Michael Rosenthal

Everyone has waited a long time for this

HAMBURG, Germany – For Wladimir Klitschko, this fight is an opportunity to enhance his legacy by defeating an opponent who many consider a legitimate threat. For David Haye, it’s a chance to claim international stardom and all the riches that go along with it.

For the rest of us, the Klitschko-Haye fight on Saturday in a 57,000-seat soccer stadium here is a long-awaited heavyweight fight about which we can be genuinely excited.

If nothing else, it is now generally regarded as the most-hyped heavyweight fight since Lennox Lewis fought Mike Tyson in 2002. We’ve built up quite a thirst during that nine-year drought, one we can only hope will be quenched on Saturday.

The promotion actually started in 2009, when Klitschko and Haye were originally scheduled to fight.

Haye pulled out, citing a back injury, but he set the tone for the ongoing trash talk between the fighters when he showed up at a press conference wearing a T-shirt depicting him holding the severed heads of the Klitschko brothers.

The fight was re-made for July 2 and the bad blood grew worse, with Haye saying anything to make Klitschko’s angry in an apparent effort to goad him into fighting recklessly and Klitschko dishing it back.

The back-and-forth rhetoric has raised awareness of the fight worldwide, giving it the feel of a truly major event.

But is it more hype than substance?

Well, the perception is that Haye – a quick, athletic fighter with considerable power — is the first opponent of Klitschko in some time who is capable of giving him a challenge.

The London resident was a dominating cruiserweight, although his only loss came at the 200-pound limit against Carl Thompson in 2004 – a fifth-round TKO.  He has fought only four times at heavyweight but has three knockouts and won a decision, outpointing 7-footer Nikolai Valuev to win the WBA title in 2009.

Haye supporters will point to Klitschko’s setbacks – three KO losses, the last in 2004 — as a glaring sign of vulnerability. They say his confidence can be shaken with a few well-timed shots early in the fight and they wonder about his chin.

If Haye wins, he will be the king of the boxing world. A subsequent fight with Vitali Klitschko (probably in London) would be enormous, perhaps even bigger than Floyd Mayweather Jr.-Manny Pacquiao internationally. One knowledgeable observer suggested it might even be seen on pay-per-view in the U.S.

The underdog seems confident that he’ll take the first step on Saturday.

“I’ve dreamt so many times of knocking Klitschko out,” Haye told the Daily Telegraph.

Klitschko’s supporters will tell him to keep right on dreaming.

The Klitschko of today, they say, is not the Klitschko who lost those fights. This Klitschko has learned to relax, to pace himself. And, just as important, he no longer seems to doubt himself. He seems to be in his prime at 35.

Add to that his 29½-pound weight advantage over Haye and a fine-tuned system of boxing based on a pile-drive jab that has destroyed 13 consecutive opponents over almost seven years and Haye could be in trouble.

As they say, a good big man generally beats a good small man.

“Reality is coming, a tough reality. I’m going to enjoy this fight,” Klitschko said.

A victory would define a career that so far is devoid of important victories because of the respect Haye receives. Win or lose, the brash Engishman is a significant step up from Klitschko’s version of Joe Louis’ bum of the month club.

“This is his legacy, this is the fight he’ll be remembered for,” said Emanuel Steward, his trainer.

Klitschko has waited a long time for this. And so have we.

Rain watch: The fight will take place at the Imtech Arena, an open-air soccer stadium in Hamburg.

That could be a problem because forecasters say there is a 70 perecent chance of rain on Saturday night. A canopy would protect the fighters and an overhang would keep the fans dry.

It’s those in first few rows at ringside – including what one German official called “VIPs” and many of the journalists  – who could get wet.

One source said the fight will proceed regardless of any precipitation. Another source said authorities might delay the fight – a la a baseball game – until the rain subsides at least to some degree.

The fight is scheduled for 1:45 p.m. PT and 4:45 p.m. ET, which is 10:45 p.m. in Germany. The fight could start the following day if it’s delayed long enough.

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