The worst thing for an elite athlete is for him not to be cared about. Forget whether or not the fans think he is really good, the real death sentence is when they acknowledge that you're formidable and good but couldn't care less to watch you perform.
No athlete grasped that quicker and earlier than a young Cassius Marcellus Clay in the early 1960s when he did a radio show after flamboyant wrestler "Gorgeous" George. The young Clay met George and went to see him wrestle that night and was amazed at the crowd's reaction, which was split. Many in attendance were cheering for the bombastic George to get his butt whipped, while others enjoyed his act and were there to see him perform. And what stood out most to Clay was that the arena was packed and everybody had an interest in the outcome. It didn't matter if they were there to see "Gorgeous" George win or lose, what mattered most is they were in attendance to see "Gorgeous" George.
That's when Cassius Clay realized that being good wasn't enough and that an athlete had to be noticed. He also saw that being the "bad guy" wasn't such a bad thing and happened to be great for business. He understood as a bad guy you'd attract fans who were hellbent on seeing you get beat and that there'd also be those who would like the persona and personality and would show up just to see and hear what you were going to do next. Thus "I am the Greatest" was born and Clay, who later became Muhammad Ali, became the biggest draw and star in boxing since Jack Dempsey. Muhammad Ali became a pioneer as to how athletes and entertainers presented themselves to their potential paying customers.
The most recent example of this occurred after the NFC championship game between the Seattle Seahawks and the San Francisco 49ers on January 18th. After Seahawks defensive back Richard Sherman made the game saving play in the endzone with seconds left in the game, he went off a la Cassius Clay after beating Sonny Liston to FoxSports sideline reporter Erin Andrews. Forty million people saw Sherman go off about how he's the greatest corner-back in the NFL and for the next two weeks leading up to the Super Bowl, Sherman received more attention than Denver Broncos quarterback and five time MVP Peyton Manning. Sherman was a topic of discussion on both news, sports and interview shows nonstop leading up to the game which just so happened to be the most watched television broadcast in history. Before Sherman went off after the NFC championship game, he wasn't that well known, except to hardcore NFL fans.
Sports history is replete with these type of scenarios. The best fighter in boxing, Floyd Mayweather, thrives on this type of projection and flamboyancy. Until Floyd fought Oscar De La Hoya back in May of 2007, nobody cared about the undefeated Mayweather to much extent. He didn't posses the ring athleticism of Muhammad Ali or Sugar Ray Leonard and wasn't a perceived destroyer like Mike Tyson. His fights weren't terribly exciting and he didn't posses natural charisma. Then he met Vince McMahon of the WWE who helped turn him into today's biggest attraction and story in professional boxing after he defeated De La Hoya.
Enter multiple heavyweight title holder Wladimir Klitschko 61-3 (51). Since 2005 Wladimir has lost about as many rounds as Mayweather and has posted many more stoppage victories. Sure, some will say Klitschko hasn't really fought any outstanding heavyweights during that run, but that's not his fault. Exactly who would you like him to fight among those most qualified to fight him? On the other hand Mayweather has picked his spots fighting certain fighters after they've peaked, before they've fully blossomed or forced them to meet him at a catch-weight up or down from where they made their mark and fought their best. Yet Mayweather attracts substantial PPV buys and Klitschko can't even get on either of the two major boxing broadcast networks in boxing, Showtime and HBO.
"I understand the criticism that the fights are lopsided and kind of boring. I'm getting it," Klitschko said last week. Yes, his fights have been drama-less and many are quick to disparage his skill and ability as a world class fighter and champion, but if he's so terrible, why doesn't one of those fighters qualified to fight him go in there and beat him? The same applies to those who disparage Mayweather because he's not a knockout puncher. To that I say, "he punches hard enough to win."
"I'm missing the fans in the U.S.," Klitschko said in an interview with The Associated Press. "The fan base is huge here and I would love to fight back in the States. I want to fight here but I need a broadcaster, either Showtime or HBO, and I need an arena,'' Klitschko said. ''Of course I also need an opponent who is interesting to fans. I think the Arreola-Stiverne winner could be a good choice."
Based on Klitschko's above statement, Wladimir understands and fully grasps that it's important to amass a U.S. following. However, American fans are fickle and appreciate and react to sizzle much more than substance and that doesn't just pertain to boxing. Andre Ward and Mikey Garcia are perfect examples. They are every bit the fighter and technician that Mayweather is, but they don't know how to or care to instigate the fans and media the way Mayweather has mastered in order to expand their popularity. Wladimir's intentions are good and I believe he's willing to fight the best of the best around today because he always has. Sadly his size, strength and power cause many of his opponents to fold up and worry more about what he might do instead of what they should be attempting to do to dethrone him.
And by the looks of the heavyweight landscape that's not about to change unless Bermane Stiverne 23-1-1 (20) turns out to be a better fighter than perceived and catches Wladimir at the right time. In order for Wladimir Klitschko to change his marketability, he'd have to do something outrageous or be involved in some sort of controversy, something that is not likely to happen.
This is a man who was flirting with the idea of Don King promoting him and his brother - until they realized when they went to see King at his palatial mansion that King wasn't actually playing the piano as he led them to believe, because it was a self playing piano. That turned them off and King never had a thing to do with either brothers' career.
It's amazing how a personality makes Mayweather's often boring and lopsided fights must see. In America nobody would recognize Wladimir walking down the street, but in Germany he fights in front of fifty thousand fans regardless of who the opponent is and is greeted like a rock star.
It would be interesting to see how Floyd Mayweather would advise Wladimir about stimulating interest in his career. Is there any doubt that if Mayweather were Klitschko and possessed the same assets and liabilities as a fighter that he'd fight exactly the same way? Not in my mind. He even would've made the same mistake as Wladimir in agreeing to fight Ross Puritty early in his career.
You know what's kind of interesting? Klitschko even has a more compelling personality than Mayweather. As boring as I find Wlad can be as a fighter sometimes, I'm always interested in what he has to say. Mayweather, on the other hand, completely puts me to sleep, except during those times when he's actually annoying me. But perception is everything, I guess.
Frank Lotierzo can be contacted at GlovedFist@Gmail.com