Commentary

Heavyweight boxing fans … betrayed

Joe Louis is a tough act to follow, but Wladimir Klitschko owed it to his fans, heavyweight fans and boxing fans in general to impress in his title-unifying performance against Sultan Ibragimov -- and he failed to deliver, writes Eric Raskin.

Updated: February 25, 2008, 10:11 AM ET
By Eric Raskin | ESPN.com

Wladimir KlitschkoChris Trotman/Bongarts/Getty ImagesKlitschko may have walked away with Ibragimov's WBO strap, but can he really feel on top of the world?
With Saturday night's fight against Sultan Ibragimov juxtaposed against the premiere of HBO's documentary "Joe Louis: America's Hero … Betrayed," you had to feel for Wladimir Klitschko right from the start.

What kind of spectacular performance would be required to draw flattering comparisons to "The Brown Bomber," the longest-reigning heavyweight champion in boxing history?

How many rows deep at Madison Square Garden would Ibragimov's head have to land?

If the fight lasted 30 seconds, would that be 25 too many?

As a 6-foot-6, 238-pound Adonis blessed with an every-punch-in-the-book offensive arsenal, Klitschko has been burdened throughout his 11-year pro career with high expectations. And now he was being asked to hold his own against Joe Louis?

It's unfair to expect Klitschko to rule the heavyweight division in the manner Louis did.

It's probably even unfair to compare him to Lennox Lewis, the last man to serve as undisputed ruler of the heavyweights.

But is it unfair to expect Klitschko to knock out a fighter cut straight from Louis' "Bum of the Month Club" mold?

Is it unfair to expect the top heavyweight in the world today to throw a right hand sometime within the first four rounds?

[+] EnlargeWladimir Klitschko
Alexander Hassenstein/Bongarts/Getty ImagesKlitschko, left, used his jab to perfection, but a jabfest is probably not what boxing fans were hoping for against Ibragimov.
Is it unfair to ask him to respond when a crowd of 14,011 fans is booing his every carefully plotted move?

If it is, then we're sorry, Wlad. We'll stop asking you to be a Louis or a Lewis, and we'll stop asking you to provide so much as a brief moment of entertainment in the ring. You just keep on doing what you did against Ibragimov, jabbing your way to disappointing victories.

Just don't expect any of us -- the hard-core fans, the casual fans or the channel surfers who stop when they see a chiseled behemoth such as you in the ring -- to tune in next time.

On a purely technical level, Klitschko did his job successfully Saturday evening. He lost, at most, three rounds; he was never hurt; and his notorious stamina problems never surfaced.

But although he succeeded in adding a win to his record and claiming another alphabet title belt, he failed entirely to inspire.

It's not that Klitschko didn't score the knockout that leaves a sour taste; it's that he didn't even try for it -- against an opponent who posed virtually no threat to him.

Before the 11th and 12th rounds, trainer Emanuel Steward's frustration began to show, and he exhorted his big man to do more.

"You should never be going 12 rounds with this guy," Steward insisted with two rounds to go.

"To win a decision in this fight is not good at all," Manny said three minutes later. "You have to try to knock him out; otherwise, it's going to be bad."

It was a poor man's version of Steward's slam-my-head-against-a-concrete-wall tirades when Jermain Taylor fought Cory Spinks. In both cases, the opponent was an undersized southpaw with inconsequential punching power, and in both cases, Steward's superior fighter refused to open up offensively.

Maybe Steward needs to go back to using the Ric Flair chest chops that motivated Lewis to finish off Mike Tyson.

Of course, even a surefire Hall of Famer such as Lewis had his uninspiring, overly cautious nights in the ring, like when he coasted to a safety-first decision over David Tua in 2000.

The difference between that and Klitschko-Ibragimov, however, was that Tua boasted exceptional one-punch power.

Ibragimov brought to the table no similarly threatening attributes. He didn't even seem to have much of a game plan. Maybe he spent too much of his time at training camp hatching a scheme to steal his best buddy Fred's Cocoa Pebbles.

[+] EnlargeLennox Lewis
Tim Clary/AFP/Getty ImagesLewis isn't defined by his mediocre performance against Mavrovic, so maybe we can let Klitschko slide … this time.
Whatever the case, Ibragimov was no better than Nathan Mann, Tony Galento, Lou Nova or any of the other "bums" Joe Louis defended against. Louis knocked each of those fighters out. Louis went the distance only three times during his reign: against Jersey Joe Walcott (no bum, and the Bomber stopped him in 11 in the rematch), against Tommy Farr (also no bum) and against Arturo Godoy.

The Godoy fight, which Louis won by split decision (then scored an eighth-round TKO in the rematch), serves as evidence that even the greats have off nights. Louis is not defined by that fight, just as Lewis is not defined by his ugly wins over Tua and Mohawked Croatian Zeljko Mavrovic.

That's the good news for Klitschko: There will be chances to make people forget about the Ibragimov fight.

Klitschko acknowledged as much in his in-ring interview after the fight.

"I know you're not satisfied," he said as the boos rained down, "but I have to keep my belts. Maybe [I'll] knock everybody else out."

It was a refreshingly honest statement. Klitschko could have offered a vague comment, Oscar De La Hoya style, and told us, "It just wasn't the night of the power punch," sweeping under the rug any further discussion of why he did so much less in the ring than he seemed capable of.

But Klitschko manned up and admitted, by promising to do better next time, that he didn't do enough this time.

The CompuBox numbers spell it out: Klitschko's jab was exceptional, landing 108 of the 245 times he threw it. Twenty jabs thrown per round isn't exactly a frenetic pace, but it's good enough.

If complemented by ample power punching, that is.

Unfortunately, when it came to punches other than jabs, "Dr. Steelhammer" was operating as if he had a limited supply of nails, throwing 103 punches and landing 40 of them. On a per-round basis, that's 8.6 thrown, 3.3 landed.

Not even Shannon Briggs would breathe heavily operating at that pace.

Klitschko threw his first serious straight right hand midway through the fifth round and landed it cleanly. He threw no rights in the sixth but cranked up a whopping three of them in the seventh -- and landed all three.

"It's a beautiful weapon, but he's underutilizing it," HBO analyst Max Kellerman observed.

Late in Round 8, Klitschko missed with a right hand but landed a hard left hook behind it, illustrating precisely why fighters are taught to punch in combination. It was a telling moment. And it was a moment that wouldn't be repeated.

On a grand stage -- a healthy crowd at the Garden, a major night of boxing on HBO, the heavyweight division's first partial unification fight in more than eight years -- Klitschko was content to win one jab at a time.

In so doing, he did nothing to hurt his standing as the world's best heavyweight. But he did plenty to hurt his chances of carrying the division back to relevance, back to a place where TV talking heads are compelled to discuss it seriously rather than chuckling and feeling comfortable, sometimes prideful, in their ignorance about the subject.

Some fight fans on message boards already have given Klitschko a free pass, saying he fought a smart fight.

I see nothing smart about diminishing sports fans' interest in you.

And I see nothing smart about dragging the heavyweight division down by suggesting that even the best of this bad lot isn't worth getting excited about.

Eric Raskin is a contributing editor for and former managing editor of The Ring magazine.

Eric Raskin (@EricRaskin) is a former managing editor of The Ring magazine and is the editor-in-chief of ALL IN magazine. He co-hosts the twice-monthly boxing podcast Ring Theory.