How’s this for a coincidence (sarcasm alert!): Six straight opponents of the heavyweight brothers Klitschko have been accused, by some critics or nearly everyone, of not trying very hard to win, of not taking advantage of openings, or just generally acting like they were disinterested in being there. For Wladimir, those opponents were, in reverse chronological order, Hasim Rahman, Tony Thompson, Sultan Ibragimov and Lamon Brewster. For Vitali, those opponents were Samuel Peter, and then this past weekend Juan Carlos Gomez.
Here’s another coincidence (sarcasm alert set to red!): the moment in the 7th where Gomez became ultra-aggressive was followed moments later by him being put on his ass.
I point this out by way of jumping into a lengthier assessment of Vitali coming off his most recent win, and, to a lesser extent, his brother, too. The reviews of Vitali’s latest performance were decidedly mixed. And they probably should be, although not precisely in the way they have been. That includes my own review.
If the point of my sarcasm is lost on anyone, it’s this: Maybe some of the Klitschkos’ opponents were dogging it, but I don’t think all of them were. For some of the boxers in question, those fights were the most important of their life. For all of them, they were at least in the top two or three most important of their life. Why would they pick that moment not to try?
I do think that some of them very quickly came to terms with the inevitability of their defeat and essentially quit, sure. Like I said the other day — you can usually see it in the eyes of a Klitschko opponent after a couple rounds. The windows to their souls speak loud and clear: “I came in with some idea of how I might deal with these hard-hitting giants who hardly ever get hit in return, but it has become obvious to me that I was out of my mind to the point of delusion.” Hell, even I thought Brewster, for instance — given his injury history — had the look of someone coming to collect one last paycheck. But by contrast, I saw Thompson and Gomez trying, for example. Those openings ESPN’s Teddy Atlas was talking about for Gomez, what with Vitali “giving up his height” and all that? I think it was an illusion. I think Vitali wanted Gomez to try to open up from a certain range so he could counter him. And when he got too close, where Gomez had some kind of imaginary chance of “working on the inside,” Vitali just tied him up, although not excessively so. Maybe somebody somewhere can take advantage of Vitali supposedly giving up his height, but it’s no easy puzzle. Everyone who fights Vitali has the air of a much better fighter coming in than he does leaving.
That, of course, raises the question about how good the Klitschkos really are. And as has been said in this space and many others, we can only speculate. There are no heavyweights anywhere near Vitali’s ballpark these days, although with Wladimir’s shaky chin, maybe someone can catch him some day with the right combination of speed and power, like maybe David Haye. Vitali takes punches too well to seem particularly vulnerable to any kind of attack that anyone these days can present. You have to go back to the Lennox Lewis fight to find a time when Vitali was challenged, and Lewis, for all of HIS critics, probably was the best heavyweight of his generation — Evander Holyfield, Mike Tyson, Riddick Bowe, all of them — and, I would argue, severely underrated on the list of the best of all time. Lewis was an extraordinary combination of height, speed, smarts and power, slightly shorter than Vitali and with a more dingable chin, but also a more fluid athlete.
And that lack of fluidity opens Klitschko to complaints that he’s bad television. It is here where I become more sympathetic. Before his semi-retirement, I thought Klitschko was pretty fun to watch, by heavyweight standards. Lewis-Klitschko was a genuinely good fight. His three fights after featured big knockouts that you only get in the heavyweight division. Even his 7th round knockdown of Gomez got my pulse jolting a little. But in his two fights since the comeback, whatever the reason — he respected the power of Sam Peter? Gomez’ southpaw stance would screw with anyone? — he’s fought a smidge more cautiously than I would like. He’s not degenerated to his brother’s level of sub-entertainment, clutching and cowering the way Wladimir does, but Wladimir kind of has no choice given his past knockout losses, and for Vitali to get more cautious like he has is a tad disappointing. I said before, and I maintain, that Vitali’s the best combination of excellence and entertainment available at heavyweight. But in retrospect, the only real competition in the “excellence” department is Wladimir. Again, it’s only speculation, but I do envision those two giving trouble to many of the great heavyweights of generations past, Vitali more than Wladimir. Pretty much every heavyweight below them is either unproven and flawed (Haye and Chris Arreola) or would have almost surely been easy pickings for prime versions of the members of the previous generation of heavyweights I mentioned, like your Lewises and Tysons.
The most damning thing anyone has said that I’ve heard or seen about the Klitschko-Gomez fight came from my friend David, with whom I watched the bout. He responded: “If I wasn’t a fan of boxing, that fight wouldn’t have made me one.” He added that he’s probably been spoiled by watching smaller, more nimble fighters who pack more quality athleticism, skill and action into a fight than any heavyweight can. I share that bias. I liked the Bowe-Holyfield trilogy, don’t get me wrong, but all of my favorite fights involve smaller men. But it was damning nonetheless. It was enough, honestly, to make me wish the Klitschkos, even Vitali, would just go away. We’d be left with marginally talented/unproven-flawed types, but at least we’d have better fights. The heavyweight division, for all my bias, can still be fun sometimes — Arreola-Travis Walker was a Fight of the Year candidate in 2008, and Martin Rogan-Matt Skelton is an early candidate this year.
I still think there’s even a chance a Klitschko can hypotehtically be in a fun fight — Wladimir-Haye, if it ever gets signed. Vitali’s talking about Arreola or Nicolay Valuev, and I think he’d murder both of them in dreary affairs. Arreola is a good show but he’d be overmatched and that would limit his ability to be exciting, and while there’d be something fascinating about the two biggest heavyweight titlists of all time going at it should Vitali fight Valuev — probably won’t happen, Valuev’s team hasn’t shown much interest in fighting a Klitschko from what I can tell — Valuev is so stiff he makes Vitali look like M.C. Hammer. It would get a lot of headlines for that “tallest vs. the tallest” angle, anyone who watched would probably have the same reaction as my friend David, times 10.
Ultimately, more often than not of late, the Klitschkos, even when it looks like there’s a chance an exciting fight can break out featuring one of them, have failed to deliver. They may be good fighters. I suspect they are. Their charity work and marketable stories are positives as well, and their popularity in Germany is a plus. That’s just not enough, given the way people who aren’t hardcore fans look to the heavyweight division. That’s especially so if their persistence means that the #1 and #2 heavyweights — i.e., the brothers — won’t fight each other, thereby ensuring we won’t get a true heavyweight champ for a while, either. On balance, the Klitschkos aren’t sufficiently entertaining for their pluses to overcome it.