By Thomas Hauser
Once upon a time, the whole world watched when two men fought for the heavyweight championship. Not anymore. The last heavyweight title fight that most people were aware of, let alone cared about, was Lennox Lewis versus Mike Tyson in 2002. Now, two years after his retirement, Lewis casts a long shadow on the heavyweight division.
Lennox's presumptive heir was Vitali Klitschko, whose father was a career military officer in the Soviet Red Army. Any thought that his sons might follow in their father's footsteps was put to rest by Vitali's brother Wladimir, who observed, "Vitali and I would make very poor soldiers. We're too big. We'd get shot right away."
Vitali and Wladimir are thoughtful and smart. "Philosophy is very important in life," Vitali says. "If you don't have a philosophy, you will be a loser in life. If I could go back in time and talk to any one person, I think it would be Jesus. I would have many philosophical questions to ask. And I would like to speak to my grandfathers; especially my father's father. I was too young when he was alive to ask the historical questions I would ask now about the October Revolution, the Second World War, Lenin, Stalin, Khrushchev. To talk to someone who has experienced a time is better than to read about that time in a book."
"It's important in life to have a comfortable feeling inside," Vitali continues. "If my family is okay, then I have a nice feeling. Family is the most important thing for me. Good health and success are important too, but first is the family. Family is where you go to regenerate yourself."
In that vein, both Klitschkos have a rule of thumb when it comes to boxing. "Our parents are never in the arena when we fight," Vitali explained last year. "I tell you why. Years ago, I had a fight in England as a kick-boxer. My opponent was from the town where we fought. His wife and children and parents were in the first row. It was a tough fight. In the second round, I knocked my opponent out so hard that he was unconscious. And I had a mix of feeling. For myself, I was happy. But in the eyes of my opponent's wife and children and parents, I saw the pain. After that fight, we told our parents never to come to our fights again."
Vitali's social conscience was on display in December 2004 when he thought seriously of cancelling his impending WBC title defense against Danny Williams. In the days leading up to the bout, Wladimir was in Kiev leading rallies for Viktor Yushchenko in the hope of overturning the disputed election of Viktor Yanukovych as president of Ukraine. Vitali considered joining him.
"I was very close to canceling the fight," Vitali acknowledged afterward. "It is very difficult for me, very painful, because of what is happening in my country. I remember when the Soviet Union broke up. One day, our home was the Soviet Union; a huge country with many different nationalities and cultures mixed together. Then, the next day, our home was a small country, the Ukraine. At the time, it was a good feeling. But now, I am sad because of all the nationalistic ideologies. Now there is too much conflict and not enough understanding. Nationalistic ideologies are tearing people apart. And there should be no dictator, just democracy in Ukraine. Everybody was afraid to say anything before. Now our government tries to turn back to the same system like it was in the Soviet Union. For me, it is a little difficult to explain because my vocabulary in English is not too good. But I know how many problems Ukraine has and how painful it is to read about my country like it is a banana republic. We are popular sportsmen in Ukraine and our opinion is important to people. That is why we must speak out."
Both Klitschko brothers benefitted financially and in terms of stature as a consequence of being aggressively marketed in the United States by HBO. Initially, Wladimir was perceived as the more talented of the two. Then he was knocked out by Corrie Sanders and Lamon Brewster, and the spotlight turned to Vitali.
Vitali (it's appropriate to speak of his career now in the past tense) had good power in both fists. His hands were faster than appeared at first glance and he never tasted the canvas as a pro. Only one opponent (Timo Hoffman who lasted twelve rounds in 2000)) went the distance with him. His jab was hard to slip because it came from his waist and sometimes camouflaged a hook. He used his 6-foot-7-inch height and reach well.
To Klitschko's backers, even his defeats were evidence of his skills. In April 2000, he was comfortably ahead of Chris Byrd on the judges' scorecards after nine rounds when a debilitating shoulder injury led him to quit. And in June 2003, he was leading Lennox Lewis on all three cards after six rounds when the bout was halted due to severe cuts around his eyes.
However, Klitschko's critics noted that Vitali won the WBO title (his first alphabet-soup belt) against Herbie Hide and defended it against the equally-unimposing Ed Mahone and Obed Sullivan before losing to Byrd. Then he won the WBC crown against an overweight out-of-shape 38-year-old Corrie Sanders and defended it only once in nineteen months (against Danny Williams, a more talented English version of Kevin McBride). He failed to defend either belt against a mandatory challenger.
