So begins our marathon coverage of Wladimir Klitschko vs. David Haye, one of the biggest fights of 2011. Now: The stakes of Klitschko-Haye. Next: Keys to the fight.
Saturday afternoon at 4:45 ET is the rather inglorious hour when HBO will air the most important, most anticipated heavyweight fight in nearly a decade: division champion Wladimir Klitschko vs. David Haye. Behind Manny Pacquiao-Floyd Mayweather, Jr., it’s also probably the biggest fight that can be made in the sport at all.
In the nine years since Lennox Lewis vs. Mike Tyson, boxing went through a stretch where it badly missed meaningful action for its big boys, who hold a particular appeal for the casual fans who are drawn to gigantic men smashing each other to pieces. Then, gradually, everyone — including those casual fans — came to realize that there was life below 201 pounds. More than 50 pounds below the heavyweight cutoff, welterweights like Oscar De La Hoya, Mayweather and Pacquiao have carried the sport on their relatively small backs, often setting pay-per-view records along the way.
In the time since Lewis departed following one last fight after the Tyson win, the Klitschko brothers Wladimir and Vitali came to rule over the division, but as I recently remarked in satire not far from real life, ruling over this moribund version of the heavyweight division is like being mayor of Pripyat. And that rule has only been received with any affection in Germany, where the brothers’ tentative, monotonous style inspires love in the order of soccer stadiums filled up with 55,000 people. Here, and in many other parts of the world, the Klitschkos are no more inspiring than watching a mechanical metronome.
Now, at long last, the younger of the Klitschkos is taking on a truly compelling opponent, the brash, quick, powerful Haye. Haye is far from perfect, as he shares Wladimir’s serial inability to stay on his feet when hit cleanly. But a win over Haye would give Wladimir the best win of the brothers’ long reign, while a Haye win could herald a glorious new era for the heavyweights that begins Saturday around the time some people are having a pre-dinner aperitif.
Yet Klitschko-Haye is not without its risks to accompany its rewards.
How It Matters
Lewis-Tyson in the summer of 2002 was a major, major event. Competitively, most expected Lewis to win, which is what he did, and how. But going into 2002, Lewis was the division’s champion, while Tyson was ranked #2 behind Wladimir, so it was a worthy bout, whatever the odds or the pay-per-view figures.
There have been contenders since for meaningful heavyweight bouts, but none so meaningful as this one.
For instance, in 2003, Lewis took on the elder Klitschko, Vitali. Vitali was regarded as the lesser talent of the two Klitschko brothers at the time, and that was saying something: Wladimir had, just months before, been knocked out by Corrie Sanders. Vitali was ranked #7 in the division the year before he fought Lewis. That we got a good, exciting bout of it was a bit of a surprise. But it’s stood out as the last meaningful heavyweight fight that was also moderately enjoyable and competitive. After the win, Lewis retired, alas. Vitali had a decent run at the top, but injuries soon caught up to him and he was out of the ring for years, before he established himself as a champion the public could get behind.
In 2008, a by-then revived Wladimir took on Sultan Ibragimov in the first “unification fight” in a while for the heavyweights. It was a bout in Madison Square Garden, a bout that landed Wlad an appearance on Conan O’Brien and a bout that, by virtue of a couple alphabet gang belts being on the line, got people a bit stoked. Instead, it was a disaster — neither man appeared eager to actually, you know, fight — and inaugurated the beginning of catcalls toward Wlad aimed at getting him effectively banned from HBO, something that eventually happened.
In 2009, Wlad fought Ruslan Chagaev in a bout that established him as the true, lineal heavyweight champion of the world. Forget about all the other belts. This was a more meaningful fight than the Ibragimov bout. But it failed to thrill anyone outside of Germany, where the Ukrainian Klitschko brothers are wildly popular because they are efficient winning machines, not because they deliver exciting fights, because they don’t.
There have been other minor contenders for meaningful or exciting bouts in the division, such as when Vitali returned in 2008 to beat Samuel Peter, or when Vitali fought popular Mexican heavyweight Chris Arreola in a bout that did good ratings on HBO, but none of them offered the meaningfulness and potential for excitement that Wladimir Klitschko-David Haye offers, which is why it’s been such a disappointment over the years when Haye has pulled out of at least two fights with the Klitschko boys.
Quality Of Oppopents
One of the reasons this fight is anticipated is that these two men are facing the best opponents of their career, and by a long shot. And the strengths of each match the weaknesses of the other.
Klitschko (pictured at left above) is the heavyweight champion of the world, which gives him a certain gravitas. He’s also arguably one of the five best boxers in the sport right now, regardless of weight. But he’s gotten there largely because of sustained dominance, not because any single one of his wins is very impressive. The best, probably, is over Chagaev, and I don’t know anyone who thinks much of Chagaev. Klitschko is a probable Hall of Famer, regardless of whether he beats Haye Saturday. But skeptics of Klitschko — and there are many — will have less to gripe about on his record if he adds Haye’s scalp to his list of victims.
