They came to Mecca to find boxing’s savior. Wladimir Klitschko, who just may be a doctor and a savior, did the best he could. More than 14,000 showed up at Madison Square Garden to see if a sport on life support had anything left. Klitschko gave them a reason to come back.
If you were at the Garden, or watching on television, here’s some obvious and some subtle observations from the building that has hosted boxing’s best for more than a century.
The good doctor. It started out frustrating to watch but must have been even more frustrating to compete in. Calvin Brock, on the big stage for the first time in his career, looked nervous from the outset. He tried to take the fight inside and the heavyweight title fight turned into a muddled, ugly waltz. The first inclination was to blame Klitschko. When a guy carries the belt into the ring and has the kind of physique Wlad possesses, you want to see him assert himself. His left jab was beautiful for the first four rounds, but where was the right hand? It was muffled by Brock’s attempt to crowd him. But once it landed, the first time solidly in round five, you could sense the end was near. So could Brock. “I should have tried that earlier,” said Klitschko after the fight.
As a general rule … When a fighter goes down face first, the fight doesn’t last much longer.
Interested observers. Heavyweight champs Oleg Maskaev (WBC) and Shannon Briggs (WBO) were at the Garden to watch Klitschko and put in their claim for a unification bout. All bravado aside, neither could have left the building feeling very confident. I like both bouts. The Brooklyn-born Briggs and Klitschko would be a natural for the Garden. A belated congrats, by the way, to Dennis Rappaport and Fred Kesch, who now handle a heavyweight champion of the world (Maskaev).
Ali, Ali, Ali. If you are standing inside Madison Square Garden and the crowd starts chanting, “Ali, Ali, Ali,” and a chill doesn’t run down your spine, something is wrong with you. HBO’s Jim Lampley was standing on a television platform, waving his arms, like those crazy football players on the sidelines, exhorting the crowd to cheer louder for Ali.
Speaking of football. Long Island’s Derrick Rossy, a former lineman at Boston College, won a 10-round decision over Shannon Miller to keep his New York State heavyweight title. The kid may still be a long way from challenging Klitschko, but he emerged from the Garden ring a better fighter. He was cut badly and battled fatigue in the second half of the fight, but Rossy never relented. Miller was game and determined and forced Rossy to gut this one out. At the moment, I don’t like his chances against Klitschko, unless they get into a three-point stance, but Rossy earned the right to keep climbing the heavyweight division’s ladder. He earned his stripes. And someone in that corner please buy cutman George Mitchell a beer, he earned that.
Only in boxing. Will you see man fight for 10 rounds, get bloodied and then kiss his opponent on top of his bald skull, as Rossy did to Miller. Then Miller, classy until the end, raised Rossy’s hand.
Only in boxing, part 2. There is no relationship like a fighter and his fans anywhere else in the world of sports. A few examples. Former WBC featherweight champ Juan LaPorte, who worked with one of the undercard fighters, smiled just as brightly as the fans who approached… At what other sporting even could an Irishman with a brogue, a tweed hat and a Kronk Gym jacket, walk up to Mark Breland, sit next to him and pose for a picture? The entire time, Breland was trying to talk to a friend on his Blue Tooth phone while the Irish guy is chatting him up. Want more? The damn camera wouldn’t fire and it took about three attempts for the Irishman’s friend to finally secure the photo. Breland never flinched… After Manuel Medina scored a close decision over Kevin Kelley, the former world featherweight champ from Mexico was applauded as he walked through the crowd. I don’t know how much English the guy speaks, but he stopped and shook hands with anyone who stuck their paw out. Then, one very attractive young woman leaned over a railing and motioned for Medina to pose for a picture. The pug stopped, the beauty queen’s boyfriend snapped a shot with his cell phone. As Medina smiled, you could see a trickle of blood run down his right cheek from above his eye. Now that’s up-close and personal.
Right call. A lot was made, and I was one of them, about HBO not televising Laila Ali’s fight at the Garden. Rather, as it always does, the network televised the replay of the prior week’s PPV fight (Mayweather-Baldomir). HBO would have been right not to televise this mismatch. Plus, Laila was a bit rusty. Even so, don’t give up on Ali. She has talent, even if she doesn’t have a viable opponent.
Home run. New York has always been predominantly a Yankee town, but Mets’ third baseman David Wright was given the loudest cheers to anyone in the building this side of Ali (Muhammad, not Laila). Two days later, as the Mets broke ground on their new stadium, Wright spoke about what an honor it was for him to have his picture taken with Muhammad. He compared it with meeting the family of the late hall-of-famer Jackie Robinson at the groundbreaking ceremony.
Heavyweight hope. He may not be Joe Louis, or, heck, even Lennox Lewis, but Wladimir Klitschko is the best we have right now. Let’s hope he doesn’t lose any momentum from this win and that the politics of boxing don’t get in the way of all those unification showdowns he was talking about.