Moreover, Vitali carried his head high, held his hands low, and looped his punches. When opponents returned fire with bad intentions, he tended to back off rather than counter, which created more opportunities to hit him. And yes; Klitschko looked good against Lewis. But winning four of six rounds and getting cut up so badly that a fight has to be stopped is hardly the way to establish championship credentials.
Either way, everyone agrees that the "Klitschko Era" never happened. HBO lost $2,500,000 when it paid a $5,500,000 license fee for rights to televise Vitali's defense against Danny Williams on pay-per-view. "We thought Vitali had some heat as a champion," HBO Sports president Ross Greenburg admitted afterward. "But it's clear the American public hasn't embraced him as the heavyweight champion. Clearly, they look at him as one of four champions, not the champion. The numbers [only 120,000 pay-per-view buys] reflect that. We honestly thought it would do much better."
In sum, Klitschko's claim to the heavyweight throne was no more legitimate than that of the other heavyweight beltholders. Lennox Lewis said as much in mid-2005, when he declared, "Being champion comes from beating the previous champion. And if the previous champion has retired, you have to find another way to prove yourself. It can't be decreed by HBO or Don King. You have to do it in the ring."
HBO and King, of course, were the two most powerful players in boxing's heavyweight drama. Indeed, there were times when it seemed as though the fighters were mere pieces on a chess board with which the promoter and cable giant played.
King has invested heavily to get the titles. He used a duffel bag filled with cash to lure then-champion Hasim Rahman away from Cedric Kushner in 2001, only to see Rahman knocked senseless in his rematch against Lennox Lewis. Then he gave Lewis a Range Rover and more to relinquish the IBF belt and contracted to pay Chris Byrd large sums of money to fight for and defend the same crown. That led to litigation between King and Byrd when the promoter's payments fell short of their contractually-mandated mimimum. At the same time, King lay claim to the WBA and WBO titles through the good graces of John Ruiz and Lamon Brewster.
Still, Klitschko remained a thorn in King's side. He was the one piece of the heavyweight puzzle that the promoter was unable to sign. Hence, King embarked upon a two-pronged strategy. First, he derided the Ukrainian with comments like, "If Vitali Klitschko is the champion, then you ain't got none." And second, he resolved to throw mandatory challengers at Klitschko until one of them beat him.
The primary instrument in King's quest for control was Hasim Rahman. If Rahman beat Klitschko, King would be able to promote a heavyweight-championship tournament by himself. Klitschko-Rahman was tentatively scheduled for April 30, June 18, and July 23, 2005, and fell out each time due to injuries suffered by Klitschko. After the third postponement, the WBC ruled that the winner of an August 13th bout between Rahman and Monte Barrett (who was also promoted by King) would become the "interim" WBC heavyweight champion. That was significant because, as the mandatory challenger for Klitschko's crown, Rahman was entitled to 25 percent of any purse bid for the fight. But under WBC rules, an interim champion is entitled to 45 percent.
Once Rahman-Barrett was signed, Klitschko's physical condition improved dramatically and he voiced his intention to fight an "optional" defense against a lesser foe on September 24th. Oleg Maskaev was floated as a possible opponent but that was too grotesque even for boxing. Meanwhile, King was livid and launched an all-out public relations campaign against Team Klitschko. And by appearing to duck Rahman, Klitschko was squandering his currency as HBO's favorite heavyweight. Public opinion was tipping against him and he found himself (pun intended) between The Rock and a hard place.
"At the moment," Ron Borges wrote, "Vitali Klitschko holds the World Boxing Council heavyweight title and, for reasons understood only by the people who run Ring magazine, its 'undisputed' belt, even though there is nothing more in dispute than who is the true heavyweight champion of the world. What's not in dispute is Klitschko's unwillingness to fight to decide who that might be."
"All sportsmen have injuries during their career," Klitschko said in response to the criticism. "After every surgery, you have a question about recovery. There is no promise that you will be as good as before. Nobody can give you a guarantee that you will be one hundred percent healthy or when the recovery will be"
But Klitschko's desire for an interim fight once Rahman was safely beyond reach as an immediate opponent caused considerable damage to his reputation. In the past, Vitali had spoken about the internal demons that a fighter must face. "The victory over myself is my most important victory in boxing," he said. "I have been in fights where, in my mind, I was collapsing and losing power, and I found the will to continue and win. That has happened in amateur fights and in professional fights. Every time, I was happy, not because I beat the opponent but because I beat myself." And looking back on his loss to Chris Byrd, Vitali acknowledged, "The critics, the people who questioned my courage, hurt me more than the physical pain. There's a saying, 'A man who has always been satiated cannot understand hunger.' And in the same way, I believe that a person who has always been healthy cannot understand injury and pain. Most of the people who criticized me for what happened against Chris Byrd never boxed and never suffered the kind of injury I had. But I take what those people said about me and use it for motivation."
