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.”