Tuesday, August 16, 2011

What to Make of the Klitschkos?

September 24, 2005.  That's the last time that one of Klitschkos was in a competitive fight.  Since that night, the heavyweight brothers have fought 18 times and have destroyed their opponents.  Only four fights have gone the distance. 

The Klitschkos have not endeared themselves to the boxing public, outside of Germany, the Ukraine and some other Eastern European countries.  By now, they have received belated respect for their longevity and accomplishments from most boxing observers, but never adulation.  They seem robotic, cerebral and lacking passion.

The Klitschkos view boxing, almost in an English sense, as "sport," and you get the feeling that to them, boxing is not life or death.  They see opponents as obstacles to overcome or as problems to solve.  In short, they are "professionals," possessing all of the positive and negative attributes that that word suggests.  They are excellent at their jobs, but their fights do have the feel of "another day at the office."  The Klitschkos are fitness freaks and never beat themselves outside of the ring.  They want to entertain and put forth a good effort, but they are too calculating and, frankly, talented to fight with the type of reckless disregard, risk-taking, or showmanship which converts new fans.  They have scored spectacular knockouts, but the often clinical destruction of their opponents can take on a mirthless quality. 

In addition, the brothers have rarely ventured outside of Germany for their fights, basking in the comforts of their lucrative German TV contracts and robust box office numbers.  Since Wladimir regained his title in 2006, he has fought in America twice. Coming back from retirement, Vitali has exclusively defended his title in Germany except for one fight in the U.S. and another in German-speaking Switzerland.  His next fight will be in Poland in September.   

During their title reigns, The Klitschkos have not become global boxing ambassadors, and it's clear that these two champions and PhDs fight more for sporting pleasure than personal validation.  They have tons of interests outside of the ring.   They have a command of a multitude of languages and cultures, but socially and politically, they remain close to home (either Germany or the Ukraine).  Both have spoken out against corruption in the Ukraine.  (Vitali previously ran for mayor of the country's capital city, Kiev.)  Vitali does own property in the U.S., but he keeps a low profile when in America. 

The heavyweight champion of the world used to be one of the most recognizable and powerful figures in all of sport.  Many were larger-than-life figures like Joe Louis, Muhammad Ali, Sonny Liston and Mike Tyson.  The Champ was not just an emissary for boxing, travelling and fighting around the world, but an international star.   Comparing the Klitschkos to these past, elevated standards, they seem bland and, perhaps, irrelevant.  It's not enough for the heavyweight champ to win his fights; he has to galvanize the public at-large.     

As the old pugilistic saying states, "As they heavyweights go, so goes boxing."  In this current era of uncompetitive heavyweight fights, more than a few boxing observers and casual fans lament over the diminishment of the sport.  With the heavyweight division in an uninspired moment, the glory days of Ali-Frazier or Bowe-Holyfield are now distant memories. 

But the sport has survived and even thrived with a lesser heavyweight division.  Boxing fans have discovered new stars like Manny Pacquiao and Floyd Mayweather, Jr.  If boxing's popularity has ebbed some in the United States over the last generation, the sport has demonstrated sensational international growth during this period.  In several parts of the world (e.g. the Philippines, Indonesia, Germany, Scandinavia, Eastern Europe and Canada), the sport is as strong as it has ever been.  Other countries such as Argentina, Australia, Mexico, South Africa, Japan and the U.K, have seen the sport return to prominence.  

The Klitschkos, in fact, have helped lead this growth, with Germany (where they fight), the Ukraine (where they hail from) and Russia (where they became part of the amateur system) having their most successful eras of professional boxing. 

Still, there is no denying that the lack of competitive heavyweight matches is bad for the sport.  Here, the Klitschkos face two lines of criticism.  1. They are too big physically for the division.  2. They are facing a historic level of subpar opposition.  Both claims are spurious, but let's examine them in more detail.

Yes, the Klitschkos are bigger than the average heavyweight champ over the last 50 years.  Both are over 6'6'' and weigh around 245 lbs.  But Lennox Lewis and Riddick Bowe were roughly their equivalent size.  Moreover, many of their opponents were similarly sized, such as Tony Thompson, Kirk Johnson, Ray Austin, and Jameel McCline.  Others had similar weights, such as Sam Peter, Danny Williams and Shannon Briggs.  So, it is not as if the Klitschkos have been outweighing all of their opponents by 30 or 40 pounds every fight.  

It's also tough to claim that the Klitschkos are facing a historic level of inferior opposition.  All boxing divisions go through troughs from time-to-time and the heavyweight division is no exception.  For every Ali-Frazier-Norton-Foreman or Tyson-Holyfield-Bowe-Lewis heavyweight grouping, it is just as common to see Larry Holmes or Joe Louis rack up consecutive title defenses against lesser opposition.  Even Muhammad Ali's first title run in the '60s featured such forgettable names like Henry Cooper, Karl Mildenberger, Cleveland Williams and Zora Folley. 

What makes the Klitschkos' competition seem all the more inept is that prior to their title reigns, the heavyweight division experienced a rare, extended dynamic phase, from Mike Tyson through Lennox Lewis, where there was an almost 15-year period of interesting, competitive fights.  Even the peripheral boxers from that era (for example, Ray Mercer, Oliver McCall, Michael Moorer, Donovan "Razor" Ruddock and Tommy Morrison) could really fight.    

The quality of the current heavyweight division has paled in comparison to the previous era, but the Klitschkos have taken on all comers, from former Olympians (Sultan Ibragimov, Ruslan Chagaev, Odlanier Solis) to knockout artists (Corrie Sanders, Samuel Peter, Shannon Briggs, Chris Arreola) to slicksters (Chris Byrd, Kevin Johnson, Juan Carlos Gomez).  Although the Klitschkos' list of opponents does not feature a lot of Hall of Famers, don't blame them; this heavyweight era has not been a particular fertile one, but again, the subpar quality of their opposition is not historically uncommon.

At 40 and 35 respectively, Vitali and Wladimir still have the desire to continue fighting.  In time, their dominance will be appreciated by boxing historians.  If they have failed to captivate the international boxing public the world over, that reality will fade; their accomplishments are legion.  Similar to the reigns of Larry Holmes and, to a lesser extent, Lennox Lewis, eventually the Klitschkos' mundane title defenses and uncompetitive fights will be forgotten and their impressive boxing ledgers will be all that remain. 

The Klitschkos will be historically significant for many reasons.  Obviously, the notion of two brothers simultaneously defending their belts in one division will long be remembered.  Their ability to open up new markets for professional boxing will have lasting effects which will benefit the sport.  Furthermore, their unique combination of knockout power, discipline, technical savvy and intelligence will be comparative touchstones for future heavyweight boxers.  There is a definitive "Klitschko Style," and it may be some time until we see another boxing talent who possesses their rare array of physical, fundamental and intellectual gifts.

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1 comment:

  1. Great post and writing style, i actually read it all instead of scanning. keep it up!