However, Klitschko was now in a situation where his courage was being questioned again. It raised a lot of eyebrows; particularly since Rahman had been convincingly knocked out by Lennox Lewis, Oleg Maskaev, and David Tua, and it was not a stretch to think that Klitschko could do the same thing. Moreover, at the same time Vitali was trying to forestall his mandatory WBC title defense, brother Wladimir was in federal court seeking designation as the IBF's mandatory challenger.
Finally, on July 15th, King, the Klitschko camp, and the WBC put their heads and collective morality together and appeared to reach an agreement. Hasim Rahman versus Monte Barrett would proceed as planned. Then, without an interim fight, Vitali would meet the winner for a 65-35 purse-bid split.
On August 13th, Rahman became the WBC's interim heavyweight belt holder by virtue of lackluster 12-round-decision victory over Barrett. Now King could proceed as planned.
Except on August 17th, Top Rank (Bob Arum's promotional company) topped King in a purse bid for Klitschko-Raman with an offer of $12,100,000. King, who had bid $11,000,000, saw a conspiracy between Arum and the Klitschko camp in the numbers; a view bolstered when Arum revealed that, as a "show of good faith," he had modified Vitali's deal to include an upside if the fight turned a profit. That led to the question of whether, if Klitschko had a pay-per-view upside, he also had a pay-per-view downside that could leave him with less than 65 percent of $12,100,000 should the fight do poorly. Or had the Klitschko camp given options to Arum as an incentive for him to outbid King?
Regardless, Arum was back in the heavyweight business, promoting his first heavyweight title fight since George Foreman versus Axel Schulz in 1994. Klitschko-Rahman was scheduled for November 12th. Arum claimed that it had "really captured the imagination of everybody who loves boxing" and began marketing it as "the best heavyweight in the world against the best American heavyweight." This was news to Chris Byrd (who had beaten Klitschko) and also to John Ruiz and Evander Holyfield (both of whom had beaten Rahman). It also raised the eyebrows of James Toney (who had beaten Holyfield and Ruiz). Meanwhile, Klitschko seemed to be developing a distinct dislike for Rahman, who he called "a world champion of talking." That led Rahman to counter, "If you don't like my mouth, beat me up in the ring."
An interesting fight was shaping up. Too bad it didn't happen.
On November 5th, Klitschko-Rahman was postponed due to a knee injury suffered by Klitschko. The following day, Vitali issued a statement that read, "I want to apologize to everyone involved in this fight. Hasim Rahman, the promoters, HBO, all the fans. All of this is very devastating to me. I am not sure anyone can imagine how very sad and depressing this year has been for me because of all of the injuries. Next year can only be better. For now, I am just hoping that I will know more by the end of this week when I will be able to return to the ring."
The public reaction was not kind. Rumors surfaced that Klitschko had been dropped twice in the gym by sparring partners. Rahman weighed in with the observation, ""I knew Colonel Sanders was going to quit before ten rounds. I just thought he'd make it to the ring before he decided to bow out. This man travels all over the world. Someone needs to point him in the direction of the yellow brick road so he can get a heart. I'm not saying he couldn't have done something to himself, but I definitely don't think it would have prevented him from fighting. I wouldn't have been able to get away with this. I get in there and fight injured all the time. Most fighters I know do the same."
That elicited a November 6th response from Klitschko, who declared, "There was no absolutely no way I would go into the ring in my current condition. Maybe others would have gone in just for the money. But I am too much of a sportsman for that. I could never betray my fans and the sport of boxing just for a payday, no matter how much it was. I have too much character to enter a fight knowing I am hurt, try and fight a round or two, then quit and go home. I would never take the money and run."
That was followed by several days of back and forth with this doctor said this and that doctor said that. Don King made demands on behalf of Rahman with the WBC, whose executive committee members started caucusing. On November 9th, it all became moot. Klitschko announced that, due to recurring injuries, he was retiring from boxing. Shortly thereafter, Rahman was annointed by the WBC as its heavyweight champion.
