Commentary

Boxing world is one step closer to a unified champion

Tall and musclular vs. stout and podgy. Swanky suits vs. blue-collar threads. Wladimir Klitschko and Sultan Ibragimov can trace their roots back to the Soviet Union, but they don't share much in common -- besides wanting to be called "unified champion."

Originally Published: February 21, 2008
By Dan Rafael | ESPN.com

Wladimir KlitschkoAlexander Hassenstein/Bongarts/Getty ImagesWhen it comes to the heayweights, fight fans want one champ and one champ only. Can Klitschko help restore order?
It's not like the old days when you could walk down the street, stop a stranger, ask, "Who's the heavyweight champion of the world?" and receive a correct answer.

Nowadays, that's a tough one. You are more likely to be greeted by a blank stare or, worse, an answer of "Mike Tyson."

Four belts.

Four titleholders, all of whom hail from the former Soviet Union and are largely unknown to mainstream sports fans in the United States.

The heavyweight division, boxing's marquee weight class, has been a bit of a mess since universally recognized champion Lennox Lewis retired on top in early 2004 for family life and a gig calling fights on HBO. Since then, there have been 33 so-called heavyweight title fights sanctioned by the four major organizations. Not one has been a unification match.

In fact, there hasn't been a unification fight in the heavyweight division since Lewis became the undisputed champion by outpointing Evander Holyfield in their Nov. 13, 1999, rematch.

Until now.

[+] EnlargeLennox Lewis
Ethan Miller/Getty ImagesWhile the heavyweight division is still finding itself, Lennox Lewis is enjoying life after boxing.
Finally.

Ukraine's Wladimir Klitschko, the world's dominant heavyweight, puts up his belt against Russian southpaw Sultan Ibragimov's belt when they meet in one of the year's most significant fights Saturday (9:30 p.m. ET, HBO) at New York's Madison Square Garden, home to so many past important heavyweight matches.

"I do know it's a unification fight and it's important," Klitschko said. "We've been talking about it for a long time. Besides a great sporting event, it's a historical fight."

"People need one champion of the world, like Rocky Marciano, Joe Louis, Mike Tyson," said Boris Grinberg, who manages Ibragimov.

While fellow titlists Ruslan Chagaev and Oleg Maskaev are occupied with other fights, Klitschko and Ibragimov are almost obsessed with unifying the division.

"Of course it's important, especially for the boxing fans and even for sports. The sport of boxing needs the heavyweight champion," Klitschko said. "I am looking forward to the guy who holds one title, as a boxing fan."

Said Ibragimov: "People want to see one champion, not four. Everybody says they want a unification fight, but nobody tries. Whoever wins this fight, I hope the next fight will be another unification. I hope so. People want just one champion. For the people, the next fight should [also] be [against] another champion."

In divisions other than heavyweight, belts often don't matter. None of the three Manny Pacquiao-Erik Morales fights was for a world title, and nobody seemed to care. All three junior lightweight fights were smash hits. When Oscar De La Hoya faced Floyd Mayweather last spring, the fight was the richest in history. That De La Hoya's junior middleweight belt was at stake was a mere footnote.

But in the heavyweight division, the most glamorous and important in boxing, it always has been different. People look for order at heavyweight, and the titles are the place to start.

"Every reporter feels that Wladimir is the No. 1 heavyweight, but in this division, unlike in other divisions, the belts mean a lot," said Shelly Finkel, Klitschko's adviser. "Take Pacquiao. It doesn't matter that he doesn't have a belt or that he didn't unify. It's not like that in the heavyweight division, for whatever reason. In the heavyweight division, it is important to have the belts. If one guy has them, it would really clean up the division."

"I think the heavyweight division, more so than in any other division, unification is important," said Emanuel Steward, Klitschko's trainer. "In the heavyweights, because there are not that many big-name fighters, it's important to come up with one top fighter. When you say, 'The heavyweight champion is in the room,' there shouldn't be four guys. Wladimir is considered the best, but he doesn't have that respect yet because he doesn't have the belts.

