Sven Ottke and The Reign of Error (Not Terror)

05.12.05 - By Gabriel DeCrease: Before I began snapping at the putrescent corpse Sven Ottke’s career left on the terra of boxing history like a rabid coyote, I would like to try, in the name of courtesy, and perhaps charity, to try to make some positive comments about “Das Phantom.” However, it should be noted that this article comes in response to so many others I have since Ottke’s retirement that seek to deify Sven as some sort of misunderstood technician of the highest order, and in some cases, a legitimate world champion. He has even been called a defensive genius that ended up on the wrong side of public opinion because so many fight fans outside of Germany had improper expectations.

I have pained myself greatly by watching nearly all of Sven Ottke’s fights in the hope that my particular axe-to-grind would be buried when I finally saw the supreme-talent I had long been missing.

I never did, and the best praise I can muster is as follows:

Let’s see, Sven, the scourge of the super-middleweight world, is widely regarded as a pleasant and easygoing fellow. He is, apparently, a true gentleman and sportsman who, a dedicated family man, and an ambassador of international goodwill. I cannot begrudge him that, nor would I want to. However, much to the detriment of the sport, Ottke was as gentle, low-key, and placatory inside the ring as outside.

If I were forced, at gunpoint, to give him some credit as a fighter, I would probably choose the assassin’s bullet. However, if I were forced nonetheless, I suppose I could choke out a hesitant admission that his defense was tight and sometimes effective. However, the disclaimer that would accompany that praise would read as follows: Sven Ottke’s defense was rarely put to good use because he stalled, squirmed, and bolted away from action so effectively that defense was a sort of ethereal concept that existed in theory while Ottke won fights without actually fighting. So then, to a certain degree he was able to make his opponents miss. On occasion he even did it fairly well, but in doing so he was something like the John Ruiz of his particular time and place. He made fights that would put the recent heavyweight sham between Chris Byrd and DaVarryl Williamson on a fast track to being called a vicious war of attrition.

From his first professional fight Sven moved at like an ancient machine struggling against wear and rust to grind out its product. He fought like a battle-beaten former champion fighting begrudgingly for the paychecks several years past his prime and carrying a few extra weight-classes in his gut. He was not out-of-condition, and I don’t mean to imply that, he just carried himself as if that were the case. Ottke was not a high-output fighter, a slick boxer, or a precise puncher, and it is an understatement to say that he was no knockout artist. In fact, in thirty-four career fights he only managed to knock out six of his opponents. Throughout his career, Ottke had the unique ability to draw any fighter into a lethargic, tentative contest in which both men were content to stare at one another and circle the ring without feeling pressured to force action by punching one another (or even pretending to do so).

Somehow, after quickly proving himself as the most excruciatingly boring fighter in the known universe, all Sven Ottke had to do in order to earn a shot at a world title was soft-slap his way past hand-selected opponents who had little more than a pulse and a pair of gloves to take into the prize ring. In some cases, Ottke actually stumbled on his way to getting over on these tomato cans. A tremendously untalented Jason Hart was the only one of the dozen to be knocked out. In fact, Ottke even needed a few hometown nods to score decision wins against these early patsies. But he kept his fights in the German Fatherland then, as he did for the entirety of his career, and his career hobbled toward dubious championship status.

His big shot, a shot that I cannot imagine justifying either at the time or in retrospect, came against the tough and game Charles “The Hatchet” Brewer—In Ottke’s thirteenth professional fight. The IBF must have either been under the spell of some black magic, or really had it in for “The Hatchett” because when they sanctioned a fight against the untested, incapable Ottke in his native Germany they were handing Brewer a ticket to highway robbery. Brewer outboxed, outhustled, outlanded, and outclassed Ottke from bell to bell. There was little room for argument. Brewer had won the fight. The catch was that when the cards came back they scored for a split decision that went to Ottke. The judging was criminal, and made the cards from O’Neil Bell’s ungodly win over Dale Brown look fair and unbiased. Ottke was given the title belt, and so began his numb, passionless reign during which he strangled the life out of the IBF 168-pound belt and perhaps unwittingly derailed the careers of several top-fighters by garnering grossly-undeserved decision victories.