Klitschko's retirement was hardly a seismic event. George Kimball wrote that it called to mind Dorothy Parker's response upon being informed that Calvin Coolidge had died: "How could they tell?" Ms. Parker queried.
Teddy Atlas was more charitable, saying, "Klitschko was a good fighter who never took advantage of the opportunities he had to see if he could become a great one. But I can't fault him for pulling out against Rahman. A fighter shouldn't fight if he's suffering from a physical condition that will significantly impair his performance." Then Atlas added, "After Klitschko quit against Chris Byrd, he found out that it was harder to quit than fight. He suffered a lot with that embarrassment and, knowing he had a bad knee, he didn't want to put himself in the same position again."
As for Klitschko's future, although living in Los Angeles, Vitali has stated his intention to become more involved in Ukrainian politics. "Every citizen should help develop the future of his country," he said recently. And in a swipe at his fistic critics, Klitschko observed, "Chess is similar to boxing. You need to develop a strategy and think two or three steps ahead about what your opponent is doing. The difference is; in chess, nobody is an expert but everybody plays. In boxing, everybody is an expert but nobody fights."
So where do the heavyweights stand today? Let's start with the four sanctioning body "champions."
Hasim Rahman, who inherited the WBC belt by virtue of Klitschko's retirement, is one of only two men to have lost to Evander Holyfield since 1998. He has also lost to John Ruiz and Oleg Maskaev. The sole world-class fighter that Hasim has beaten is Lennox Lewis, who knocked him out in their rematch seven months later.
Chris Byrd (the IBF beltholder) can no longer slip and move the way he used to, and he knows it. There's a school of thought that Byrd has lost three of his last four title defenses and wears his belt today only because of the kindness of judges.
Lamon Brewster captured the WBO crown with a freakish fifth-round stoppage of Wladimir Klitschko. Prior to that, he lost to Clifford Etienne and Charles Shufford. As champion, Brewster struggled against Kali Meehan before beating Andrew Golota and Luan Krasniqi. He has yet to emerge as a championship-caliber fighter.
And then there's 7-foot-1-inch, 324 pound, 32-year-old Nikolay Valuev. On December 17th, Valuev won a suspicious majority decision over John Ruiz in Berlin to claim the WBA title. One judge scored the fight even, while other two favored Valuev 116-114 and 116-113. Valuev was the house fighter, but the verdict was greeted by derisive whistles from the crowd. Writing for The Times of London, Brian Doogan summarized the affair as follows: "Valuev showed the athletic grace of a herd of buffalo on the stampede. The 32-year-old Russian's challenge for the WBA belt owed everything to its freak value and nothing to the standards of what was once the richest prize in sport. It was a spectacle that belonged beside the bearded lady and fortune teller in a three-ring circus. The result was wrong, but the fact that it was even open to debate said everything about the state of heavyweight boxing and Valuev's place in it."
None of these four "champions" will ever be confused with Joe Louis or Muhammad Ali. Meanwhile, in an ironic twist of fate, coincidental with Vitali Klitschko's retirement, Don King may be losing his hold over the heavyweight division.
King has a reported fifty-percent promotional interest in Valuev's next four fights. But Chris Byrd is suing to become a free agent. Lamon Brewster recently brought King antagonist Al Haymon onboard as an advisor. And on December 9, 2005, Hasim Rahman's promotional contract with Don King Productions was voided by a bankruptcy court judge who then approved a three-year contract between Rahman and Top Rank. That leaves King hoping that Hasim will be defeated by James Toney (who is co-promoted by King and Dan Goossen).
After Vitali Klitschko announced his retirement, the WBC ratings were: #1 Sinan Samil Sam, #2 Oleg Maskaev, #3 Wladimir Klitschko, #4 Oliver McCall (who later lost to Juan Carlos Gomez), and #5 James Toney. So what did the WBC do? After Maskaev beat Sam on November 12th in "an eliminator for the number-one ranking," the organization decreed that the number-one ranking and "official mandatory challenger" status were two different things. Klitschko was passed over because the WBC considered him likely to fight for either the IBF or WBO title, and Rahman was ordered to fight Toney. The injustice to Maskaev was tempered by the fact that he and Sam should never have been ranked one-two to begin with.
