Boxing


The Dropping of the Baton: Looking Back At Klitschko vs. Lewis

09.08.05 - By Peter Cameron: For the six action-packed rounds it lasted, it was the best heavyweight fight in years. Lewis and Klitschko went toe-to-toe, exchanging fierce combinations and throwing caution to the wind, and whilst neither man displayed any great grace or skill, the fight was a real thriller.. At the end of the sixth, as the ring doctor Paul Wallace signaled to referee Lou Moret that Klitschko couldn't continue because of the horror movie-style gash across his face, I really believed that I had just witnessed a significant moment in modern heavyweight history. Although Klitschko had lost the fight represented the passing of the baton from the retiring legend to the rising champion-elect.

Two years later and it is now unclear whether that eventful night really did mark a new era or whether it was just another false dawn for the heavyweight division. Certainly Lewis played his role, relinquishing the baton, never to be seen again in the ring.

Despite rumors of comebacks and rematches, Lewis chose the right option and retired to take his seat in the pantheon of heavyweight greats. He went out at the top, a (usually) dignified champion probably worthy of a lower position in the all-time top ten. Klitschko, however, is yet to keep his side of the bargain. He is yet to pick up the baton.

At first consideration, Klitschko's performance against Lewis was sensational. Klitschko had never been in the ring with anyone even close to Lewis's ability. Whilst he held an impressive record, going into the fight with 32 wins, 31 by knockout, with only one loss, many of the names on his CV were journeymen or older fighters way past their prime. Indeed until brother Wladimir's shock defeat to Corrie Sanders earlier that year, Vitali had always been considered the weaker of the two boxers. It was Wladimir who had won Olympic gold in 1996, although Vitali's amateur record of 195 wins and 15 losses was still very impressive.

Klitschko's performance is even more remarkable when taking into account the fact that he only had two weeks' notice, after Lewis's original opponent Kirk Johnson had pulled out with a late training injury. Klitschko had been gearing up to fight Cedric Boswell on the Lewis undercard when his opportunity arose. Given the circumstances, Klitschko deserves huge credit for taking Lewis to the brink of defeat. Lewis looked in desperate trouble early on, clinging to Klitschko for survival. Klitschko gave the impression of an indestructible machine, every inch the real life version of the Russian Drago from the Rocky movies. He ferociously chased Lewis around the ring, throwing thunderous punches which shook the champion. Klitschko threw a total of 430 punches to Lewis's 221, landing 155 to Lewis's 102. The judges' scorecards at the end of the sixth all had Klitschko ahead 58-56. It took one of the most sickening facial cuts in heavyweight history to stop Klitschko's relentless charge. Yet two years later Klitschko has not become the dominant force his performance had suggested. Even his own fans have grown frustrated by his inactivity and unwillingness to tackle the top contenders. They cannot understand how the man who almost took out the mighty Lennox Lewis has not gone on to clean up and unify the division. His lack of progress has led many to re-examine their initial assessments of his performance against Lewis.

Whilst Klitschko only took the fight at two weeks notice, he had been training for a fight with Boswell on the same night and was in great condition. He had been determined to put on a good show for the American cameras in what was only his second appearance in the US, ironically hoping that an exciting victory may help to secure a dream match-up with Lewis. Klitschko had also had a decent run-out against Larry Donald the previous November, stopping Donald in the tenth round. Lewis, in contrast, had not fought since his demolition of Mike Tyson almost exactly twelve months ago, and his inactivity may well have contributed to his below-par performance. Lewis had been preparing to fight Kirk Johnson who, at 6'1" and is a whole half a foot shorter than Klitschko. Having deliberately employed sparring partners who matched Johnson's shorter, smaller frame, Lewis found himself having to punch up at an opponent for one of only a handful of times in his whole career. It has also been suggested that Lewis had not been training properly, considering Johnson to be a walkover. This view is reinforced by Lewis's appearance at the weigh-in, where he looked chubbier than usual around his stomach. Lewis registered a staggering 256 pounds, the heaviest of his career, indicating poor conditioning on the part of the champion, despite Emanuel Steward arguing otherwise.

Even with hindsight, it is still not yet clear whether that eventful Summer evening at the Staples Centre in Los Angeles did represent a new chapter in heavyweight history. Since that night, Klitschko has fought only three times, against Kirk Johnson, Corrie Sanders and Danny Williams. This is not the path of a great champion, and the fear now is that Klitschko's virtuoso performance against Lewis may have been a one-off, brought about largely because of Lewis's ring rustiness, age and lack of adequate preparation. Yet it is not too late for Klitschko to pick up the baton and fulfill his part of the deal. It is looking increasingly likely that Klitschko will take on rising prospect Calvin Brock before the year is out, and, if victorious, will then be forced to defend his belt against the winner of Rahman v Barrett. Two convincing wins against these credible opponents will catapult Klitschko back to the position he held just after the Lewis fight, when he was seen as the future of the heavyweights. Avenging his defeat to Chris Byrd and beating another top name, maybe James Toney, would cement his position as the number one in the division. In the aftermath of the Lewis defeat, Klitschko declared himself the people's champion. He has since lost that title, despite picking up the WBC belt. The jury is still out on Vitali Klitschko and his moment of reckoning is fast approaching.

Article posted on 08.08.2005



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