Matthew Hurley – Ever since trainer Emanuel Steward got his hands on current IBF and IBO heavyweight belt holder Wladimir Klitschko he has been telling everyone within earshot that not only is the hulking Ukrainian one of the best most complete fighters he has ever trained but that he is a heavyweight worthy of sharing the ring with any of the great big men of the past. Steward is generally an analytical conversationalist when it comes to boxers but where Wladimir is concerned uncharacteristic hyperbole comes to the forefront..
“I am very fortunate to work with Wladimir,” he said at the final press conference for Klitschko’s Saturday night heavyweight unification match with WBO champion Sultan Ibragimov in New York. “He is one of the best heavyweights of any era and would have held up well against any heavyweight.”
Steward was making these kinds of comments even after Klitschko lost by fifth round knockout to Lamon Brewster back in 2004. Such is the respect that the trainer has for his charge that it has slowly seeped into the sometimes shaky mindset of his fighter and instilled in him a confidence that had been all but shattered after a devastating knockout loss to unheralded Corrie Sanders back in 2003. When Klitschko crashed to the canvas in the second round after Sanders assaulted him with quick left hand power shots all the momentum the talented and personable fighter had built up drove him right off the tracks and reduced him to a punch line in the boxing community.
He was derided for having a glass jaw after the Sanders bout, no stamina after the Brewster debacle and a skittish resolve when things didn’t go exactly his way during the heat of battle in subsequent fights. That inability to properly relax in the ring was tested again against power punching Samuel Peter. The anxiety that seems to plague him at times was on display against the Nigerian and left him floundering on the canvas three times. But something happened this time around. The heavily muscled fighter picked himself up from off the canvas and kept fighting. He reestablished his jab, one of the most vaunted weapons in the sport, and dominated every other round in which he wasn’t on his knees. He nearly ended matters in the twelfth round with a wicked left hook. Although critics still point at his flaws and his fans continue to hold their breath when punches are thrown his way, Klitschko has indeed evolved into a more complete fighter and because of his technical skills he has emerged as the most dangerously flawed fighter in the division.
Those flaws lend a sense of drama to every fight he is involved in because while he should emerge victorious against the best the division has to offer he could fall victim to the remaining chinks in his armor should one of those fighters break through. Regardless Emanuel Steward firmly believes that the gray skies are behind them now and if there is anyone who can clean up the mess that the heavyweight division has become in the wake of the retirement of Lennox Lewis it is Wladimir Klitschko.
Still, Steward concedes that Ibragimov does represent a worthy challenge. “Wladimir and I are in agreement that Sultan is probably the best fighter he has fought in his career. He’s not a big guy but he’s very talented and (has been) very successful. He’s used to fighting big guys. But as Chris Byrd said, Wladimir didn’t beat him because of his size but because he was good.”
Ibragimov does not have the physical stature that Klitschko brings to the ring, in fact he looks more like a construction worker than a prize fighter, but he does bring speed and good footwork to the table. It’s his speed that is of a concern to Steward and what Sultan’s trainer Jeff Mayweather believes could be the difference in the fight. The soft-spoken trainer, certainly the most reserved and composed of the volatile Mayweather clan, feels that Ibragimov’s easy going temperament compliments his directives perfectly.
“We are a lot alike,” he says. “I’m not in your face and Sultan is the same way. He listens when I do speak because I say something if he’s doing something wrong.”
Mayweather does admit, with a sense of satisfaction that his association with Ibragimov has helped establish a reputation apart from the more celebrated members of his family.
“This is the opportunity I’ve waited for my whole life. It has brought me out of the shadow of being the other Mayweather. I have the heavyweight champion.”
For his part, Steward admits that Ibragimov’s combination punching and ability to deliver and then get out of the pocket impresses him. And despite of his contention that Wladimir’s size is negligible in comparison to his talent the hall of fame trainer knows that when Klitschko uses his size advantage over significantly smaller opponents he becomes almost unreachable. If Klitschko gets into a groove and establishes his jab early he resembles the “great” heavyweight Emanuel professes him to be.
Klitschko himself has become more comfortable outside the ring as well as inside. The articulate fighter believes that the rough patches he went through on his way back to hoped for heavyweight supremacy were necessary learning experiences. He is genial with the media, cordial with fans and expresses a keen desire to give those fans what they want – an undisputed heavyweight champion.
“I can’t thank everyone,” he said at the New York press conference, “because I don’t want to leave anyone out. But this is a very special event. It is a very special night and a very special opponent. I won’t underestimate Sultan and I won’t overestimate him. To be the heavyweight champion means a lot… I am determined to win this fight. I am not looking beyond that. That is my determination and goal – to clean up the heavyweight division with each fighter I face. I have to prove that I am the heavyweight champion and I have to do so impressively.”
Although his critics still and probably always will remain, Wladimir Klitschko’s intense need to prove himself and become what the fans desire is befitting of a heavyweight champion. Sultan Ibragimov feels much the same way and after Saturday night one of them will be a few steps closer to putting boxing’s glamour division back atop its proper perch.