Sunday, February 17, 2008

Will Klitschko Be the Last One Standing?

Wladimir Klitschko and Sultan Ibragimov will be face-to-face on Saturday night at New York's Madison Square Garden.

To listen to hall of fame trainer Emanuel Steward tell it, Saturday night will be one of the most dangerous nights in the career of his charge, IBF heavyweight titlist Wladimir Klitschko. Wladimir will be facing off against WBO heavyweight belt-holder Sultan Ibragimov in a partial title unification fight at "The World's Most Famous Arena" - Madison Square Garden.

"Looking at him closely, I think he will be the best fighter Wladimir fought in his pro career," says a cautious Steward about the cagey Ibragimov. "He's not a big guy, but he knows how to win big fights over big guys. He has handspeed, he explodes and moves away quickly, he makes most big guys' size a handicap. I told Wlad this will be the best you have fought. We are not taking him lightly." Steward forgot to mention that Ibragimov is also a pesky southpaw.

While Klitschko is generally regarded as the number one heavyweight on the planet, there are Doubting Thomases who always point to the three times he has come apart like a cheap bale of hay. While the Ukrainian can be stunningly dominant in victory; in his losses he has shown a propensity to melt down like the Chernobyl nuclear reactor.

Saturday's fight, as long is it doesn't end in a draw, will take boxing a step closer to having one heavyweight champion - instead of five if you count Samuel Peter.

Klitschko is always trained to the minute and in supreme physical condition. At age 31 he may be in his prime.

While Klitschko and Ibragimov are both wearers of heavyweights title belts - they couldn't be any more different.

Klitschko is a weird dichotomy of a prizefighter. Movie star handsome and confident at 6'6" tall, he's well-muscled and lean at 250 pounds. He is the prototype of the 21st Century heavyweight. Think Ivan Drago from Rocky IV. Klitschko obtained a PhD. in Sports Science, hence the nickname "Dr. Steelhammer" he speaks several languages and he is as comfortable wearing Hugo Boss as he is Cleto Reyes. He has a long and established pedigree in boxing having won the gold medal in the 1996 Atlanta, Olympics. On top of all that he's a tireless philanthropist who is also a UN Ambassador of Goodwill. He has an air about him that is distinctly high class and refined.

On the other hand, Sultan Ibragimov, the undefeated WBO titlist, has the look of the neighborly Barney Rubble from The Flinstones cartoon. His hair appears as though he brushes it with a spatula and he usually has a rumpled and scruffy appearance. He's flabby, like a high school football player that graduated 20 years ago and he has a double chin with small, shifty eyes and he speaks a hushed, broken English. If nobody told you he was a boxer you might mistake him for the Maytag repairman.

Ibragimov is not of the same ilk that Klitschko is, but he's a titlist just the same and he has as good a chance of any in the wide-open heavyweight division.

While Klitschko has had a great deal of success as a fighter in only losing three times in 52 fights he's a two-time heavyweight world titlist, but he has flaws. He often seems nervous in the ring and in the first few rounds will throw bunches of punches without pacing himself. He won every round against trial horse Ross Purritty before having to quit due to exhaustion after ten rounds. He was cold-cocked in a complete disaster and stopped in two rounds by Corrie Sanders and then hyperventilated to a loss in a fight he was winning against Lamon Brewster in their first go-round.

Steward took over the training reins of Klitschko in 2004, and much like he rehabilitated Lennox Lewis, he has been trying to do the same with Klitschko. Steward has been attempting to relax Wlad, make him use his long left jab and keep his opponents at a safe distance so he can set them up for his power punches.

On more than one occasion since he teamed up with Klitschko, Steward has raised eyebrows when he claimed that Klitschko is one of the best he has ever trained, but that Wladimir has simply been hurt by his spotty performances and the lack of a marquee opponent.

Steward and Klitschko have forged a strong bond over the past few years and both hope to enjoy the fruits of their labor with a win against Ibragimov.

"He would transcend boxing, it does frustrate me," says Steward when asked to assess his star pupil. "I consider Wladimir one of the best heavyweights in history; moves on his feet and accurate punching. There are no 'names' out there, so he has to try to be the unified champion."

It used to be said, "As goes the heavyweight division, so goes boxing." But in 2007 that axiom was proven to be a falsehood. The sport had a renaissance year with plenty of all-star match-ups and scintillating individual performances. But the heavyweights continued to languish in mediocrity and obscurity. While the sport moved on and thrived the big men were practically forgotten about as most accepted the fact that the heavyweight division was a virtual wasteland.

Klitschko only fought twice last year and both of his fights took place in Germany far under the radar of the American media. Ibragimov won the WBO title in a sleeper of a fight from Shannon Briggs in front of a sparse crowd in Atlantic City and then immediately took the title to his homeland of Russia and defended it in another forgettable performance against the shopworn Evander Holyfield. For Klitschko, Saturday's fight will only be the third time he has fought in the United States since 2005.

When asked what direction his career is heading and what he wants to accomplish, Klitschko was honest with his answer.

"Through all the years we have been working together...we all knew that the best shot was the title shot, the unification. We had to fight another champion. We realized to be the best, let's just prove it. I felt I could accomplish a lot, get the best fighters out there. I feel thankful to Ibragimov, too. It's not an easy fight, but I am thankful. The deal with them wasn't difficult, we pretty much agreed in a short amount of time to all the points of the deal, it wasn't complicated."

Always smartly attired, Klitschko is pictured here on the front steps of what is otherwise known as "The World's Most Famous Arena".

Most knowledgeable boxing observers would admit that if Klitschko loses again that it will likely be the end for him as a serious force in the division. He has been able to resurrect himself after all three of his losses and move to a higher plane each time. But a loss to Ibragimov on Saturday night, particularly if he is stopped again, would spell the end for him. It would be nearly impossible for him to rise from the ashes of defeat a fourth time.

Klitschko has admitted that he doesn't really feel like the heavyweight champion of the world because the titles are not unified and no one man can lay claim to all of the belts. Gone are the days of Joe Louis, Rocky Marciano, Muhammad Ali and Mike Tyson. Back then, anybody walking down any street in the world could tell you who the heavyweight champ was.

When asked what Saturday night means to him, Klitschko answered deliberately and logically, much like he fights.

"It's a unification's important, especially for the boxing fan and even for sports. The sport of boxing needs the heavyweight champion. I am looking forward to being the guy who holds one title... I am looking forward to winning the title and beating everyone in the ring."

Let's hope it's not too late to matter.

February 2008

1 comment: