Saturday, June 20, 2009

Klitschko and Chagaev Deserve a Hand

Wladimir Klitschko and Ruslan Chagaev squared off for the press earlier this week in Germany.

I've shaken the thick, meaty hand of Ruslan Chagaev, so I hope I'm not at risk.

The American Association of Professional Ringside Physicians came out of nowhere yesterday and claimed that Chagaev should not be allowed to fight Wladimir Klitschko tonight in Germany because he has tested positive for Hepatitis B antigens.

The supposedly positive test was enough for officials last month in Finland to have called off Chagaev's WBA heavyweight title fight against Nikolai Valuev. The AAPRP is of the opinion that it is hazardous to your health to get within a few feet of Chagaev when he is engaged in gloved combat, lest you, too, become infected with Hepatitis B.

However, the medical uncertainties that surround Chagaev like throngs of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad protesters don't seem to bother the German officials too much.

The fight, as they say, “Ist auf!” which translated for you unilingual readers means, “Is on!”

It will all go down tonight in front of over 60,000 spectators and for the first time in over half a decade the outcome will hopefully produce a mostly unified heavyweight champion that will hold the title belts of the IBF, WBA and WBO.

Klitschko, 6'6 1/2" tall at 240 pounds and Chagaev, 6'1" tall at 225 display the wares they will be fighting for tonight in Germany.

Whatever the case with Chagaev and his health concerns, and although he's smallish by today's heavyweight standards, I can testify he has hands like catcher's mitts. Gripping his right hand is like dunking your hand into a bucket of foam rubber. Whether any of that means anything and whether any of that will help him upset Klitschko remains to be seen.

But the hands may play a part in all of this, at least as far as Chagaev is concerned.

“At this point, what is going to happen on Saturday is in God's hands,” said Chagaev. “I don't want to talk too much more except to say that I want to let my hands speak in the ring.”

The undefeated Chagaev (25-0-1, 17KOs) has a tendency to fight down to the level of his competition – an underachiever - if you will. He's the type of fighter that often does just enough to win, and little more. At 30-years-old he's young by today's low heavyweight standards and if he is to make a move this will be the time to do it. Should he fail miserably against Klitschko, then it is difficult to view an upside for him.

“This is the big chance for me,” said the oft-injured Chagaev at a recent press gathering. “This is the most important fight of my career and I understand that. I want to fulfill my dream and I really do want to win this fight.”

Chagaev has held the WBA heavyweight title since April 2007, but because of injuries he has only fought twice since then.

To do so, Chagaev will have to wage a disciplined, tactical and patient battle. He will have to come in behind his southpaw jab and move his head to get under Klitschko's punches. His best chance for victory will be to apply constant pressure while getting under and away from Klitschko's very educated left hand. If Chagaev is to win, he will have to take away Wladimir's jab. Otherwise he'll be stuck on the outside looking in and if he is kept at the end of Klitschko's long arms he will lose.

“I prepared intensively for the fight against Valuev,” said Chagaev. “After the cancellation, I had to forget about everything. I had to put all of the bad thoughts aside and think positive. My training plan did not change, because Nikolai is big and heavy and so is Wladimir. As such, for me, it's not a big difference. Therefore, it's no problem for me. After the cancellation, I took a few days break, then I got the fight and ever since then I've been in hard training. Wladimir is perhaps the world's best boxer, he has two belts, but I have more motivation, because if I win I'll have three belts.”

Klitschko's trainer, Emanuel Steward, who traveled over 8,000 miles from Germany to New York City and back last weekend (to call the Miguel Cotto vs. Joshua Clottey fight on HBO on Saturday, and then give a speech at the International Boxing Hall of Fame in Canastota, New York on Sunday for inductee and former pupil Lennox Lewis) thinks that his charge has a great chance to do big things this weekend.

Emanuel Steward (right) puts Klitschko through one of his final workouts before today's big fight.

Steward, who usually rings the alarm bells in a frantic fashion when his man is going in with any fighter that has a heartbeat, sounds confident about Wladimir's chances. Klitschko's bout against David Haye was canceled because of a back injury suffered by Haye, so the availability of Chagaev was perfect timing.

“To tell you the truth, I'm very excited about this fight,” said Steward. “I think this is the best fight that could have been made on such short notice. When the Haye fight was canceled, Wladimir said, 'Get me a fight with whoever you can. I'm going to fight on June 20th because if I don't we're going to disappoint a lot of people.'

"I don't think Chagaev being a southpaw is going to be a problem because Wladimir has already fought and beaten several left-handed fighters," Steward continued. "It's a different style than the Haye fight because Haye is much more of an explosive puncher, but I truly feel this will be a better fight than the one with Haye would have been.”

As for the amiable Chagaev, who said he was “crushed” and “devastated” when the Valuev fight was canceled at the 11th hour, he likes his own chances and is just happy to be in a meaningful fight.

While he and David Haye are totally different fighters from a stylistic standpoint, they are also polar opposites in terms of temperament. Whereas Haye is full of caustic and hurtful one-liners, Chagaev is soft-spoken, humble and has even been described as “quiet.” When asked for his thoughts on Klitschko, he would say only this:

“He is a good, friendly man and a good boxer. What happens inside the ring is just business.”

And for Wladimir Klitschko and Ruslan Chagaev, two heavyweight nice guys, they deserve a hand for accepting this big fight at the last minute.

June 2009

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