JOSHUA VS. KLITSCHKO — It is axiomatic in boxing that the heavyweight division is the engine that drives the sport, but that has been truer at certain times than at others. When Muhamad Ali, Joe Frazier, George Foreman and a host of only slightly lesser luminaries were at the throttle, their era was a luxuriously appointed bullet train barreling down the tracks with a full load of satisfied passengers. The same could be said, for the most part, of the Mike Tyson/Evander Holyfield/Lennox Lewis/Riddick Bowe halcyon period that passed into history two decades ago.
But there have been other stretches when the locomotive was slow, rusty and in constant need of repair, with fewer, mostly dissatisfied riders. Remember the dark days when the heavyweight championship of the world (or at least versions of it), once the most coveted title in all of sport, was being passed around like a cheap bottle of hooch on skid row? The faux kings then were guys named Mike Weaver, Tony Tubbs, Trevor Berbick, Bonecrusher Smith, Pinklon Thomas and Tim Witherspoon. All were decent-to-pretty good in their own right, but the gulf between pretty good and truly great is wider than the Grand Canyon.
All of which explains why Saturday’s heavyweight title bout between IBF champion Anthony Joshua (18-0, 18 KOs) and two-time former champ Wladimir Klitschko (64-4, 53 KOs), despite its expected turnout of 90,000 spectators in London’s Wembley Stadium and the kind of global interest that comes along in heavyweight boxing all too rarely these days, needs to be more – much more – than a ratings and money-generating blockbuster for the two premium-cable American companies that will each televise the action, albeit at different times. (Showtime goes live at 4:15 p.m. EDT, HBO on tape-delay at 10:45 p.m. EDT.)
This fight, with the IBF and vacant WBA world titles at risk, absolutely needs to be an instant classic, much as was Larry Holmes’ epic 15-round split decision over WBC heavyweight ruler Ken Norton on June 9, 1979, in Las Vegas’ Caesars Palace. Not only was that one of the best, most competitive pairings of big men ever, but it served to fully legitimize the young Holmes as the rightful claimant to a throne previously occupied by the regal likes of Ali, Frazier and Foreman.
Although the Showtime-affiliated Joshua, a Briton and the super heavyweight gold medalist at the 2012 London Olympic, most frequently has been compared to a countryman of similar pedigree, Lewis, in this instance he will in a sense be sliding into the role assumed by Holmes nearly 38 years ago. He needs to understand that just winning isn’t enough; he has to announce to all the nations, preferably with another exclamation-point knockout victory, that he is the Chosen One, the Moses who will lead a blighted division out of the desert in which its practitioners have been wandering for far too long, or at least since Holyfield got too old, Tyson too disinterested, Bowe too fat and Lewis too self-satisfied.
But the 41-year-old Klitschko also needs to play his role to perfection, and better than he has at any time during a curious career in which his many successes and high knockout ratio (94.1 percent of his wins have come inside the distance) have inspired fanatical loyalty in Europe but mostly yawns in the U.S. “Dr. Steelhammer” must fight with unbridled passion, not his customary caution, and push Joshua to the limits of his will and endurance. At this advanced stage of his boxing life, however, the Ukrainian giant would better serve the sport as a venerable passer of the baton than as a repeat leader of the pack. He needs to be the gallant Norton, coming up a smidgeon short against Holmes.
Much has been made of the business aspects of Joshua-Klitschko, as was the case with other high-interest bouts such as Mayweather-Pacquiao and De La Hoya-Trinidad, which did monster numbers at the box office and in the TV ratings but were not as aesthetically pleasing as was suggested by the prefight hype. A packed soccer stadium only counts for so much if the give-and-take where it counts, inside the ropes, is relatively tepid. Another old boxing axiom – “Win this one, look good the next time” – does not apply here. Joshua and Klitschko are charged with the responsibility of electrifying on-site attendees and a worldwide TV audience, to remind everyone of just how exhilarating a boxing match involving two highly skilled, fully committed heavyweights can be.
Joshua is a big (6-foot-6, 245 pounds), strong 27-year-old with power and skill who has done the best he could against the dreck that has been served up to him, but winning the IBF title on a two-round blowout of a complete fraud like Charles Martin means virtually nothing, and subsequent defenses against relative neophyte Dominic Breazeale and journeyman Eric Molina were just a bit more taxing. The hope is that the Klitschko bout is the kickoff to a succession of showdowns with upper-tier opponents that would conceivably refurbish the heavyweight division. Those guys are out there, too; their names are Deontay Wilder (the WBC champion who is 38-0 with 37 KOs), Tyson Fury (the former WBA/IBF/WBO/IBO- champion who is 25-0 with 18 KOs), Joseph Parker (the WBO titlist who is 22-0 with 18 KOs) and Luis Ortiz (27-0 with 23 KOs).
