So it sounds like a go: Vitali Klitschko vs. David Haye in June, which instantly becomes one of the most significant, and most promising, heavyweight fights in years. When I say promising, I of course mean only that it offers promise. At the same time, it holds tremendous potential to be a letdown. With the way the general public still associates boxing with the heavyweight division, the outcome could be either a great boon to the sport as a whole or another reason to write off the heavyweights entirely.
What it has going for it is the elder Klitschko, who returned triumphantly from years of injury in 2008 to stake a claim as the real, honest-to-God heavyweight standard bearer, a path he was on before his layoff. Maybe he doesn’t capture the imagination quite the way you’d like, but he’s far better than the deeply flawed big men who have littered the scene in his absence; he’s a heavyweight I can live with as the division’s chieftain, anyway, because he fights, for the most part, in a style I want to see heavyweights fight in. And a bout with Haye has a built-in storyline because Klitschko’s saying he’s all angry as hell at Haye over the photo at the above right from Men’s Health, what with Haye holding up the head of his little brother, Wladimir, one of the aforementioned deeply flawed big men.
And of course, the other thing it has going for the fight is Haye, who himself has shown the potential to be at least a passable heavyweight standard bearer, and maybe more. He’s got the looks, the flamboyant personality, and a go-for-broke style that makes him must-see TV. His big mouth — or, I suppose, his big publicity stunt with the Wladimir pic — helped him get this fight, and it’ll help him promote it, too. Another of his stunts is that, according to Haye, Lennox Lewis will be in his corner for the fight, which will agitate Vitali because Vitali still pines for a Lewis rematch and simultaneously serve to frame Haye-Klitschko as the fight to be Lewis’ successor as a heavyweight the public recognizes.
And on the down side?
When it happens, it could be over early — and that’s if it happens at all.
Just because the bout sounds like a go doesn’t mean it is. I’ve seen no evidence that the fight is signed, and Klitschko has some issues to work out with the alphabet sanctioning organization that gave him his current title belt. Klitschko’s manager appeared ready to ditch that belt if the organization gives him too much grief, but there’s a chance it could get in the way.
More importantly, while Klitschko looked extremely healthy (to say the least) in his destruction of Samuel Peter, he’s still canceled more fights than he’s shown up for over the years. Until he’s in the ring, there’s a reasonable risk of postponement.
Moreover, Haye’s chin at heavyweight is under-tested. It wasn’t really ever that good at cruiserweight (200 lbs.), but he’s only fought one heavyweight of note, Monte Barrett, and Haye admitted that Barrett hurt him with his jab. Vitali isn’t as one-dimensionally jab-heavy as his younger bro, but he’s got a pretty unpleasant jab, one that would hurt Haye more than Barrett ever could. If Vitali connects with something serious early, Haye may be knocked out in the very first round. Haye knows this; in fact, he realizes it’s part of his appeal as a fighter that he is so vulnerable, and has rather vocally advertised that if Klitschko hits him cleanly, he probably takes a nap.
But all of that still makes me trepidatious. If I were charting Haye’s 2009, I’d have him fight Wladimir first, because I think that’s a far more interesting bout for Haye in the short term. Wladimir is perhaps as likely as Vitali to knock Haye out in the first round, but then, I think Haye’s got a pretty good chance of doing the same to him; these are two men with real power and questionable chins, and that fight is a fun roll of the dice. If Haye can survive Wladimir, then I see Haye-Vitali as a more viable bout. Vitali’s chin isn’t very questionable at all. He may be able to knock out Vitali, but he’d probably need a while, and that means he’d be spending more time putting himself at risk of getting hit back. Best-case scenario for Haye: He fights the same way against Vitali that Manny Pacquiao did against Oscar De La Hoya, where Manny was too fast to get caught and carried enough power up from a lighter weight to do some serious damage. With Haye’s tendency to slug it out, there’s no guarantee he could pull off that trick, or would even want to.
Haye as the world’s most acclaimed heavyweight is a good thing for boxing. That he’s not an American could hurt him in the United States, but then, he’d probably be viewed as an upgrade over a pair of Ukrainians. And I have little doubt that he’d push to become the most acclaimed heavyweight; he’s said he wants both Klitschkos, ranked, appropriately, #1 and #2 in the world. As young as he is, he’d have plenty of time to rule the roost, too.
Klitschko as the world’s most acclaimed heavyweight is a dicier prospect. At 38, he may beat Haye and then go straight into retirement, and then we’re back where we started. His refusal to fight his brother means that even if he beats Haye and continues, there won’t be a true, lineal heavyweight champ until one Klitschko is defeated or quits. On the other hand, he’s an upgrade from his brother, the current most prominent heavyweight. If you saw Wladimir defeat Hasim Rahman this weekend, you know what I’m talking about. Wladimir is patient and safety-conscious to a fault. It’s hard to imagine how a nearly shot James Toney nearly knocked out Rahman early in their rematch and it took Wladimir seven rounds. Don’t get me wrong, that style works for him. Everyone he fights, often in the opening round, quickly is made to look like he’s not even trying, because he runs out of options against an extremely tall guy who’s determined to jab him out of existence and tie up his opposition when it gets close. Vitali has the same effect on his opposition, but watching Vitali — who unloads more freely and isn’t nearly as afraid of getting hit — is infinitely more enjoyable.
Overall, despite the potential risks and rewards, I’m far more in favor of this fight happening than not. At worst, something will happen that makes people say, “See? The heavyweight division in boxing is a waste of time.” Maybe boxing as a whole ends up a little worse off for yet more expectations unmet, although I doubt it will end up worse by much. But if something good comes of it? It’s all bonus.