"This is his way to try to get respect because he doesn't have a super fight with a big opponent on the horizon the way Lennox did with Holyfield or Tyson. Ibragimov probably feels the same way."

Klitschko so desperately wanted a unification bout that he took a pay cut to fight Ibragimov. His side gave Ibragimov, who is far less known than Klitschko, a 50-50 deal, although Klitschko typically commands a much greater percentage of the pie.

After Klitschko avenged a previous defeat by dominating Lamon Brewster last summer -- a fight that happened only because no unification bouts were available -- his marching orders to Finkel were to get him one of the other titleholders.

"He said to me, 'Look, it's very important that I get another belt, so see if you can make either fight -- with Chagaev or Ibragimov -- and tell me what it takes to make it," Finkel said. "When I went over each fight and the numbers with him, he said, 'Go do it.' [Taking less money] was no problem at all. That's how important this is to him."

Said Steward, who also trained Lewis when he unified the titles: "Wladimir has nothing but this. There are no standout names for him. He's out there by himself, so unification is everything for him."

It has been Klitschko's goal to unify since the moment he stopped Chris Byrd in the seventh round to win a belt in April 2006. Unable to get an immediate unification match, Klitschko knocked out Calvin Brock in November 2006. Afterward, he reiterated his desire for another title.

"I am interested in unifying the division," Klitschko said at the time. "The heavyweight division needs a real champion. I don't consider myself the real champion now. My goal is to get the unification, and my goal is that my next fight is a unification fight. I'm not interested to stay in this sport just to keep fighting. I'm interested in unifying the title, and I think the heavyweight division needs a real champion."

Between mandatory defenses and the unwillingness of the other titleholders to face him, Klitschko (49-3, 44 KOs) had to fight twice more before the opportunity to unify finally became a reality.

He's lucky, because Ibragimov (22-0-1, 17 KOs), who won his title from Shannon Briggs last summer, is just as focused on unifying.

"From the day he won the title against Briggs, Sultan has wanted to unify," said Seminole Warriors Boxing's Leon Margules, Ibragimov's co-promoter. "He wanted to fight important fights. The first thing we did was offer the fight to Klitschko, but he had a hand injury and he wasn't fighting the rest of 2007."

With Klitschko, 31, unable to go, Margules struck a deal for Ibragimov, 32, to unify with Chagaev. However, Chagaev became ill and had to withdraw from the planned Oct. 13 fight. With no other unification bout possible for that date, Margules signed former four-time champ Holyfield, himself a former unified champion at heavyweight and cruiserweight.

"Sultan did not want to fight Holyfield," Margules said. "He only wanted to unify. We convinced him that Holyfield was the most meaningful opponent he could fight at that time on that date, when we already had a fight planned. But he wants to be recognized universally as the only champion. He's an old-school fighter. He doesn't believe there should be four world champions."

Ibragimov was serious about not wanting to fight Holyfield. When the bout was made, Ibragimov was so upset he hadn't gotten a unification fight that he initially refused to attend the news conference in Russia to announce the bout.

"He wouldn't go to the press conference because he was so disappointed," Grinberg said. "I needed three or four days to explain why we have to fight with Holyfield before he could get Klitschko."

After Ibragimov easily outpointed Holyfield, it was time for Margules to line up a unification fight.

Finkel was feeling the same heat from Klitschko.

It is that continuing burning desire to unify that is responsible for this fight, which was made in stunningly easy fashion, especially for a battle with such high stakes.

"You saw how easy the fight was to make," Margules said. "It was easy to make because of both fighters' desire to unify."

Said Klitschko: "It's not an easy fight for me, but I am thankful the deal with them wasn't difficult. We pretty much agreed in a short amount of time to all the points of the deal. It wasn't complicated."

Dan Rafael is the senior boxing writer for ESPN.com.