Joshua is intriguing, but his career is still somewhat in its formative stages. The same cannot be said of Klitschko, the younger of boxing’s heavyweight champion brothers (Vitali, who retired in 2012 with a 45-2 record and 41 KOs, is now 45), who almost certainly will go down as one of the better heavyweight titlists of all time. For all his accomplishments, however, Wlad remains something of an enigma. In a recent poll of 30 trainers, historians, matchmakers and media members conducted by The Ring magazine, he finished in 16th place, one spot ahead of Vitali, in a listing of the top 20 heavyweight champions. There are those, most notably Wlad’s late, great Hall of Fame trainer, Emanuel Steward, who are or were adamant in their belief that the 6-6, 245-pound gold medalist at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics deserves a placement considerably higher than was accorded by The Ring.
Before Wlad’s unanimous decision over Russia’s Sultan Ibragimov in their unification bout of Feb. 23, 2008, in Madison Square Garden, Steward lamented his fighter’s failure to attract a more devoted following among U.S. fight fans.
“It’s frustrating,” Steward said. “Wlad should transcend boxing. I consider him one of the best heavyweight champions in history. He moves well and he’s an accurate, devastating puncher.”
Klitschko the younger also is a chess enthusiast who often treated his bouts as if they were pieces in that intellectually stimulating board game. He once was one of many opponents who simultaneously took on world chess champion Garry Kasparov in an exhibition match (Klitschko lost), and he wondered what might happen were he to square off against Lewis – in chess, as well as in the ring.
“Never, I think, in history have two champions before a fight played chess,” Klitschko said in June 2002, after he stopped Ray Mercer in six rounds at the Trump Taj Mahal in Atlantic City. “That would be interesting, would it not?”
Maybe it would have been to Bobby Fischer, but not to Ross Greenburg, the then-president of HBO Sports who had wearied of the risk-aversion styles of both Klitschko brothers, who recognized which side of the Atlantic Ocean their bread would be better buttered and had primarily set up shop in Europe, abandoning their shared quest to conquer America.
“I’m really souring on the heavyweights,” Greenburg said in July 2010, a pointed reference to the Klitschkos. “We’re out of the heavyweight division. We’re not playing in that sandbox right now. It doesn’t make any sense for us.”
In Europe, more often Germany but occasionally in Russia or Switzerland, the Klitschkos – highly intelligent guys who both held doctorates from the University of Kiev and both spoke four languages — routinely drew huge crowds. Nor were their bouts on that side of the pond a case of the tail, in this case American television, wagging the dog; when Lewis took on Razor Ruddock in a WBC elimination bout on Oct. 31, 1992, in London, the local start time was 3 a.m., to accommodate HBO viewers who would be watching at 10 p.m. EDT.
Eventually, HBO got back into the Klitschko-dominated sandbox, but Wlad proved to be a leopard hesitant to change his spots, much as was the case with Floyd Mayweather Jr., who resisted any urge, if indeed he had had one, to stray from his tried-and-true defense-first, technically proficient strategy against Manny Pacquiao, which shattered every revenue record but proved to be a bit of a snoozer for fans who thought they were getting Leonard-Hearns I but instead got another, uh, chess match.
Wlad followed the familiar script in his most recent bout, in which he relinquished his WBA, IBF,WBO and IBO titles on an action-sparse unanimous decision against Fury in Dusseldorf, Germany, on Oct. 28, 2015, a signal that the most relentless of pursuers, Father Time, might have caught up with him as much as had the ponderous Fury. Now, after a 17-month layoff, he is probably bidding for one last grab at the brass ring, and moving around a couple of pawns won’t be enough, nor should it be. He needs to look inside himself and find that inner Norton or Holmes, to enhance his standing in the annals of heavyweight boxing as much or more than to regain another prize of the moment.
Joshua, he of the seemingly sunlit future, also needs to realize that mere adequacy is almost tantamount to defeat. There are instances in any elite fighter’s career where emphatic statements need to be made, and not against just another designated victim. This is just such an opportunity. Yes, he has been often likened to Lewis, but then Lewis, like Wlad, sometimes appeared to have his competitive fire set to low flame. When Lewis reclaimed his WBC and IBF belts on a fourth-round knockout of Hasim Rahman on Nov. 17, 2001, I wrote that the manner in which he did so meant much more for his flagging reputation than another cautious, stink-out-the-joint points win could have. Lewis always seems to fight as if he has just awakened from a nap, or needs to take one, but maybe that is just his British reserve. On occasion, he can muster a bit of passion and remind everyone of what it is about him that should inspire the sort of awe we have come to associate with genuine heavyweight champions.
This fight is a guaranteed smash at the gate and for the TV ratings. But boxing, like any sport, must be more than a figure on an accountant’s bottom line to have continued relevance. Here’s hoping that Joshua-Klitschko also comes up aces as a memory fight fans can forever cherish because, really, what else is there?
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