Quiet Man Hug: Wladimir Klitschko – Sultan Ibragimov

February 23, 2008, Madison Square Garden, New York

But for now, [Eddie] Chambers is a young American athlete challenging for what once was the prestigious prize in all of sports, and even in his hometown you need a high-speed internet connection to watch it. How did we get to this point? And how do we reverse this and revive interest in the division?

The answers to the first question are mostly obvious and have been discussed over and over (young American big men pursuing football or basketball instead, the recognizable names of the ’80s and ’90s finally fading away, etc.). If there’s one incident to point to as a tipping point, it’s the night of Feb. 23, 2008, when Wladimir Klitschko fought Sultan Ibragimov in an alphabet unification fight at Madison Square Garden. You don’t get a grander stage in America than that, and “Dr. Steel Hammer” only brought one tool, his jab. Two years later, it’s safe to say the heavyweight division hasn’t recovered from the damage done that night, when the boos raining down at MSG were so loud you’d have thought the Knicks were playing. – Eric Raskin, RingTV.com

I have a strong suspicion that history will be kinder to the heavyweight reign of the Klitschko brothers than those of us watching it unfold are. History tends to reward excellence; the present prefers excitement. Those of us who have watched Wladimir, the younger Klitschko, perfect his style, mask his faults, and hone a thoroughly dominant and equally snooze-inducing style can grumble at each underwhelming performance, each safety-first round, each and every time we yelled at the screen, “Just knock him out already!” only to watch the cerebral heavyweight contentedly jab his opponent into submission. Those who come after us will only see a mountain of victories and dominance that has sustained for nearly a decade.

However, as the great Knicks announcer and Hall of Fame player Walt “Clyde” Frazier might say, history may be kind but that does not make it blind. History may forgive Wladimir’s lesser efforts but it will not forget them. Certainly, no effort was lesser than the Madison Square Garden Jabs Festival, when Klitschko and Sultan Ibragimov gave new meaning to “undisputed heavyweight championship” by not really doing all the much fighting for the onetime most prestigious title in sports.

This weekend, Klitschko will battle Eddie Chambers for Klitschko’s heavyweight belts in Germany. Those of us interested in watching the fight will pay $14.95 to watch the fight on the Klitschko’s website. Two years ago, Klitschko fights were shown on HBO — no questions asked. As Eric Raskin pointed out in his breakdown of the Klitschko-Chambers matchup, that all changed when Klitschko and Ibragimov prompted comparisons to the Isaiah Thomas Knicks, surely as damning an insult as a sporting event can be given. After that fight and the ensuing (and unrelated, I think…) economic meltdown in the U.S., HBO reconsidered whether it made sense to be in the Klitschko business.

How did this happen? How did a heavyweight title unification fight between the best heavyweight in the world and a tough, experienced challenger, fought in one of the hallowed boxing arenas in the world, result in a widely derided contest that evaporated the interest in heavyweight boxing of the biggest boxing broadcaster in the U.S.?

The answer is simple: Wladimir Klitschko’s chin.

The younger Klitschko has always embodied immense talent. His impressive size, imposing physique, admirable intelligence, and Olympic pedigree made him destined for success as a professional heavyweight. As his career progressed and he accepted stiffer challenges, however, his weaknesses emerged — Klitschko ran out of gas as fights progress to the deep end and his chin was vulnerable.

Here is where we get into “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” territory with heavyweights. We want our heavyweights to maintain an aura of invincibility. We also want our heavyweights to entertain, both inside and outside the ring. Ultimately, we were spoiled by Muhammad Ali and Mike Tyson, who managed to provide thrilling spectacle in both arenas.

Early in his career, Wladimir Klitschko was entertaining yet vulnerable. Now, Wladimir is nearly invincible yet dull. He is inevitably forced to sacrifice one for the other and, in doing so, leaves his supporters dissatisfied on one count or another. When he hired Emmanuel Steward to refine his style and take him to the top of the division, he adopted a safety-first style that accentuates his strengths (his height, his jab, his pulverizing right hand) without exposing his flaws (the gas and the chin). Wladimir fights each fight with a careful game plan, a measured style, and a mass of boxing fans outside of Europe wondering if anything else is on TV.

