The best thing for heavyweight boxing is, quite certainly, the worst thing imaginable to Wladimir Klitschko.
Former HBO Sports president Seth Abraham used to say “there is boxing and then there is heavyweight boxing. They are in the same industry but they are not the same business.’’
What he meant was that heavyweight boxing is the train that drives the sport. When the heavyweights thrive, so does all of boxing. When they do not (which they haven’t since the retirement of the last undisputed heavyweight champion, Lennox Lewis eight years ago) interest in the sport wanes and everyone suffers.
That is true unless you’re based in Germany, as Klitschko is, and hence can make millions without facing much of a challenge or venturing far from home. But while there may be excitement about the Klitschko brothers in Europe, they have been all but driven off American television (including pay-per-view) because they don’t deliver the only thing that counts here – cash paying eyeballs.
But Saturday night Klitschko will risk his RING, IBF and WBO titles in a unification match against what outwardly at least appears to be a dangerous opponent, WBA titleholder and former cruiserweight champion David Haye. For an assortment of reasons, this has become a verbal blood match. Whether that carries on into the ring will decide whether interest in heavyweight boxing returns to America.
That there is no legitimate American challenger to the Klitschkos or Haye is a large part of the problem in the U.S. because we are a provincial lot used to ruling boxing’s most important division since the days of Jack Johnson. Frankly, those days are behind us in part because of the rise of hungry Eastern European fighters with Herculian proportions but also because today’s American heavyweights play power forward in the NBA or tight end and linebacker in the NFL.
Those factors in and of themselves do not preclude the division from being popular in the U.S., however. What precludes it is the kind of boring stylistic approach of the Klitschkos, who stay behind their jab like a picador at a bull fight, seldom risking themselves in the hurt business until they have so lanced their opponent he is out of gas and unable to resist them any longer.
That this is a style that works for them is beyond argument. Wladimir and older brother Vitali hold three quarters of the established titles and last lost a fight in 2004. The younger Klitschko will be making his 10th title defense since winning back the IBF portion from Chris Byrd five years ago. They have made a lot of money because of their approach but Klitschko will also be fighting in Germany for the eighth time in his last nine fights and that is no accident of address either.
It’s because unlike most fighters, including Filipino sensation Manny Pacquiao, the Klitschkos make less money in the U.S. than in Germany. The reason is the same reason that most people without a direct hand in the Klitschko till are hoping for a spectacular Haye victory.
If Klitschko jabs his way to another boring points victory, it will only further bury heavyweight boxing in the States. So boxing’s best option would be for the loud-mouthed Haye (25-1, 23 KO) to back up his ever more lurid threats with an explosive performance in which he hurts Klitshcko (55-3, 49 KO) early and uses that to control his spacing and get inside a jab thrown ever more reluctantly.
Without that jab, Klitschko has proven to be a lesser force, one who has been knocked out three times in his career (Ross Purrity, Lamon Brewster and Corrie Sanders). Once hurt, he becomes extremely defensive, pawing in retreat rather than jabbing and exposing a chin that may be less than granite-like.
In his defense, he was down three times against Samuel Peter, a flawed but powerful Nigerian, and rose to not lose another minute of the fight except for the moments when he was sprawled on the canvas. That is to say he will get up if Haye drills him but will he be the same fighter against an opponent who is faster and more athletic?
“This is going to be the most brutal execution of a boxer that you’ve seen for many, many years,” Haye predicted this week in Hamburg, where the fight will be contested in front of an estimated crowd of 55,000 in an outdoor soccer stadium. “I’m going to go out there and absolutely destroy him, really quickly. I’m ready to do what I promised to do. I’m in a really good place.”
Such talk is tame by Haye’s often over-the-top approach to marketing. His worst moment came several years ago when he showed up at a press conference to hype a later-cancelled Klitschko match wearing a T-shirt with both fighters’ heads severed from their necks as an image of Haye held them aloft.
Vitali grew so angry he grabbed Haye by the throat and had to be restrained. Wladimir, as is his way, was more restrained but continues to seeth over an insult he says “went over the line.’’
The last time there was a line in boxing was before Jack Johnson held the title but Klitschko clearly remains disgusted with Haye’s approach outside the ring and for the first time in his career is promising to do more than jab his opponent in the nose as payback.
“You will be a better person and have better manners,” Klitschko told Haye at a press conference Monday, for which Haye arrived 45 minutes late. “You have a certain attitude that is not so good for your life inside and outside the ring. Be on time, princess.’’
By boxing standards that was far from Paul Revere hollering, “The British are coming! The British are coming’’ at the top of his lungs but for Klitschko it was a moment of obvious pique that he’s seldom shown in the past. Haye believes that is a sign that all his taunts and tormenting T-shirts have “gotten to Wladimir. He’s outside his comfort zone.’’
Frankly, that’s what boxing needs. It doesn’t need another exhibition of patience and jabbing. Nor does it need to see Haye stand on the outside and try to out speed Klitschko, as he did Nikolai Valuev when he first won the WBA title before finally hurting him in the final round. It is unlikely Haye can win a decision under any circumstances in Germany anyway and certainly not one where he allows Klitschko to stand safely out of range behind his jab and avoid close-quarter contact, where hand speed is crucial.
What heavyweight boxing needs right now is an explosive Haye victory because a knockout of the younger Klitschko would set up an inevitable match with his big brother in a unification fight that the world would be interested in – including but not limited to the 50 states.
The story lines would be many, and the fact that Vitali is more inclined to engage in hand-to-hand combat than his younger brother would add a menacing edge to things because Haye’s chin remains as suspect as Wladimir’s at the moment.
Since Klitschko vs. Klitschko will never happen, Klitschko vs. Haye I and II is the best alternative. All have a puncher’s chance and no one but their staunchest allies can be sure who has the best chance. That air of mystery is what makes fights intriguing. It would bring an interest to the division not seen since Lewis-Tyson because there is a whiff of danger on both sides.
Long claiming to be in search of the Klitschkos, David Haye has finally found one of them. If he can dethrone him with a concussive explosion he will have set up an even bigger payday for himself and done more for heavyweight boxing in one night than the Klitschkos have done in nearly a decade of dominance.
Ron Borges is a columnist for the Boston Herald.