Some fights are more important than whether they’re any good or not. It’s like when you’re a kid and your parents tell you to eat some vegetable that you’ve never tried and are scared to — eating it is the right thing to do, and if it’s delicious, well, that’s bonus. Bernard Hopkins-Joe Calzaghe, in April, is one such case. It may end up being a bore, given Hopkins’ ultra-cerebral, not-punching-very-often trend in the twilight of his career. But it’s two living legends and two of the top five active fighters in the world fighting each other. It’s packed with vitamins, so you better chew on it. And you may not know what you’re missing if you don’t.
Saturday night’s Madison Square Garden showdown between Vladimir Klitschko and Sultan Ibragimov is another such fight. It’s for two of the scattered heavyweight title belts, splintered these days in four or more directions since the last time they were unified in 1999. The belts mean less to the hardcore fan than they do the general public, who want to be able to answer the question when asked, “Who’s the heavyweight champion of the world?” Ring magazine, the bible of boxing, still won’t confer that designation on whoever wins Saturday night. But many will. That makes it important, because there’s some truth to the saying that boxing is only as healthy as its heavyweight division.
Being perfectly honest, I do not expect Klitschko-Ibragimov to be intensely competitive. I rather expect it to be a fairly one-sided blowout. I’ll elaborate on that later on. But there’s a case to be made that it will be intensely competitive. The chance that it will, and the fact that a number of reasonable people believe it will, makes it worthwhile viewing. I also think it will be watchable no matter what, and I’ll get to that — and the reasons it might be a tightly-contested bit of fisticuffs — forthwith.
Klitschko, you see, is one of boxing’s better performers. At least, that is, when he’s on his game. His game is simple. He’s 6’6″. He uses his height to maximum effect, keeping his opponent at the end of a long, discouraging, damaging jab over and over again. When an opponent gets close, which is rare — as his trainer, Emmanuel Steward says, “you have to fight Vladimir’s arms before you can fight Vladimir” — he simply ties him up in a bear hug until the referee separates them. He does this so often that he should be warned and penalized by the referee, but he gets away with it, so it’s hard to blame him for trying. After softening up his man with that jab, he begins to drop his money punch, one of the most devastating in all of boxing: his big right hand, straight ahead. It comes both fast and hard. Most people go down, sooner or later. Most of them stay down. If he can’t land his big right hand, he’ll throw left hooks that have knockout power of their own, and he’ll mix in the occasional uppercut to an onrushing opponent for good measure. He does all this very skillfully, not like a crude street fighter, making it all the more effective. It’s the kind of potent mix that prompted HBO’s Jim Lampley to say, after one of Klitschko’s crushing knockouts, “and that is what a heavyweight is supposed to do.” It’s led Ring magazine to name him, in a recent issue, the biggest puncher in all of boxing. 49 wins. 44 knockouts.
It’s the fact that Klitschko isn’t always on his game that fuels his skeptics. He was well on his way to “next big thing” status — owing to his combination of in-ring ability and outside the ring intelligence (he actually has a doctorate, and not an honorary one) and pleasant personality (speaks English well, is humble and is charitable) — before he was knocked out, surprisingly, by heavy underdog Corrie Sanders in 2003. He went into some kind of psychological tailspin after that, losing by knockout to Lamon Brewster in 2004 and barely pulling out a win against Sam Peter in 2005 after being knocked down five times in one night. It is my belief that the win over Peter finally convinced him he could beat someone who hits him hard; he still looks strangely uncomfortable with the idea, as I would be, but I’m not a professional boxer. Aside from some listless early rounds against Calvin Brock in 2006, he’s looked pretty good since, knocking out Brock with a straight right in the seventh round, knocking out Ray Austin with a couple of left hooks in two rounds last year and just flat beating the tar out of Chris Byrd in 2006 and then Brewster for vengeance in 2007. All but Austin could reasonably be considered top 10 heavyweights at the time Klitschko defeated them.
Ibragimov is far less accomplished and experienced, but he’s got a flashier name on his resume, outboxing an ancient Evander Holyfield last year. He’s ranked sixth by Ring magazine among heavyweights, but that says more about the heavyweight division’s depth than it does about Ibragimov. It’s not that Ibragimov is bad — it’s just that he’s not exceptional. He is fast, but not the Road Runner. He’s powerful, but not like Klitschko. He’s got passable defense, but he’s proven open to counter-punches when he initiates his offense. He’s a well-schooled amateur, but rough around the edges — less so these days thanks to the additional schooling of trainer Jeff Mayweather, who comes from a boxing family that understands the craft. He’s a southpaw, one of his biggest advantages, and one that helps him compensate for his less than towering size for a heavyweight (he’s listed at a generous 6’2″). He has a bunch of knockouts — 17 in 22 wins — but against stiffer competition, like Holyfield and Shannon Briggs in 2007, he has been less destructive, winning by decision. Steward says Ibragimov is the toughest competition of Klitschko’s career.
Theoretically, Ibragimov moves well enough to stay away from Klitschko’s jab, and is crafty enough get himself into position to get inside of it. Theoretically, his left-handedness will trouble Klitschko. Theoretically, his track record of beating taller fighters means he will have the ability to beat Klitschko. In theory, he could come up with a game plan to unravel Klitschko’s simple approach. I have no trouble with those theories, I just don’t agree with them. To beat Klitschko, I think, requires testing his fragile psyche with big punches, bigger punches than Ibragimov throws, and more of them than have gotten through against him lately, a difficult proposition. Ibragimov had great difficulty with Ray Austin in a 2006 draw — the same Austin who got creamed by Klitschko in two — and even if he has improved since then, when Austin “fought tall” the way Klitschko routinely does, Ibragimov looked lost. It’s informative today. Nobody “fights tall” better than Klitschko, making Ibragimov’s path to the belt that much more of a tall order.
My prediction: The blowout will be by Klitschko, of Ibragimov. I do not believe the knockout will come in two rounds, like it did for Austin. I expect Ibragimov to last well into the middle of the fight, given that he is craftier than Austin and will have stored up lessons from Mayweather in the art of evasion. But until then, the good moments for Ibragimov will be few and far between. He’s hittable, and he’s been hurt before by less imposing punchers than Klitschko. Klitschko’s far busier than Ibragimov’s previous opponents, too. Klitschko’s underrated because of his flaws, but good and even great fighters have flaws. Klitschko, for now, has mastered his.
Confidence: 90%. Ibragimov may be able to keep away from Klitschko’s jab, but will he land in return? When he lands, will Klitschko be troubled by it? Ibragimov could narrowly outpoint Klitschko, or he could knock him out if he turns him back into the quivering mass of jumbled emotion that he was against Brewster and, at times, Peter. But I don’t see it. If I do end up seeing it, wow — that would be a huge, huge upset in my eyes.
My allegiance: I admire Ibragimov’s bravery for wanting to fight Klitschko, and I admire his desire to unify the heavyweight belts. But Klitschko has the same desire, he’s a better fighter, I find him a tad his personality a tad more pleasing and I appreciate the fact that his nickname is “Dr. Steelhammer,” both for its super-villain quality and the fact that he’s actually got a doctorate. Plus, as a commenter here said recently, his win is better for boxing.
Now, it’s off to Madison Square Garden. I’ll be filing items from the scene on Friday and Saturday, and I expect to cap it off by live-blogging the main event.