I’ve gone this long without actually talking about Klitschko-Ibragimov, although most of you should thank me for that. Klitschko-Ibragimov stunk for the reason that most Klitschko fights stunk — Klitschko was able to win rounds without taking risks and Ibragimov was not good enough to make him alter his style at all. Klitschko-Ibragimov stunk worse than most other Klitschko fights because Klitschko was unable to knock out his foe, denying us a satisfactory ending to justify the whole adventure. In the middle rounds, Manny began making comparisons in the corner between Klitschko-Ibragimov and Wladimir’s fight with Calvin Brock, which also took place in Madison Square Garden. I was in the crowd for Klitschko-Brock and, while the first half of the fight was nondescript, in the middle rounds Wladimir began landing his piledriver right hand, knocking out “The Boxing Banker” and satisfying the fans thirst for excitement.

Nobody compares Klitschko-Brock to the Stephon Marbury Knicks. All it took was a knockout.

(Wladimir Klitschko could learn a few things from this guy.)

Klitschko’s disinterest in stopping Ibragimov was evident from the outset. Incorporating a new angle into his safety-first style, Wladimir engaged in numerous bouts of glove slapping in the early rounds. In fact, the entertainment of these rounds would have been enhanced if the play-by-play was called by the guy from the Old Spice commercials: “Look at my glove. I slap at your glove. I jab at your face. Now slap your glove. Now jab your face. I’m on a horse.” Of course, if Klitschko were on a horse, there would have been a much better reason to revisit this fight.

For the first half of the fight I am more interested in revisiting my new nicknames for Wlad than my account of the action. Suffice to say, Wlad jabs a lot, Ibragimov lands a couple random hooks, and Wlad jabs some more. Meanwhile, some new potential nicknames for Klitschko: Dr. Jab Jabber. The Big Jabroni. Kareem Abdul-JabJab. The Granite Slab of Jab. The Jibber Jabber. The Ukraine Stick. The Ol’ 1-1.

The HBO broadcast picks up the boos from the crowd for the first time at the beginning of round 5 and Lampley notes their dissatisfaction. Wladimir responds by landing his first right hand of the fight. In the 5th round. By the 7th round, Jim Lampley is comparing this fight to Lennox Lewis-Zeljko Mavrovic (a future QMH candidate?), Lewis is defending himself rather feebly (Lennox: “The difference is, I was trying to knock him out.” Max: “What??”), and CompuBox numbers show Klitschko landing seven power punches through seven rounds. Not seven power punches a round. Seven total through seven rounds. In a fight he is winning handily.

In the 9th round, Klitschko lands consecutive jab-straight right hand combinations that leave Ibragimov tied up in the bottom ropes. The ref fails to rule correctly, as it should have been scored a knockdown. Wladimir fails to capitalize on his hurt foe and the round ends with a whimper.

By the 11th round, the broadcasting team is criticizing Klitschko. Klitschko’s trainer is criticizing Klitschko. The fans are criticizing Klitschko. And Klitchko continues to jab.

In the end, Wladimir wins a decision as predictable as the sunrise. Max is critical in his post-fight interview and, to his credit, Wladimir acknowledges that he should have done more. In a twelve-round fight to unify heavyweight belts, he landed a total of 40 power punches over the course of 12 rounds. Manny Pacquiao probably landed more power punches against Ricky Hatton in two rounds.

Now, Wladimir Klitschko will defend his belts without a post-fight interview with Max Kellerman or Larry Merchant. He will defend his belts without U.S. television or U.S. media interest. Now, perhaps, he will realize that he needs to do more.

I’m not counting on it, however. I’m counting on Wlad to try to jab, I’m counting on Wlad to try to win, and I’m counting on Wlad to profess to do more the next time out. Sometimes, you just can’t change who you are, even if you had to change who you were to become who you are.

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.