- Michael Woods, Boxing
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They've been coming up to him in droves, he says, and they don't even bother to whisper.
"We are tired of the Klitschko brothers," the Germans tell Shannon Briggs when he leaves his hotel outside Hamburg, as he counts down to another heavyweight title shot -- this one Saturday against the elder of the Brothers K, Vitali.
"We don't care for their stranglehold on the division."
"They are uppity, too snooty," the Germans tell the 38-year-old Brooklyn native.
"Take down Vitali, Shannon, and then go after the little brother."
"I will drop him and stop him," Briggs tells the well-wishers, the anti-Klitschko faction, in a convincing manner. "I will unleash the Shannon Cannon, just like I did against the then-WBO champion Sergei Liakhovich in November 2006, and put Vitali to sleep."
The ones that have a solid command of English, they get the full-on Briggs spiel -- the one that promises a beatdown of Vitali for mocking Briggs' status as an asthmatic, dismissing asthma as a less than serious affliction.
The Germans look at the hulking hitter with the dreadlocks and an ability to hype that puts him on par with Vince the ShamWow guy, and they are swayed.
They hear that he is fighting for a cause, to represent all the runts who are mocked in schoolyards for needing an inhaler, and they want to get on board with him. They find themselves rallying around the charismatic Brownsville boxer, who now lives in Pembroke Pines, Fla.
Briggs seeks to wrest Vitali's WBC crown from him, stick it in his carry-on bag and bring it back to the States. But any Briggs backer in Germany with more than a rudimentary handle on Briggs' recent history has to pause and ponder vital evidence, as opposed to rhetoric. Anyone who has marveled at Vitali's superior ring generalship, anyone who has seen him barely lose a portion of a round on his eight-fight winning streak since he was TKO'd by Lennox Lewis in June 2003, knows that Briggs' task is as massive as the New York native's frame.
During a phone interview this week, the 51-5-1 (45 KOs) underdog, who turns 39 on Dec. 4, calmly batted down the talking points cited by critics. They see Klitschko (40-2, with 38 KOs) pitching a shutout before dropping a combination of hammers that will render Briggs a loser via stoppage for the third time in his career, which started in 1992.
"It's gonna be a great fight," he told ESPN New York. "I'm looking forward to coming home the champion. I'm gonna kick his a-- and give him the beating he deserves."
Briggs says he's especially amped to wallop Klitschko for this comment to BoxingScene.com: "In addition to Briggs, I know many boxers who -- in spite of asthma -- became world champions," Vitali said. "This is not a deadly disease. Look at his fights and you will understand that asthma -- it's just a good excuse."
Briggs said he has Googled his tail off, and "I can't find one other [asthmatic] world champion. When he says it's not a deadly disease, I took offense. It made me emotional. I've been a sufferer all my life. I've gotten hundreds of e-mails and posts on my website and on Facebook, some from people who say, 'My son died from asthma,' 'My mom died from it.' In 2009, 300 million people were affected by asthma, and it caused 250,000 deaths."
Briggs in turn scoffs at Vitali's Ph.D. in sport science. "I want to know where he got his degree. I want to buy one of those."
Aside from the problems with his airways, Briggs' critics say he carries too much weight and hasn't been facing stiff competition, so the step up to Klitschko will be too arduous.
His promoter, Greg Cohen, tells ESPN that Briggs will weigh in the 240s for the fight, not in the 250-270 range he's scaled while taking out lesser lights Marcus McGee, Rafael Pedro, Dominique Alexander and Rob Calloway since he took a two-year break after losing the title he took from Liakhovich to Sultan Ibragimov in June 2007. The boxer maintains that yes, he did balloon to 335 pounds during his hiatus, but he's been at fighting weight for long enough that his fitness won't be affected.
Message-board wise guys opine that Briggs is back only for a cash-out fight, one last fat payday -- the gold watch, so to speak. Cohen looks to shoot down that theory.
"When I called Shannon a few months ago and told him about the Vitali fight, he didn't ask me about money; he said, 'Take it.' I told him, 'It's not great money. (Cohen and Briggs say the purse is $500,000.) He said, 'I don't care. It shows you where his head is."
"For $500,000, I'm going to risk my life?" Briggs asks rhetorically.
People have risked their existence for less. But Briggs maintains he's in it to win it and will use his experience, the tricks of the trade he learned fighting George Foreman (a controversial majority-decision win in 1997) and Lewis (a TKO-5 loss in 1998, his first title crack), to down Klitschko. But he doesn't lay it on as thick as the ShamWow dude. Some hints of humility, perhaps a peek into the true nature of his difficult task, peek through.
"I'm not trying to say it's going to be easy. It may be a hard fight. But I get the same purse whether I knock him out in the first round or the last round," Briggs said. (The fight writer-cynic who has seen this scene play out again and again fills in an unspoken understanding -- he will also get the same purse whether he gets stopped in the first round or the last round.) "I knew it was only a matter of time [before he got a title shot]. I thought maybe it would be next year. They're running out of people to beat. But I'm an ex-champion. George Foreman said as a young fighter, you try to make your name. You get older, you have a name." And a reputation for superior salesmanship, he acknowledges. "I promote it, I work the whole time, plug it on Facebook, MySpace. I know how to sell a fight."
Would a Briggs win be a triumph for asthmatics the world over? Yes. Would a Briggs win be a welcome shuffling of the dreary deck in the heavyweight division? Yes. Would an in-the-prime-of-his-athletic-life Briggs have had a tough time getting inside Klitschko's lance-like jab? Yes. Can he pull off the upset of the year? No, the smart and cynical money says.
But Briggs has been hearing "no" since he stepped into a gym, inhaler in his pocket, as a youth.
"Naysayers have been saying stuff my whole career," he said. "If I listened, I wouldn't be on the phone right now, or getting this shot. All my life, people have been telling me 'No,' and here I am, fighting for another title."
VIEWING INFO: Saturday, Oct. 16 -- Vitali Klitschko/Shannon Briggs live from Hamburg, Germany, exclusively on ESPN3.com at 5 p.m. ET. Also on ESPN Deportes on Oct. 16 at 8 p.m. ET and on ESPN on Oct. 17 at 2 p.m. ET as part of a combined show also featuring the Lucian Bute/Jesse Brinkley fight, as Bute defends his IBF 168-pound title.
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