Not so anymore. The ebb and flow in the fortunes of the heavyweight division, the barometer of the overall health of the sport, has been on a downward trend. Indeed, it is the case that many pundits are likely to say that never in the sports’ history has the prestige and popularity of its premier division spiralled to such a low point.
England’s David Haye, a former world cruiserweight champion who presently holds the WBA version of the splintered title, has been extremely vocal in expressing his views as to the reason for this nadir: the Klitschko brothers, Wladimir and Vitali.
He describes both as being ponderous, boring to watch and thoroughly devoid of charisma. Wladimir who holds the IBF, IBO and WBO titles and Vitali, the WBC champion have both dominated the heavyweight division since the retirement in 2003 of Lennox Lewis, the last undisputed titleholder.
Just why the amazing feat of two well-educated brothers’ simultaneously holding versions of the world title has failed to capture the public imagination apart, that is, from their Ukrainian motherland and adopted German homeland, is something truly to ponder.
Perhaps it is the fact that they are non-Americans dominating a division which for decades had been the preserve of the American heirs of champions such as Jack Dempsey and Joe Louis. American interest noticeably wanes when champions are foreigners. In fact, when HBO, the American cable television network, announced one year ago that it would no longer be screening any heavyweight title fights, its sports president, Ross Greenburg, made clear that it was the paucity of credible American challengers which lay at the heart of the decision.
Greenburg had mentioned that the only heavyweight contest worth screening would be one involving the Ukrainian and the Englishman. Klitschko versus Haye is the richest bout outside of a fight between Manny Pacquiao and Floyd Mayweather.
Standing at 6 foot 6 and with an optimum fighting weight of around 240lbs, Klitschko is three inches taller than the former world cruiserweight champion, Haye, who is also outreached and outweighed.
While his style is not an aesthetically pleasing sight to the purists, Klitschko’s left jab has served him well in keeping most of his opponents at bay while he sets them up for an arrow-straight right cross. He has an 85 per cent knockout tally and will be looking for his 50th knockout when he encounters Haye.
Haye’s record in securing 23 knockouts in the 25 wins of his career is also impressive. And although a relatively recent graduate to the heavyweight division, he has proved that he has the power to knock over and stop larger men. His best weapon against Klitschko will be his hand speed.
Both men have weaknesses. They have at times been accused of lacking stamina; the decisive factor in Klitschko’s defeat against Ross Puritty, and Haye in his only career loss to Carl Thompson as a cruiserweight. Perhaps the Ukrainian’s greatest vulnerability lies with his ‘chin’, that is, his ability to absorb a heavy blow. His style of keeping his opponents at a safe distance with his long reach, and then tying them up while leaning in with the full weight of his heavy frame has served him well.
It is a ploy which the lighter Haye will undoubtedly be working to counter. Despite a tendency to throw his punch combinations wildly, he stuck rigidly to a well-worked out strategy to defeat the behemoth-like Nikolai Valuev to win his title.
Apart from a physical plan, Haye has consistently employed a psychological tactic against his opponent with infantile-like relish. His verbal jibes and lack of courtesies including the display of a T-shirt bearing his triumphant image bestriding the decapitated torsos of both Klitschkos have gone beyond the boundaries of good taste and sportsmanship.
That notwithstanding, this promises to be the most enthralling heavyweight tussle since Vitali Klitschko’s bout with Lennox Lewis in 2003. Haye is the best of as poor a pool of heavyweight talent as has existed since the inception of the sport, and if it lives up to the high expectations that it has engendered, not least from the combatants who have each promised to score a victory by stoppage, it will go some way in restoring some prestige to the division with arguably the most compelling narrative history of all sports.
Published at China Radio International (CRI) Sports (29th June 2011)
Adeyinka’s latest book is JERSEY BOY: The Life and Mob Slaying of Frankie DePaula