By Michael Montero
For the first time in long time, legitimate change and thus, legitimate interest, surrounds the heavyweights. Fans are buzzing about the division once again with real prospects, top contenders actually facing each other, and a vacant WBC title. Yet all roads lead to a champion who has failed to inspire the masses. Let’s take a closer look.
No More Two-Headed Monster
With the retirement of Vitali Klitschko, the possibility for undeniable clarity in the heavyweight division (post Lennox Lewis) is finally upon us. The overwhelming majority of experts recognize this as Wladimir Klitschko’s era, but as long as both Klitschkos are actively fighting, boxing purists can never get that true “#1 vs #2” match they so desire. Now Haitian born Canadian Bermane Stiverne will rematch American Chris Arreola this spring for the vacant WBC title that Vitali left behind. Those two squared off last year in one of the best heavyweight scraps we’ve seen in a while. When it’s all said and done, there will be a new, legitimate titlist in the division not named Klitschko. Money talks; and you can bet that after a couple of soft touches to line their pockets, this new titlist will eventually face the champion for a complete unification, probably in the USA.
Vitali’s retirement also guarantees better challenges down the line for his younger brother. No more splitting of the contenders, now they will all have their sights set on the same man. K2 Promotions (the Klitschko’s promotional company) have complained about a lack of quality opposition to face in recent years. Well now those excuses are over as Wlad stands alone at the top of the pyramid. And best of all, we have quality prospects climbing the ladder and (imagine this) even fighting each other to prove their legitimacy.
Proving it in the Ring
Last year, prospects Seth Mitchell and David Price tested themselves against schooled veterans. Ultimately they failed (Mitchell against Arreola and Price against Tony Thompson), but the bottom line is that they took the fights. Too often in recent years we’ve seen hype jobs build up phony records, only to be destroyed when going up against one of the Klitschko brothers. But in 2013 we saw matches between prospects Mike Perez and Magomed Abdusalamov, Andy Ruiz and Joe Hanks, and Malik Scott and Vyacheslav Glaskov – all undefeated when they fought. Just this month previously unknown Canadian Carlos Takam scored a draw with the above mentioned Perez, instantly making him a player among heavyweight prospects.
The weeding out process to find legitimate contenders, a process in boxing that goes all the way back to the beginning, is once again taking place in the heavyweight division. Battle tested Englishman Derek Chisora is scheduled to face American Kevin Johnson next month, while seasoned veteran Tomasz Adamek will fight the above mentioned Glaskov in March. Both are meaningful crossroads matches that put the winners in line for big paydays. Fighters like Kubrat Pulev and Tyson Fury have moved into legitimate contention and figure to get title shots this year. Either would pose a bigger threat to champion Wladimir Klitschko than some recent challengers who offered nothing more than glorified sparring sessions. And they’ve earned their place with recent quality wins over solid heavyweights.
At Last, Some Americans!
America will always produce heavyweight contenders, but lately they’ve been of the fat, pudgy, lazy PREtender variety more often than not. However with the emergence of Deontay Wilder and Bryant Jennings, America has two heavyweights that show up in shape, bring it in the ring and seemingly improve with every fight. Jennings made his HBO debut last Saturday, dominating previously undefeated prospect Arthur Szpilka of Poland in impressive fashion. Wilder will face his biggest test to date this March when he goes up against the above mentioned Scott, who is well schooled, skilled and experienced. American fans have two exciting prospects climbing their way up, putting their “0’s” on the line. That’s the sort of thing the heavyweight division needs more of. Wilder, who is with power broker Golden Boy Promotions, is being groomed to eventually face the Stiverne-Arreola winner for the WBC title. There could very well be an undefeated American heavyweight titlist in the next year or so. Imagine that.
A Champion that Fails to Inspire
Heavyweight champion Wladimir Klitschko is statistically among the most accomplished big men ever in the sport. Winning Olympic gold, unifying world titles, establishing a new lineage, 60+ professional victories; on and on the list goes. But in recent years Wlad has failed to live up to his “Doctor Steelhammer” moniker; it’s been more like “Doctor Cure for Insomnia”. All true champions aspire for greatness, immortality; to be more than a stat sheet on the boxrec database decades from now. So how does a champion make the leap from a “great” to “all-time great” you ask? One word. INSPIRE.
Joe Louis may have feasted upon a “bum of the month” club and failed in his first encounter with Max Schmelling, but when his country needed him and he got a second crack at the German, he inspired. Mohammed Ali made political stands outside and ring and defied the odds inside it. He inspired. Rocky Marciano, Mike Tyson and Evander Holyfield were all “small” heavyweights that broke down larger men and inspired us. Ultimately, this is the one piece lacking from Wladimir Klitschko’s historic career, which is entering its twilight.
The silver lining is that Wlad has been utterly dominant in his reign as champion, hardly losing a round over the last decade. And in between the overmatched mandatories and lackluster optional defenses, he’s faced proven, legitimate fighters like Ruslan Chagaev, David Haye and Alexander Povetkin, among others. But the manner in which he wins is more frustrating than inspiring. Jab and grab, jab and lean, jab and hug, it’s effective but it’s as aesthetically pleasing as watching paint dry. While viewing many of Klitschko’s recent fights, I can’t escape the reality that I’m only seeing a fraction of what the champ is capable of. It’s as if I’m watching auto racing, let’s say the Indianapolis 500, and here’s this one driver who clearly has a better car than the rest of the lot. Yet he drives 50 mph the entire way, playing it safe to prevent a possible crash. Then late in the race, when all the lesser cars have broken down, this talented driver finally guns it for the finish line. You’re left with the feeling that he could have put the pedal to the metal much earlier and finished things in style, but simply didn’t care to.
As the shuffle underneath him ensues, we ponder whether a challenger will rise up that is not only skilled enough, but physically strong and mentally tough enough to seriously push the champion. Povetkin, his latest challenger, had the skills, but not the physical strength. Perhaps Haye had the skills, but not the mental toughness. Mariusz Wach had the physical strength, but nowhere near the skills or experience necessary. Who will be that special fighter that can push Wladimir Klitschko out of his comfort zone and force him to fight? Could Deontay Wilder be that man? He certainly has the physical strength and athleticism, Wlad’s “clinch and lean” tactics wouldn’t work there, and he’s building upon his skill set with every fight. The questions surrounding Wilder are his durability and mental strength; that’s the stuff that separates boxers from all other athletes. One thing is for certain, if and when that special challenge ever arises, it will define Klitschko’s career and his place among the all-time greats. It truly will be his last great opportunity to inspire for immortality.
Contact Mike Montero at [email protected]