A Rare Breed: Vitali Klitschko – Juan Carlos Gomez Preview And Prediction

It kind of defeats the point to have a somewhat significant heavyweight fight on a major free cable network if said major free cable network doesn’t really tell anyone it’s happening. That’s especially true if it’s counter-programming against the (justifiable) ratings giant that is the NCAA tournament. And it’s even less fulfilling if the thing gets moved to a smaller network at the last minute.

Still, all in all, I’d rather have Vitali Klitschko-Juan Carlos Gomez on ESPN Classic this Saturday — rebroadcast later on ESPN2 — than not. Vitali gets unfairly thrown in with his deservedly-maligned brother Wladimir when people talk about the unappealing-yet-successful “Klitschkos,” but Vitali’s got a markedly better balance of appealing-and-successful than his younger sibling. He won’t make anyone forget Mike Tyson, or Evander Holyfield, or even Lennox Lewis, but he has at times comported himself like a proper heavyweight, which is to say, he transforms into an aggressive sledgehammer of a human. You can make the case that Vitali deserves to be considered the #1 heavyweight over Wladimir just one fight into a comeback. Gomez, meanwhile, is a legit top-10 heavy. Significant heavyweight fight on the worldwide sports leader = good progress. Significant heavyweight fight on a spinoff network of the worldwide sports leader, reportedly because the fight got rescheduled by one hour and worldwide sports leader is airing an NCAA wrestling event in that slot = humiliating, albeit better than nothing.

Whether it will be a good or competitive fight are separate questions. Gomez, a former cruiserweight great, doesn’t pack much of a punch one division north, and as a lefty, he offers the potential for awkward action. It’s also unclear which Vitali will show up — the one who, prior to his retirement, seemed to be trying his hardest to capture the public’s imagination, or the one who, against Sam Peter in his comeback, took his foot off the gas pedal a tad. And while there’s a growing sentiment that Gomez is a live underdog, to that I quote Rorschach from “Watchmen”: “Hurm.”

I spent a lot of time this week watching clips of both men, Gomez because I hadn’t seen much of him and Klitschko because it had been a while since I’d seen him fight anyone but Peter.

I’d forgotten how many gigantic right hands Klitschko and Lewis landed on one another in the fight that propelled Klitschko to respectability. He’d been good before, of course, but he was viewed as a lesser talent than his brother, and all people could talk about was him quitting against Chris Byrd despite being ahead on the scorecards, citing a shoulder injury. It was a bad shoulder injury, and I’d long defended him for quitting in that fight, but someone somewhere recently noted he could have fought without throwing a punch from that side. It was a fair point. Warranted or not, the criticism made Klitschko fight Lewis like a wildcat through a cut that to this day turns my stomach to consider. When the fight was correctly stopped because of the cut, Lewis got the win, and Klitschko threw a fit. In three fights after that, he fought in such a fiery manner that he prompted HBO’s Jim Lampley to say once, “You want to see a heavyweight destroyer? Vitali Klitschko wants to be your man.”

Vitali fought a bit more like his brother when he returned from a long injury layoff, which is to say, more cautiously. The Klitschkos always use their height to near-perfection, but Vitali, at 6’8″ with surprising athleticism and unbelievable power — 35 knockouts in 36 wins — doesn’t cower and clinch the way Wladimir does when someone tries to hits him back. In his comeback fight against Sam Peter, Vitali probably could have unloaded his arsenal a little sooner and finished Peter off. But he may have respected Peter’s power and picked his spots. He also was looking smoother than he had before his comeback, and maybe he’s decided to make it easier on himself. Peter hardly landed a clean blow as Vitali established the ideal distance for his range of punches — he’s not as one dimensional offesnively as his brother, either — then blocked or moved back from every Peter shot. Either way, aggressive Vitali or patient Vitali is, to me, the best heavyweight there is, from the standpoint of ability, physical traits and mental makeup.

Gomez is more from the Muhammad Ali school of heavyweight, and I don’t mean they’re much alike — it would be blasphemous to compare the two men other than to say that Gomez, like Ali, thrives on speed more than power, skill over brawling. Gomez is maybe Whitesnake to Ali’s Zeppelin. Careerwise, he’s been erratic, as his focus has waxed and waned. Everyone gets caught sometimes, but that Gomez got caught and stopped by Yanqui Diaz once, whose name somehow suggests his precise level of mediocrity, shows just how much Gomez is capable of taking his eye off the ball. But at his best — and everyone says he’s at his best now, with a trainer who’s getting the best out of him and focus like never before — he’s a tricky, slick fighter. He was pretty impressive against Vladimir Virchis, whom he beat to get the mandatory title shot, slipping most everything Virchis threw and hitting him at will. He does it standing in the pocket, composed to the point of seeming bored, and making subtle moves that allow him to counter.

On an off-night for Klitschko, the theory goes, maybe Gomez gives him some trouble, but having seen the best of Gomez and the worst of Klitschko, I don’t envision that happening. Hypothetically, it is speed more than power that will give a Klitschko his next loss, and that’s a check mark for Gomez. But I don’t see Gomez having the kind of lateral movement, reach or explosive speed necessary to first get away from Klitschko’s punches then leap in and close the distance gap quickly. Even if Gomez gets out of the way, Klitschko’s excellent at switching back to defense by the time anyone can even think of returning fire. And it’s not as if Vitali hasn’t fought slick, tricky guys before. Meanwhile, Gomez gets credit for beating the bigger Virchis, but Virchis was a mere inch taller than Gomez’ 6’3″. Five inches is a lot more of a bridge to cross in boxing (“a game of inches”) than one inch. Gomez’ lefty stance could trouble Klitschko, but, again, Klitschko’s beat his share of lefties, and pretty convincingly. Honestly, I think Gomez’ best hope is that Klitschko is nursing some injury, his primary flaw as a fighter being his brittleness, or that he suffers some kind of injury mid-fight.

If you add it all up — Gomez’ speed and southpaw stance, the potential for a Klitschko off night or injury — I don’t think anyone who considers Gomez a live ‘dog crazy. I just don’t agree. If Gomez pulled it off, it would offer the opportunity for someone to become the true heavyweight champion, since the Klitschkos being ranked #1 and #2 and not fighting each other means there’s a blockade on filling the vacancy. And I’d be very surprised.

But I say Klitschko by knockout, round 10, because it could take him a while to catch up with Gomez’ defense. After, he gets possible pound-for-pound top-20 consideration and should maybe get ranked officially by Ring magazine as the #1 heavyweight, even though Wladimir has beaten more quality heavyweights than he has.

About Tim Starks

Tim is the founder of The Queensberry Rules and co-founder of The Transnational Boxing Rankings Board (http://www.tbrb.org). He lives in Washington, D.C. He has written for the Guardian, Economist, New Republic, Chicago Tribune and more.