The list of robberies is long, and includes a shabby 1999 technical decision win over Thomas Tate in which Tate cut Ottke with what had always looked to me, upon multiple viewings, to be a punch, but when the stoppage was announced the cut was ruled otherwise, and the fight went to the judges. Not surprisingly, the hometown boy was leading on all three scorecards. The scores were dubious, but not egregious. However, the fight was a sham the moment it became a decision.

The next injustice was added to Ottke’s record in his very next outing when he failed to land any meaningful shots on a game Glen Johnson. Johnson, on the other hand, was more productive and assertive. He cleanly outboxed Ottke and somehow ended up losing 115-113 on all three scorecards. Even Johnson himself says of the fight, “I won that fight hands down and they gave it to him.” Johnson is not really the type to cry wolf, and has often given Bernard Hopkins high-praise for beating him so soundly when the two met in the ring.

Ottke started unusually slowly and ate some hard leather early against unheralded Danish challenger, Rudy Markussen. And as the fight drew on a more Ottke-like stalemate occurred in which both fighters landed only occasionally, and inconsequentially when they did. Somehow endgame arrived and the judges seemed to remember Ottke coming on in the later rounds, while they had wholly forgotten Markussen’s early work. Interestingly enough, when Ottke came on he was not fully in control of the fight, and many of the rounds that went to the German champion appeared to be undeniably even.

In 2003 Ottke was awarded a criminal split-decision over Byron Mitchell at which point he lifted Byron’s WBA strap. Mitchell was ahead 116-112 on one card, which seemed to be the fairest estimation of the fight that was turned in that night. Mitchell served up humble pie when asked about the robbery saying, “Obviously, I did not do enough to influence the judges that I won. I have no excuses.” I give Mitchell all the credit in the world for holding his head up high and refusing to down-talk Ottke, but that decision was high-treason, and Mitchell would likely have come out losing on the cards if he knocked Ottke down in every round.

Ottke went on to struggle inordinately with David Starie in a fight that could have conceivably been called a draw. Those shenanigans occurred while Ottke was on his way to a grossly undeserved and criminal majority decision over Mads “Golden Boy” Larsen shortly thereafter. Larsen beat Ottke to the punch and looked the stronger, more resolute, fighter throughout. It was not Larsen’s finest or most high-energy performance, but he certainly did more than enough to take a unanimous decision. Larsen, to his discredit, was confident that his stylistic overpowering of Ottke would be reflected on the scorecards in Ottke’s hometown.

“Das Phantom” was outboxed so effectively by Robin Reid for the first half of the fight that Reid, again to his discredit, had it in mind to take Sven the distance and assume that injustice would not prevail. After five rounds, Reid was told that he was well behind Ottke on all three judges’ scorecards. Reid, knowing he would have to knock Ottke out to win, went after the German, and after aggressively stalking and cornering him throughout the second half of the fight without being hit in return with anything significant, Reid retired to his corner and braced himself for the buggering he was about to endure. Ottke won a majority decision that can only be described as a heinous miscarriage of the integrity of the sport of boxing.

In his last fight, Ottke won by a suspiciously enormous margin over Armand Krajnc. The fight was fairly close, and Ottke probably did deserve the nod over a lethargic and ineffectual Krajnc. However, Sven had won fights doing far less than Armand had, and against opponents who landed much more than he did. Even Ottke’s sendoff was an injustice of sorts.

“Das Phantom” retired before making a fight with Joe Calzaghe, a fight that the European boxing public had clamored for over the years. Perhaps, Ottke would have found it too sadistic and ironic to find himself in a unification battle between two over-protected, untested, hometown fighters. Maybe the newfound daring that has led Joe Calzaghe to sign to fight Jeff “Left Hook” Lacy is grown out of a burning desire not to retire as Sven Ottke did in infamy and amidst an impenetrable haze of unanswered questions.

Article posted on 05.12.2005

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