Wladimir Klitschko – Ruslan Chagaev Preview And Prediction: Ennui, With Substance

Saturday is the moment we’ve been waiting for. It’s when Wladimir Klitschko — spurred by the most meaningful fight of his life, where he can undisputedly proclaim himself the division’s true champion if he wins — finally dispenses with the bumper bowling, finally ditches the water wings, finally jumps without a net and behaves like the heavyweight we all want him to be. He’ll let his hands go without fear, because, well, it’s the most meaningful fight of his life, and well, his opponent, Ruslan Chagaev, good as he is, is no big puncher, and really, isn’t that what makes Klitschko so tentative? That most of the guys he’s fought of late can only beat him with that one big punch that lands on his shiny glass chin?

Nah, who am I kidding. That’s a primrose path if there ever was one, thinking Klitschko will throw caution out the window. Nor is Chagaev a heavyweight destroyer of the Mike Tyson heritage, even though his nickname is “White Tyson.” As such, my non-sarcastic prediction for Saturday is “ennui.”

But for the fight, which will air on ESPN Classic, some of the other stuff is true. We will finally have a real heavyweight champion, as the Ring belt is up for grabs, as enough of the other belts are up for grabs for those who care to pay attention to them, and one way or the other you won’t find much of anyone who will refuse to acknowledged the winner as the real heavyweight king of kings. Unless we get a draw. Knowing this division? I wouldn’t count it out.

That the Klitschko Bros., Wladimir and Vitali, are the class of the heavyweights is beyond dispute. You might find someone like me who thinks maybe a crazy explosive puncher like David Haye has an outside shot at toppling one of them, but even with that in mind, they are the best. I tend to think Vitali is a little better, because although he fights cautiously, it’s not because he’s scared of getting hit — it’s just because it’s a little smarter not to get hit, and he’s going to win anyhow, so if he needed to get dragged into a shootout, he’d be more likely to win than Wladi ir. Wladimir, though, has accomplished significantly more, beating the overall better fighters and in greater numbers. Thus, he’s the #1 man in the division. And, by virtue of his long dominance, he’s also one of my top 20 pound-for-pound fighters.

The formula for his success is simple yet formidable. He is 6’7″. He has athletic gifts that constantly surprise whoever his last opponent is — he’s faster, has better balance and has sharper reflexes than anyone expects until you’re in the ring with him. He also hits very, very hard, with a jab that can stun. And his style is entirely designed to conceal his one weakness, a chin that led him to suffer two knockout losses to far less advantaged foes, and take advantage of his supreme asset, his height. Ofensively, the plan is jab, jab, jab, jab, jab, jab, straight right hand to the head, jab, jab, jab, jab, jab, jab, jab, jab, jab, jab, left hook to the head; defensively the plan is jab, jab, jab, jab, jab, tie up, jab, jab, jab, jab, jab, jab, step back. I’m probably being generous to him by underestimating the jab count there. There is no body punching, never, as that might expose Klitschko to a head shot. There is the occasional uppercut. Eventually, sometimes even after just one round, his opponents get frustrated when everything they try, everything they planned to try, falls by the wayside. You see the surrender in their eyes at that moment. Meanwhile, they’re getting pounded into dust by that jab, and the only question is whether they survive to the final bell by not trying to win or get knocked out going for it.

There’s something admirable about the methodical machine-like way in which Klitschko wins, but when you see him score one of his highlight-reel KOs, it just is such a tease.

Chagaev is like a better version of the man over whom Klitschko won his most detestable decision, Sultan Ibragimov. Both are crafty, relatively fleet-footed but undersized (by today’s standards) lefties. Chagaev is a little smaller at 6’1″ and with a 74″ reach, but he’s got the sharper skill set. And Chagaev looks to have a better chin than Ibragimov. He won his #3 ranking by beating another giant, 7′ Nicolay Valuev, although it must be said Valuev is far more lumbering and far less skilled than a Klitschko. Chagaev hunted and pecked his way to a decision win, scoring with counters and occasionally buzzing Valuev. But as I said, he’s no puncher, not even a puncher of the caliber of Ibragimov. He’s got 17 knockouts in 25 wins, although none of those knockouts came against a top-10 caliber heavyweight, like, say, Valuev, or John Ruiz, or Vladimir Virchis, or even a sub top-10 guy like Matt Skelton, probably the four best opponents of his career. He struggled a little bit his last time out against Carl Davis Drummond, not a name you should have heard other than in the context of “a dude who fought Chagaev once and lost on a technical decision after the fight was stopped because Chagaev was cut.”

Did Chagaev struggle against Drummond because of his endless health woes, like a torn Achilles, or hepatitis B, or the time he got a transplant of the whole right side of his body? Hard to say. He did look mostly mobile, Chagaev, and maybe Drummond was a tougher opponent than anyone could have guessed. But you do have to wonder slightly about his health now. He only gets this fight as a replacement opponent for the injured Haye because Finnish authorities wouldn’t give him a medical clearance a couple weeks ago for a Valuev rematch.

Mobile or no, healthy or no, I don’t see Chagaev having enough to even come close to beating Klitschko. In theory, he could circle and counter, lunge in at awkward left-handed moments, work the body during clinches, etc. and outpoint Klitschko. That theory is a long shot. An even longer shot is the thought that Chagaev could be the one to score the magic punch on Klitschko, but if a mega-hitter like Sam Peter couldn’t keep Klitschko down, how in the name of hepatitis B is Chagaev going to be able to? Lately, when I’ve been so dismissive of a fighter’s chances, they’ve proven me wrong by showing some dimension I didn’t anticipate, but I’m sticking by my dismissiveness because I don’t have the imagination to fashion some dimension Chagaev even MIGHT have that could topple Klitschko. Flatly, I don’t think he can outbox Klitschko and I don’t think he can outpunch him.

That leaves the question of whether Klitscko wins by decision or knockout. I’d like to think this is the fight where Klitschko takes a strategic risk for once, and really does come out like Richard Pryor on fire, all crazed frenzy and immolation. He’s far more likely to take what Chagaev gives him. And I’m going to assume the best of Chagaev, that this is the fight of a lifetime, his chance to seize the heavyweight crown, and he’ll act accordingly. Did it stop Ibragimov from wussing out, when he had a similar opportunity to unify a heavyweight title belt or three? Not even a little. But I’m giving Chagaev the benefit of the doubt. So he gets knocked out late rather than losing a cruddy decision. That’s your prize, Chagaev! Getting knocked out! But we’ll respect you more in the morning than we did Ibragimov, promise.

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.