Rust, Not A Fighter's Friend

BY Michael Woods ON September 23, 2008
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So far, so good. It is Sept. 25, and as far as we know, Vitali Klitschko’s body is cooperating with the large Ukrainian as he readies himself to reclaim the WBC heavyweight title belt he says belongs to him.

That we are so close to the title fight and Klitschko hasn’t pulled out with a leg or knee injury, or a back injury, and some other ailment is fairly unbelievable. The last time the 37-year-old Vitali gloved up for real, it was Dec. 11, 2004, against Danny Williams.

Remember 2004?

That December 11, the US was still in the throes of a spectacularly divisive campaign for the Presidency, and half the country was still in a daze, unable to comprehend how George Bush was able to keep his hold on the throne. Vitali, meanwhile, was enjoying his own reign atop the heavyweight division. The throne, abdicated by Lennox Lewis, was his for the taking, as his brother Wladimir was still in the process of glueing back together his chin and psyche after KOs at the hands of Corrie Sanders and Lamon Brewster.

There’ve been several attempts to come back, but Vitali’s body rebelled. His knee, his thigh and his back screamed No Mas, four times, as he was set to fight Hasim Rahman in 2005. Then, he was going to take a rust-shedder against Jameel McCline in Sept. 2007, but his back went out, and he had to have surgery.

Now, we were told on a conference call on Wednesday afternoon, Klitschko has been whacking sparring partners around to such a degree that he has had to hire more.

People, after three and a half years out of the ring, a top level prizefighter needs more than spirited sparring to get rid of rust, and get back timing, and speed, and snap, and stamina. That’s my opinion, anyway, but it is not shared by Team Klitschko. They are quite confident that their man will be healthy on Oct. 11 when he squares off with the 28-year-old WBC champ Peter in Berlin, in a match that will be shown on tape on Showtime. And they profess zero doubt that Vitali will be celebrating with little brother Wladimir, the IBF/WBO/IBO titleholder,  after being the second Klitschko to defeat the Nigerian, and the first brother act to simultaneously hold heavyweight titles.

Peter, as does TSS, does not see this night ending in celebration for Vitali.

The Nigerian’s trainer, Stacy McKinley said that he believes that Vitali will suffer the same fate that Ali did, when he came back two years after beating Spinks to meet Larry Holmes, and the same fate that met Holmes, when he came back after almost two years away to make lots of money in exchange for Tyson using his hat holder as a piñata.

Vitali, for his part, portrayed the time off somewhat like boxers who go to jail and then get out explain their incarceration. The hiatus was beneficial to him, he said, and it allowed him to heal up and get strong. “The break has been great for me,” he said. But, he added, “The fight will be very interesting. I don’t want to underestimate Samuel Peter, he is very strong.”

That may be, but Vitali full well knows his body hasn’t been his friend the past few years. This is probably the reason why he said, “I don’t need a warmup fight” when asked if it was a good idea to return from his mega-layoff against a credible foe. He has one shot to get ready for Peter, and get his title back. Every day that passes in which Vitali gets through a 24-hour span healthy is essentially an aberration. So, he understands, why not take a shot at the gold ring right away, instead of the brass one first, followed up by the biggie. Chances are he would not get out of his warmup fight intact, so his move makes sense from his this corner.

Peter has been training for five months, according to McKinley, and has been in Germany (in the Black Forest region my mother hails from, incidentally) for five weeks. We heard the metaphor of Klitschko as tree throughout the call, as apparently Peter has been chopping trees as part of his regimen in Deutschland. This is a brand new Peter, his team says, but I take this with a handful of salt. It seems like we’ve been hearing about a “brand new Sam” since he was still….well… new on the scene. That said, on Oct. 11 he will likely be closer to 245 pounds than the 250-plus mark that he’s carried in to the ring in five of his last six outings, and that bodes well for him. I’d really like to see him at 235, to see how that would improve his mobility and defensive measures, but I do not foresee that happening, ever.

The call took a weird turn when Vitali told Peter that he has eyes (i.e. spies) everywhere, and knows what Peter has been doing in training. “You know nothing,” Peter said, “you are from the Ukraine.”

Peter’s manager Ivaylo Gotzev, McKinley and Peter then all ganged up and talked trash to Vitali, who held his tongue, and basically absorbed the verbal volleys. He was at a bit of a disdvantage, as only his promoter Tom Loeffler uses English as his first language; Vitali and business manager Bernd Boendt were a step behind in formulating comebacks.

Peter has held the WBC belt (which was secured by Vitali with a win over Corrie Sanders in April 2004 and defended once, against Danny Williams in Dec. 2004) since Oct. 2007, when he beat Jameel McCline for the interim honor. He doesn’t seem too worried that his reign will be curtailed in his third fight. “Both (Wladimir and Vitali) fight like robots,” he said. “I am not a robot, I am a skilled fighter.”

Peter (30-1, 23 KOs) said the fight is “not gonna go long” and while I am not sure he can lock down an early stoppage---I think his power has been slightly overrated---I do see the encasement of rust from a 3 ½ year layoff as being a deal-killer for Vitali (35-2, 34 KOs). 

No pro sport is forgiving of a participant taking off 3 ½ years, and then attempting to pick up where they left off. And there is no sport crueler to someone who is a step behind, in the stamina, speed and mobility department, than boxing. Prediction: Peter will outbox Vitali handily, and take a  UD.

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