Super Muddle

10.01.04 - By Paul-John Ramos: It’s hard to call a weight class dynamic when words like „robbery“ and „chicken“ are more often used than „rivalry“ and „champion.“ Such is the current state of affairs at 168 pounds, where there are simply too many chiefs and not enough Indians: Robin Reid is claiming foul in his latest bout; Sven Ottke, the bout’s winner, is still flashing title belts; Joe Calzaghe is calling Ottke out while posing with a chicken; and in the meantime, contenders like Danny Green, Markus Beyer, Anthony Mundine, and Syd Vanderpool are groping for the top. Who exactly is the boss here?

The championship void at super middleweight is one that has annoyingly lingered. In a swirl of bad negotiations, finger-pointing, and hiding behind alphabet titles, 36-year-old Ottke and 30-year-old Calzaghe have avoided the showdown that would bring order and relevance to their division. The #1 and #2 Ring super middleweight rankings are now a perpetual seesaw between Ottke and Calzaghe as they continue to win fights in separate arenas. It is a stalemate with an easy cure: pit Ottke and Calzaghe to determine the true champ at 168. But this is easier said than done.

Ottke, a Berlin native who totes the IBF world and WBA „super world“ titles, has lately won a questionable unanimous decision over English contender Robin Reid. The bout, held on December 13th in Nuremberg, featured an apparent knockdown of Ottke that was ruled a slip and a point deduction from Reid while Ottke was only warned for similar fouls. Reid’s staff filed a protest with the IBF against referee Roger Tillerman and three judges a few days later. A legitimate win or not, Ottke may have been showing the first signs of wear and tear from seven years as a pro. One would expect Ottke, 33-0 (6), to jump at a unification chance and nail down his throne as the legitimate world super middleweight champion with time running out, but his camp has been stubborn. Frank Warren, the promoter of Calzaghe and junior welterweight contender Ricky Hatton, publicly offered one million dollars to Ottke and promoter Wilfried Sauerland in August; but Sauerland eventually told reporters that Calzaghe-Ottke was dead after a fallout in negotiations. „I have offered Sauerland a fight with Calzaghe on numerous occasions,“ Warren said, „and not once has he returned with a financial offer, which tells me that they are the ones who are not interested in the fight.“

Ottke, the more established super middleweight, has drawn criticism for fighting lower-ranked opposition instead of making the popular-demand bout with Calzaghe. There are many who feel Ottke is avoiding Calzaghe over fear of the Welshman’s knockout power and would rather play it safe against title mandatories. There are also growing complaints, especially after the Reid bout, of Ottke’s „home field advantage“ by fighting only in his native land and getting supposed help from ring officials. But the bout’s venue and officials can only do so much to help an undefeated fighter. Ottke has outboxed numerous top-ranked super middles, including Anthony Mundine, Byron Mitchell, and Charles Brewer, to crack Nigel Benn’s divisional record of nine straight title defenses. The lone question is whether or not Ottke will surrender to demand and face his rival.

Calzaghe, the WBO beltholder at 36-0 (29), has lost all patience with Ottke and is relying on chickens to get his point across. In mid-December, Calzaghe was pictured on Frank Warren’s website standing before a live chicken with his ready fist. „Calzaghe couldn’t get Ottke for Christmas, so he’s got the next best thing!“ read the caption, „Come on Ottke, you are claiming to be the best in the division, stop running like a chicken and face a real challenge for once. You luckily beat Robin Reid, who I defeated nearly five years ago, and Byron Mitchell, who I stopped inside two rounds, which took you twelve rounds. What are you scared of? Put your belts on the line against mine and lets see who’s the best and I will gladly go to Germany and beat you." Fighting in Germany seems a prerequisite to even begin talks with Sauerland, but if Calzaghe and Warren are so willing to comply, then what exactly is holding up the show? It seems, in truth, that neither side is willing to fully compromise and make this badly-needed fight happen.

The ideal compromise would be a winner-take-all purse at a neutral venue, perhaps in the United States or Japan, but both fighters have been monetarily safe and getting friendly crowds throughout their professional days. Calzaghe is no less guilty of protection, having fought outside the British Isles once (a knockout of Will McIntyre in Denmark). If he should live up to the promise of entering a German ring, Ottke would be more than tough; but one would still expect more betting dollars on Calzaghe by virtue of his pure strength. Even before the Reid bout, Ottke wasn’t making too many friends abroad with his elusive style of boxing. Like Canadian titleholder Eric Lucas, he gets barely enough done to woo judges. „The Phantom“ boasts only six knockouts in 33 pro fights, reason to believe Ottke would be overwhelmed by the younger, explosive Calzaghe. Calzaghe often points to his knockouts of Tocker Pudwill and Mitchell, two fighters who went the distance with Ottke. Calzaghe’s offense has indeed brought him more widespread support, with fans nowadays preferring a flashy game of Battleship to a studious chess match.

If Calzaghe does not get the fight he is asking for, he’ll be left with few options at 168 and below. Bernard Hopkins was recently approached as a catch-weight opponent, but B-Hops has already vowed to fight at middleweight and Calzaghe seemed to lose interest after the December thrashing of William Joppy. That would leave various second-tier matchups within the division, including Reid, Green, Beyer, Mundine, and Vanderpool. At 30, Calzaghe can’t wait much longer for his chance and may very well climb to 175, where Roy Jones Jr., Antonio Tarver, Julio Gonzalez, and Dariusz Michalczewski could all bring large paydays. As for Ottke, he is 36 and nearing the end of a career that has brought him German celebrity status. What „The Phantom“ really needs is to seal up his international legacy.

There are standouts who have gelled wide-open divisions. The heavyweights have gone amuck with contenders in recent years, but Lennox Lewis has stood out as a true champion. The cruiserweights were looking short on talent, but James Toney emerged with an impressive win over Vasilly Jirov. It is now time for Ottke and Calzaghe to meet for the sake of their reputations and fellow 168-pounders. If the super middleweight confusion is not dealt with soon, the problem can drag on for years more and even compound itself. There is certainly no „heir apparent“ to Ottke or Calzaghe, with most of the division’s top ten in later stages of their careers or having suffered major defeats.

The super middleweight division hasn’t exactly stockpiled champs since its birth in the mid-1970s: Sugar Ray Leonard and Tommie Hearns made brief stops while Roy Jones Jr. and James Toney passed through to championships at higher weights. With the division aching for credibility, an Ottke-Calzaghe match would happen at no better time. The waiting game, the question of „what if,“ has made this fight a compelling one. But 168 could still remain a disorderly land, a shining example for purists wanting a return to the „old school eight“ weight classes. That disorder looms large, with two potential champions staying unbeaten, yet always coming up short.

Article posted on 10.01.2004

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