HBO: Lennox Lewis, Rocky Marciano, and Gene Tunney are the only heavyweight champions to retire while champion and stay retired. They are NOT the only heavyweight champions who beat everyone they fought. Ingemar Johannson (who knocked out Floyd Patterson before losing to him) and Riddick Bowe (who defeated Evander Holyfield twice) also qualify. Moreover, Tunney was held to a draw by Tommy Gavigan and never defeated him.

One suspects that Larry Merchant (who was not part of HBO’s commentary team for Klitschko-Ibragimov or Maskaev-Peter) might have corrected the record had he been ringside in Cancun.


Thomas Hauser can be reached by email at thauser@rcn.com.


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