Haye (pictured at right above) became cruiserweight champion in 2007, beating a number of solid men from 176-200 pounds before and after claiming the lineal title. He ascended to a number of pound-for-pound top 20 lists. Then he moved to heavyweight, where he has made less of an impression beating the likes of Nikolai Valuev and John Ruiz, but remains, nonetheless, the #2 heavyweight in the world, behind Vitali and champ Wlad. Beating Klitschko — something he’s threatened to do for years — would eclipse everything he’s done in his very good career, sending him into a new stratosphere.
Klitschko is about a 2-1 or 3-1 betting favorite, but that’s a vast improvement from his recent opponents. And I don’t know the last time Haye wasn’t a favorite in one of his fights — maybe back when he took on Jean-Marc Mormeck back in 2007 to win his cruiserweight championship belt?
This is where things start to include both risk and reward.
Because Klitschko and Haye have both been knocked out before and dropped repeatedly, they both have a reputation as men who can’t take a punch. Because Klitschko has 49 knockouts in 55 wins and Haye has 23 knockouts in 25 wins, both have a reputation as knockout artists.
You don’t have to be too good at math to predict that the odds are extremely high for a knockout in this fight. If there was an explosive shot that sent somebody down in a highlight reel heap, it would be a terrific moment for boxing’s profile. On the other hand, it could occur in the 1st round. If that happened, there’s a chance the fight would be dismissed as one giant anticlimax.
But at the same time, there are those who predict Klitschko-Haye will be a bit of a bore. Both men could come out tentative and cautious of the other’s power, despite Klitschko promising to punish Haye all night long and Haye threatening an early knockout. It wouldn’t be the first time someone talked big about a KO then came out trying to avoid same.
And then there are those who won’t believe Klitschko-Haye is actually happening until both men are in the ring Saturday. Haye’s trash talk toward the Klitschkos prior to two previously scheduled meetings, only for him to later reverse course on fighting them, has a good many fans and writers worried that the fight will somehow fall apart prior to this weekend. It’s not my view, but it’s one I very much understand, and it would be disastrous if Klitschko-Haye fell apart at this hour.
The Winner’s Role
There’s risk and reward to boxing for whoever emerges victorious, too.
A great many U.S. fans would be happy to have Haye bump off Klitschko. Haye is the kind of heavyweight Americans love: He takes risks, he talks big and he looks the part with his muscle-bound physique. Should he win, he has the potential to become a worldwide star. But he’s also talking non-stop about how he plans to retire, either after beating Wlad or after beating Wlad and then beating his brother. Now, every boxer ever talks about retiring too soon, and it hardly ever becomes more than talk. But what would the point be of Haye “saving” the heavyweight division from the Klitschkos, as he often proclaims is his goal, if he then turns around and quits? You can argue that the Klitschkos are bad for the heavyweight division, but there’s also a legitimate question of what the heavyweight division would be without them and Haye gone.
If Klitschko wins, especially if he wins by knockout, I bet he’ll win some people over and find himself a fair amount more popular worldwide, even in the States. As a guy with a doctorate; with a physique that is also Men’s Health cover-worthy; with a movie star on his arms, or at least until his recent breakup with Hayden Panettiere; with an eloquent, often-funny personality; and with a charitable impulse that makes him come off as a genuine nice guy… well, he has his assets that he offers to the sport. But if Klitschko beats Haye, there won’t be an obvious challenge unless it’s the winner of Vitali-Tomasz Adamek, and we already know he won’t fight his brother if Vitali wins as expected. A Klitschko win over Haye might improve his rep, but its short-term value to the heavyweight division is small, and its long-term value is potentially negative: a division devoid of any drama.
The winner has a bunch of belts, but mainly he has the lineal championship belt administered by Ring Magazine. It’s always good to have a lineal champion, but again, if Haye’s the one who picks it up, we could go back to a leaderless division again. And whatever the case, neither man will suddenly become an American — and that will limit whatever gains either Haye or Klitschko make after Saturday.
The Expectations Game
OK, so the heavyweights will be back on Saturday for at least one night. But what then?
I’ve almost been hesitant to give this fight too much publicity. I think if it becomes as high-profile as it deserves to be, you’ll get a lot of uneducated mainstream boxing writers using it as a jumping off point to be like, “Hey, look, the heavyweights are here to save boxing!” And what happens when it doesn’t? Because no one fight can save or kill boxing, good or bad. And making matters worse, per the two sub-headlines above, the fight could end up with a deliterious, depending on how things play out.
No matter what happens in Klitschko-Haye, boxing will keep on keepin’ on. Smaller fighters, namely Pacquiao and Mayweather, will still be fighting and making big waves for boxing outside its hardcore fan base. Fighters with smaller profiles or reputations will still be fighting their guts out, putting on Fight of the Year candidates seen only by a few thousand or even by several million in places from St. Louis to Denmark.
But I have to admit: I’m loving the chance to love the heavyweights again, if only briefly. It’s one of boxing’s glamour divisions, with a history populated by names like Tyson and Muhammad Ali and Joe Louis, and a touch of luster given it by one of the best and most momentous fights in the sport is something I can get behind.