Klitschko vs. Haye preview part one: The case for Wladimir

By Bill Patrice Jones: In just a few days time the world’s gaze will be sharply focused on the long awaited encounter between Wladimir Klitschko and David Haye. It’s a super fight of the highest order, it has commanded fascination and interest the likes of which the heavyweight division has not seen since Lennox Lewis and Mike Tyson finally settled their historical feud in 2002. David Haye boasted last week that it was he who ‘made this fight happen.’ Long ago now David Haye branded himself as ‘the saviour of the heavyweight division’, the man to restore pride, excitement and relevance to heavyweight title fights. The fatal irony in all of this, is that regardless of the outcome on Saturday night, the exact reverse of what David Haye wants his fans to believe is the truth.

It is the Klitschko brothers who have already saved heavyweight boxing. It is they who have restored pride and honor to contests for the heavyweight championship. For without them there would be no Haye - Klitschko super fight on the horizon, in fact without them the whole division would be left without a true torch bearer. Critics of the current heavyweight division have always stressed the importance of the torch bearer, he who defines the era and dignifies the belts. What David Haye, Adam Booth and vast portions of the Western media have elected not to notice is that we have had one for quite some time now. His name is Wladimir Klitschko, and while Haye can continue to pretend him being victorious will be for ‘the good of boxing, the good of the universe’, Klitschko’s dominance at a time of fragmentation was precisely what the division needed. Haye is fighting the saviour.

Boxing is not like other sports; its history comes under focus more repeatedly than any other. Fans are perpetually reminded of the greats of old, the legends of the noble art. We incessantly indulge in classic bouts of the past, periodicals on former champions, documentaries on fallen heroes. The age old debates of who would prevail in fantasy match-ups are a permanent result of true fan’s appetites to see great action. So rarely do the best ever fight the best, that fans are naturally prompted to encourage the somewhat mythical notion that today’s boxing can’t live up to that of the ‘good old days.’ With heavyweight boxing that debate is only exacerbated. Boxing fans have become accustomed to encountering the general sports fans malaise at the state of the division. Yet when analyzed with scrutiny this concept of the shocking decline in heavyweight boxing’s quality carries forth with it only a kernel of truth. After all consider this; could this really be the worst era of heavyweight boxing we have ever seen, when one of the biggest and most anticipated heavyweight fights of all time is about to take place?

Any general sports fan will be familiar with the relatively common literature which traces the lineage of the heavyweight title. True boxing fans will also be familiar with how much more murky that debate became with the proliferation of world title belts. Yet for the most part we have always been able to trace the true championship. The interesting phenomenon here though, is the refusal of so many people to trace the lineage following Lennox Lewis’ retirement in 2003. Most were, temporarily, happy to hail Vitali Klitschko, arguably the most physically imposing heavyweight champion of all time, as the next undisputed champion. Yet after his unfortunate retirement in 2004, too many in the West have failed to recognize the true champion who followed him. In 1986 there were four relatively nondescript heavyweight title holders ruling the division. None are hailed today as worthy torch bearers, or true lineal champions. However the man who emphatically unified those belts within a two year period needs no introduction anywhere around the world. Yet conversely, whilst avoiding any comparison between Mike Tyson and Wladimir Klitschko, the man who has done something reasonably similar between Vitali Klitschko’s retirement and now has not been unanimously hailed as a lineal champion or a ‘worthy torch bearer.’

Before huge portions of boxing fans reading this article rise up in indignation at the comparison between Klitschko and Tyson, let’s analyse recent boxing history more closely. For years during Lennox Lewis’ reign, and immediately following his relinquishing the title, American sportscasters routinely hailed Wladimir Klitschko as the ‘heir apparent’ to the division. All respected, and knowledgeable, commentators recognized in Wladimir the huge potential to become the next great heavyweight champion. As George Foreman once said ‘show me a big man with a left jab, and I’ll show you a man who’s hard to beat.’ While America, heavily motivated by national bias and resentment, refused to ever forgive Klitschko for his knockout losses to Brewster and Sanders, Wladimir himself slowly went about re-establishing himself as the world’s best. Since 2004 Klitschko’s achievements have been exceptional, and his dominance paralleled by only a handful of other heavyweights.

He overcame adversity against the heavily hyped, and very dangerous, Samuel Peter in 2005, proving his resolve. Then he dispatched the elusive southpaw Chris Byrd, in a rematch, to regain one of the heavyweight titles. Wladimir has since recorded nine straight title defences, all of them in dominating fashion. Were it not for his disappointing decision win over Sultan Ibragimov in 2008, he would have broken Tommy Burn’s long held record of eight consecutive title defences by knockout. Wladimir partially unified the crown in 2008 adding the WBO to his collection. Klitschko should have added the WBA when he destroyed Ruslan Chagaev in 2009. (Chagaev, having already beaten Nikolai Valuev, was champion in recess) Were it not for Vitali Klitschko’s impressive comeback in 2008, most can safely assume that Wladimir would probably have also been able to win the WBC belt from Samuel Peter. Is his style always crowd pleasing? The answer is no. Yet this can be said of many fine champions in the past. The point is this: Wladimir Klitschko’s incredible consistency and utter dominance over a period of five years, far from killing the division, has actually saved it. Without him, David Haye’s foray into heavyweight competition would hardly have had so much potential. For in Wladimir Klitschko, he has the chance to fight and beat a great heavyweight champion.

Imagining heavyweight boxing without the Klitschko brothers in this century, would be like imagining women’s tennis without the Williams sisters. We should appreciate their excellence, inside and outside the ring, and enjoy the uniqueness of the times. Never before, and probably never again, will the boxing world see anything similar. Mike Tyson was astute in a recent interview when he said America would love the Klitschkos if they were American. Can someone imagine America daring to deny the Williams' sisters their respect because they don’t play the most attractive form of tennis, or necessarily compete in the strongest era?

When Wladimir fights Haye this Saturday he will be in for one of the toughest challenges of his entire career. If he wants to secure a tenth successful title defence he will need to produce his best on the night. This fight ultimately comes down to how Wladimir performs. At his best he is undoubtedly superior to Haye. The problem is that he has often failed to perform to the very best of his abilities. If Klitschko comes out aggressively, throwing his jab sharply, and refusing to be backed up by Haye’s attacks then he should win and do so convincingly. The favoured result though is anything but a certainty. We must remember that Klitschko has been consistently berated by Emmanuel Steward for not doing enough. He tells us Klitschko is ‘more naturally talented’ than Lennox Lewis, but less responsive. Certainly he has not always shown us his best.

Much is on the line for Wladimir Klitschko this Saturday. While many boxing fans will feel, win or lose, that he has already created a good legacy. Many others will see this as his career defining fight. Those who believe this division is in a dire state will read in a knockout loss for the champion confirmation that Wladimir was never as good as his fans believed. For these reasons the stakes couldn’t be higher for a man whose relationship to history is strained and contentious.

Coming next: The Case for Haye, why the underdog can prevail.

Article posted on 30.06.2011

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