After the WBC made its ruling, Arum, Goossen, King, and Toney agreed to a one-fight deal pursuant to which Top Rank will pay $2,800,000 for James's services. Rahman-Toney is now slated for March 18th. Given the fact that, a few days before Christmas, Toney weighed close to 280 pounds, it's unlikely that he will enter the ring in the best of shape to fight for what will be billed as the heavyweight championship of the world.
Here, it's worth noting that Toney rose to prominence as a middleweight. Since then, he has gained the equivalent of Rafael Marquez in poundage. Once Rahman-Toney was agreed to, Hasim called James a "fat midget" and Toney responded with the declaration, "Rahman ain't shit. He's done nothing to become champion. Everybody knows the belt was given to him. He has to prove himself, but I'm the wrong person for him to prove himself against. All he's going to get from me is a career-ending ass whupping."
The world loves a great heavyweight champion. But boxing fans have looked toward the horizon, and the next great heavyweight isn't in sight. The National Football League has parity. Today's heavyweights are parody.
"This heavyweight division is a mess," acknowledges Ross Greenburg. "I'd love to see the four heavyweight champions get in the ring on one night, eliminate two, and have the two winners meet in the ring five months later for all four belts. At least then, there would be one guy that the public could key on."
But Bob Arum takes a contrary view. "Unification today means absolutely nothing," says Arum. "All that will happen if someone unifies the titles is that the organizations will throw meaningless mandatories at him and strip him, and the titles will be fragmented all over again."
Therein lies the heart of the problem. Boxing has always been a corrupt sport. But for most of its history, it had recognizable champions. The people who ran the business end of things understood that they needed widely accepted title-holders to maintain public interest in the sport and make money from it.
Last year, Don King won the purse bid for Chris Byrd versus DaVarryl Williamson for a mere $500,001. Byrd-Williamson was a heavyweight "championship" fight but it wasn't even the main event on Showtime's October 1st telecast. That honor went to James Toney versus Dominick Guinn. What does that say about the current value of the belts?
Is there a heavyweight that the sport can rally around? In seeking to answer that question, I decided to repeat an exercise that I conducted two years ago when Lennox Lewis retired from boxing. More specifically, I asked some of the most knowledgeable people in boxing what the results would be if all of the leading heavyweights fought each other?
Ten heavyweights were entered in my fantasy tournament: the four alphabet-soup champions (Hasim Rahman, Chris Byrd, Lamon Brewster, and Nicolay Valuev) plus Wladimir Klitschko, Samuel Peter, James Toney, John Ruiz, David Tua, and Calvin Brock.
The experts I polled were trainers Teddy Atlas, Emanuel Steward, and Donald Turner; TV commentators Jim Lampley, Larry Merchant, Al Bernstein, Max Kellerman, and Steve Farhood; matchmakers Bruce Trampler, Eric Bottjer, Ron Katz, Mike Marchionte, and Johnny Bos; promoter Don Elbaum; writers Dan Rafael, George Kimball, Ron Borges, Tim Smith, Joe Santoliquito, and yours truly.
Did some of the panelists have biases? Absolutely. By way of example, Bruce Trampler and Eric Bottjer are the matchmakers for Top Rank and Don King Productions. Emanuel Steward works with Wladimir Klitschko. But these biases tended to even out and it was important for the electors to bring different perspectives to the voting.
Each voter was asked to predict the outcome of 45 separate fights. In compiling the results, a predicted win counted for one point. Since each fighter was matched against nine different opponents, the most points possible for a fighter was 180 [twenty voters times nine different opponents]. By way of reference, when I conducted a similar poll in February 2004, the clear winner was Vitali Klitschko.
This time, when the counting was done, the winner was James Toney. The composite rankings are as follows:
|(2) ||Wladimir Klitschko||130|
|(4)||Samuel Peter ||100|
Six of the twenty electors picked Toney to win all nine of his fights. Two favored Klitschko in each contest and one gave a similar nod to Brewster (who finished sixth in the voting). The respondents were evenly split as to who would win a match-up between Toney and Klitschko. Fifteen of the twenty predict that Toney will beat Hasim Rahman in their March 18th WBC title bout. A complete fighter-versus-fighter tabulation is available at this link.
I should emphasize that these are not my personal rankings. I had one vote. They represent the collective judgment of a group of people who follow the sport and whose knowledge I respect. We'll see how the predictions are born out in the months ahead. Meanwhile, the sad truth is that the best heavyweight in the world today might be a 37-year-old super-middleweight with an eating disorder.
Thomas Hauser can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.