When last we visited with the best heavyweight in the world, Wladimir Klitschko, he was busy strangely pawing like a kitty cat at Sultan Ibragimov’s glove and rarely throwing a real punch, even as the boos rained down on him from the Madison Square Garden crowd that came to see a February heavyweight unification fight. Emphasis on the word fight. I was there, and I don’t recall seeing one. Not that Klitschko was the only culprit. Ibragimov was playing an extended game of keep away, so the pair combined to fritter away any interest they’d generated in the moribund heavyweight division by Klitschko’s appearance on Conan O’Brien and the rest of the mainstream attention they earned beforehand.
It’s fair to say Klitschko needs to look goooood in his next fight, coming this weekend against Tony Thompson, perhaps the best American heavyweight. Tony’s a jovial guy and entertaining-as-hell blogger with size and skill, but that he’s the best American heavyweight says things I wish it didn’t about the division that most people associate with boxing as a whole. Anyhow, if Klitschko decides to avenge himself with boxing fans against Thompson, it could get interesting, because it’s my view that Thompson’s more dangerous than Ibragimov and poses a combination of challenges to Klitschko he’s never quite encountered before.
Thompson, you see, is the first guy Klitschko’s fought since 2002 who had a longer reach than him. It’s only half an inch longer than Klitschko’s 81-inch reach, but since Klitschko makes such a living throwing out that power jab and controlling distance against smaller men, it could be significant. Thompson’s also a southpaw, like Ibragimov, something Klitschko had trouble with back in February. He’s been described as awkward, one of several reasons he’s been avoided by top heavyweights. He’s got decent pop, with 19 knockouts in 31 wins. He looks like he can take a punch, something he’ll need against Klitschko. This combination has led him to wins over every second-rate heavyweight around, names like Cliff Couser, Luan Krasniqi, Timor Ibragimov, Dominick Guinn and so on and so on. Having started as a professional boxer at the ripe old age of 27, Thompson’s accomplished more in his eight-year career than late starters usually do, and all the slogging against second-raters earned him a mandatory title shot against Klitschko, who otherwise probably would have avoided him the way everyone else has. That’s not to say Klitschko would’ve ducked him, it’s just that he wouldn’t have been looking to fight a pretty good but unknown fighter.
The whole Klitschko-Ivan Drago comparison is apt, to a point. Klitschko is a giant, sculpted heavyweight, like the villain of Rocky IV. He hits hard — harder, according than Ring magazine, than anyone in the sport, pound for pound. He hails from the Ukraine, aka, Drago’s old Soviet Union. The major difference is personality. Klitschko has a Ph.D. and is a gregarious gentleman, unlike that sulking, punching robot Drago. If only Klitschko had just the one in-ring persona. He can be a devastating knockout artist — see the case of Ray Austin — or a tentative safety-firster — see the case of Ibragimov. He’s good enough that he can win a fight with his jab alone, which, frankly, is the most punishing jab in the sport, one that actually hurts people instead of just setting up other punches. You just wish he’d unload all that other heavy artillery more often, in particular his straight right. Maybe he thinks too much in there, one theory, and is all about preserving his considerable senses. Another theory is that he’s still scared of getting hit, since a few knockouts he suffered nearly derailed his career. Whatever the reason, it’s a shame to see all of Klitschko’s offensive gifts put in storage from time to time. And however he’s done it, he’s beat all the best heavyweights he’s faced, including Sam Peter, the #2 heavyweight.
This is no belt unification fight like Klitschko-Ibragimov, so it’s of borderline importance to the sport. What it can do, because boxing fans have such short memories, is reestablish Klitschko as not only the premier heavyweight but also a deserving attraction. It also could give an American a share of the cherished heavyweight title belt pie, something the U.S. hasn’t managed much of late.
My prediction: Klitschko by clear decision. There’s nothing I’ve seen to suggest Thompson’s the better boxer or puncher. Klitschko can win either way. Klitschko’s also way better than anyone Thompson’s ever. Even with Klitschko eager to prove he’s fun to watch and a winner, too, I think his default mode is caution and Thompson will trouble him enough to keep him in that mode, which, together with Thompson’s chin, will combine to keep Thompson on his feet for the final bell.
Confidence: 75%. Klitschko’s lackluster chin makes him vulnerable to a knockout in any given fight against an upper crust heavyweight. Thompson’s style could throw Klitschko off-balance and disrupt his disciplined game plan. If Thompson had a better knockout rate — even Thompson admits he is no one-shot knockout puncher — I’d give him a far better chance of pulling the upset, which, by the way, is not a far-fetched idea at all even under these circumstances.
My allegiance: Thompson. He’s just too entertaining on that blog of his, waxing poetic on tigers, dishwashers, prostate exams and everything under the sun. Of course, I’m equal parts against Klitschko. He really could’ve lifted boxing by performing well against Ibragimov, and he let the chance pass him by. It’s probably smart to assume, as I do now, that he is permanently erratic, if such a state exists. He’s too frustrating to cheer on anymore, and I say that even though I clearly like his outside-the-ring personality. I mean, he recently faked out Sasha Baron Cohen. I’d recommend watching this fight — what else are you doing with your Saturday afternoon? — if I wasn’t convinced that the inside-the-ring Klitschko is too unreliable a performer to make the gamble worthwhile.