Kings of Heart Shine Through the Heavyweight Malaise

10.12.04 - By Andrew Mullinder: It is perhaps only the most cynical observers who failed to be moved and inspired by the recent celebrations to mark the 30th anniversary of the Rumble in the Jungle. Revisiting the remarkable events that surrounded what is probably the most widely recognised boxing match in history, and in particular the spontaneous genius and unflappable nerve of Muhammed Ali, should have provided a timely reminder of the breathtaking heights boxing can reach..

However, memories of that thrilling event, and the unparalleled excellence of the heavyweight division from which it grew, brings into sharp focus the paucity of talent and excitement to be found among the current heavyweight ranks. Boxing's flagship division appears to be shrouded in a malaise of mediocrity, it's leading players, barely household names in their own homes, are characterised by unappealing styles, wildly fluctuating form, and painful descents toward overdue retirement.

Under these circumstances, it is perhaps a surprise that the meeting of Vitali Klitschko and Danny Williams, who each might have struggled to be recognised by all but the most erudite boxing aficionados as little as 18 months ago, and whose unassuming and genuinely friendly personalities appear at direct odds with the hype-fuelled bravado that usually fills boxing's arenas, should inspire the sort of excitement and bar room debate that was once characteristic of most Heavyweight Championship fights, but is now usually reserved exclusively for meetings between two box office superstars.

Perhaps it is because HBO have for once managed to contrive a match between a heavyweight who has a credible justification for calling himself World Heavyweight Champion, and a challenger who has genuine credentials behind his challenge for that title. A strong performance in defeat against the then linear (and true) Champion, Lennox Lewis, followed by two crowd pleasing, short route victories against top ten challenger Kirk Johnson and dangerous contender Corrie Sanders, has placed Klitschko as the fans', and the all important The Ring Magazine's, Heavyweight Champion.

Danny Williams, on the other hand, has shot to stardom at a rate that is likely to have made his nose bleed. He progressed, in less than 15 minutes, from obscurity to being the logical and popular choice to challenge for the Heavyweight Championship of the World by virtue of one single act: his exhilaratingly savage four round victory over ˇIron˘ Mike Tyson. Like Klitschko, he adopted a crowd pleasing style that more than made up for its lack of athletic grace or technical excellence with bravery, aggression, and bludgeoning power.

The styles and strong credentials of two fighters are, of course, key to the interest any fight generates. However, what seems to separate the Klitschko and Williams' meeting is the enigmatic, intangible and conflicting reference points upon which everybody must base their assessment of the fight.

Klitschko's only losses have come against Chris Byrd, when he was winning by about as far as it is possible to be winning in the tenth round of a boxing match only to tear his rotator cuff, and Lennox Lewis, when he was up on all three judges scorecards only for the ringside doctor to pull him out of the fight because of the gruesome cuts he had sustained. This lends credence to Klitschko's claim that he has never been beaten fair and square in the ring. And his performances since his moral victory over Lewis have certainly been, on paper, impressive.

Despite this, doubts remain. Most sensible observers feel that Lewis was on the downward side of his peak when he fought Klitschko in Los Angeles, and he was clearly overweight and out of shape. And while Johnson, and especially Sanders, might have been considered dangerous, both men entered the ring looking in the sort of condition better suited to demolishing an all-you-can-eat-buffet than a world class boxer. Furthermore, despite their conditions, the classier Lewis and the fast handed southpaw Sanders, managed to land numerous bombs to the head of Klitschko and trouble him on several occasions during their encounters. In fact, Klitschko˘s match with Sanders was, in my opinion, while entertaining, the poorest quality fight in recent memory for the genuine World Heavyweight Title.

Yet Klitschko almost invariably gets the job done. His awkward style and ungainly physique may be reminiscent of Jess Willard (who, coincidentally, also succeeded an unpopular black Champion, Jack Johnson), but apart from injuries in fights he was winning, he has beaten every opponent he has faced, he marshals his outstanding physical attributes deceptively well, and he has naturally concussive power.

Assessments of Williams' chances, even by respected and experienced fight handicappers, appear to hinge on his performance against Tyson. It is as if his demolition of the onetime "baddest man on the planet" is such an impressive feat that it wipes clean all past form, and all of his deficiencies. While everybody who follows boxing closely concedes that Tyson is a dramatically faded version of his former self, it seems that they are fooled by awe-inspiring memories of a young Iron Mike, who combined fast hands, terrifying power, and technical brilliance with a feral ferocity that made him a completely irresistible force between 1986 and 1989.

It is perhaps understandable, considering how intense those memories are, that they cloud judgement. But realistically, bar his concussive power and ability to intimidate, Tyson has little left to constitute mention in the World˘s top heavyweights. Perhaps Williams' victory in Louisville was a bit like Ray Leonard's over Marvin Hagler. People expected Leonard to be soundly beaten by Hagler, and it meant that every success Ray had was surprising, and thus somehow magnified, making it greater than it objectively was.

But despite the importance of guarding against overestimating the feat Williams achieved in defeating Tyson, there are some important positives that Williams can take from that upset win into his bout with Klitschko. Most startlingly, in the biggest fight of his life, against the master intimidator, Williams kept his cool. He had been known to break down and cry before matches in the past, but Williams was calm and confident before and during his match with Tyson. If he is to beat Klitschko, he must be again.

His level of fitness and ability to throw large numbers of consecutive power punches was also vital to victory against Tyson. And although, against Tyson, Williams needed only to wait for his exhausted and demoralised opponent to trundle into his arc of fire, this ability will be key against Klitschko. The big Ukrainian likes to keep his opponents at bay with long jabs, before tattooing them with his concussive right cross. The shorter Williams will have to work his way inside, using a fast jab, and excellent head and lateral movement. When he gets there it seems likely that Klitschko will want to tie him up, and so Williams will have to be prepared to work furiously when he is offered the opportunity, and if possible, draw Klitschko into a brawl, where the Ukrainian's long arms will be less effective.

In the early rounds against Tyson, Williams also showed the grit, determination and ability to absorb severe punishment that he will need to sustain for long periods against Klitschko. In the opening minutes, Tyson's ferocious pursuit and withering combinations harked back to his frightening 1987 persona. But Williams showed immense courage to stay standing, fire back, and impose himself by the end of the second round.

Finally, Williams must use the boxing ability that his mental troubles have shackled for so long. He is a fine athlete who, at his best, punches in smooth, powerful combinations. If he does not reach the potential of his talent on Saturday, or Klitschko manages to keep the fight at range and Williams off balance with his jab, preventing him from getting his sweeping combinations off, Williams will gradually lose conviction and almost certainly lose the fight.

But does Danny Williams, even at his best, have what it takes to beat the 6'7" 245lb Vitali Klitschko? It has seemed clear for many years to almost all followers of boxing in Britain that Danny has too much talent and ability for "British standard" Heavyweights. However, imposing that talent and ability at World, and even European level, had, before Tyson, appeared a step too far. If he manages to beat Vitali Klitschko it might even be a bigger upset than his victory over Tyson. While this wouldn't necessarily indicate a return to the golden days of 1974 when Ali, Foreman and Frazier were kings, because, as Hugh McIlvanney recently pointed out, "the Heavyweight Division scarcely boasts a middle class, let alone an aristocracy," Williams' ascent from anonymous underachiever to World Champion this year will be a long overdue reminder of how Heavyweight boxing can thrill, inspire and excite like no other sporting event.

Article posted on 10.12.2004

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