Klitschko is the true champion
There's a lot of hubbub floating around about who deserves to be called the heavyweight champion and whether such a term warrants usage despite the fragmented nature of the division's belts. The argument goes that without unification, there can be no true king.
Perhaps the purists have a point. But seeing as how the division is divided into the Don King and non-King camps -- IBF champ Chris Byrd and WBA champ John Ruiz fall into the former, WBC titlist Vitali Klitschko into the latter -- sitting around and waiting for unification is a pipe dream.
That's why I say we dispense with lengthy arguments and stop waiting for our wire-haired Godot.
The best heavyweight in the world is Vitali Klitschko, and he deserves to be called the world's champ. Until unification or proven otherwise, fans would behoove themselves to come around to the obvious.
Sure, I could wait until after the Danny Williams fight. But that'd be no fun. Nuts plopped on a chopping block supply little drama, unless the anvil is rising up from above.
Vitali Klitschko is going to beat Williams definitely. His advocates will merely use it as reinforcement for his superiority, his critics as another stick to measure how far Mike Tyson has fallen. The debates will go on.
But not only is Klitschko the best big man in the world, he's the only heavy performing consistently well against top competition over the last three years.
Who's knocked out Kirk Johnson? Larry Donald? Vaughan Bean? Klitschko. While only Johnson was a legit top 10 guy at the time Klitschko fought him, Vitali at least has the ability to dominate and take out foes in the manner befitting a top 10 heavyweight. This is a key source of differentiation. He performs as a top heavyweight should, dispensing with those lower down on the food chain to remind you of why he's ranked higher.
John Ruiz can only clinch and maul them to death, while Chris Byrd, at this point, is virtually life-and-death with any Top 20 heavyweight he faces. The mark of superiority presents itself as a question in the argument, and only Klitschko has been anything resembling the dominant monkey. Ruiz has fought Kirk Johnson, a fight that immediately was taped over by any non-masochistic fan. Imagine the results of Donald/Bean against him or Byrd, or Johnson-Byrd.
I'd rather sit through a "Will and Grace" marathon then see those. In the case of Ruiz-Donald, you can throw in a gang of midgets poking me with sharp sticks, too.
There's the argument that styles make fights, but that overlooks the fact that a good heavyweight champ will adjust and put the guns on opponents, regardless of style. Larry Holmes was a boxer, too, but it's hard to see him letting the rubes of the division turn fights into stinkers just because he didn't want to risk himself. Ruiz is unable to make anything resembling a decent fight, while Byrd is simply on the end of a rope that was damn talented but too small to begin with.
Put it this way -- can you see Vitali Klitschko going life and death with Byrd's most recent opponents, or Ruiz's? Sure, he had some tough moments with Corrie Sanders, but Sanders punches harder than anyone Ruiz has faced since David Tua, or Byrd has faced since Wladimir Klitschko or Ike Ibeabuchi, and he's a southpaw. Vitali has had rough moments and persevered, while Ruiz makes every fight an obstacle, and Byrd has to pull out a late rounds rally to beat Andrew Golota and Jameel McCline, two guys that aren't nearly as dangerous as Lewis and Sanders.
Of course, no bold statement, at least in this column, would be meaningful without a wildly contrarian asterisk, and that asterisk is Chris Byrd's win over Klitschko in 1999, where the Ukrainian retired on his stool after injuring his shoulder. Klitschko led 88-83 on two cards, and 89-82 on the other in a fight that was largely devoid of action. He couldn't seem to hit Byrd, and Byrd was only rarely interested in risking himself to hit him. The southpaw rallied somewhat over the final rounds to score some points, but watch a tape of the fight yourself and compare it to Klitschko's chin he showed against Lennox Lewis and Corrie Sanders. He wasn't getting beaten up by any comparative stretch of the imagination.
That asterisk is what needs to be rectified, and certainly Byrd would be game for the chance, but Don King is not going to let that happen without options on Klitschko. And so we're back to the same old Catch-22. There's also his fight with Lewis, and if you watch the tape, Lewis was breathing harder than Klitschko before the fight was stopped. There's the school of thought that Lewis was one his way to knocking Klitschko out, but that's incorrect. He hit Klitschko with his best shots, when Lennox was strong and potent in the first three rounds, and Klitschko took them better than any heavyweight ever has.
He wasn't on the brink of being stopped, yet revisionists proclaim he was, just like in the fight with Byrd. Maybe it's because a white heavyweight that can take a punch is too implausible a scenario to envision that we must rewrite history to jibe with our preconceptions. It was an "off night" for Lewis. Byrd was "coming on strong." Pffft. Watch the final three rounds of Klitschko-Lewis and decide for yourself.
HBO has attempted to provide clarity by proclaiming Klitschko as the heavyweight champ. Market forces and self-interest aside, critics could rightfully accuse them of promoting him for various reasons, ranging from the fact that backing him is a none-too-subtle jab at King, whom they have been squabbling with lately or the simple reason that Vitali is white.
In most cases, the "White Heavyweight" question is a dubious factor behind any network's promotional campaign, but here it does not apply because Klitschko would be favored to beat anyone in the division. He is not Joe Mesi or Tommy Morrison. He is not a victim of racism, either, as a white guy is naturally going to draw more attention simply because he's a phenomenon. It works both ways, too. Tiger Woods got more people to watch golf. His skills, like Klitschko, eventually made new fans brought into the equation.
History suggests that we wait. If Joe Louis had retired after his fight with Jersey Joe Walcott, it would've been considered bad form to dub Walcott as the champ. As it was, Walcott lost the rematch to Louis, and was outpointed by Ezzard Charles in their first match that crowned Louis' successor. When Gene Tunney and Rocky Marciano retired, the two best heavyweight contenders met to decide their successors
In those days boxing was more a monopoly than the fragmented fiefdoms that exist today. Tradition can only take you so far. And HBO's push for Klitschko as the champ, however self-serving it might appear, does provide a key market force to push for unification to happen down the line, and if not, to soldier on ahead with the best guy available until someone steps up to prove them wrong.
Klitschko is 33 years old. He has shown some key subtle improvements in recent fights, keeping cool under fire, using his jab and mixing up combinations more, fighting tall, seeming loss robotic than in his early career. The guess here is that he's going to rule this division for a couple more years, but it is up to the reader to decide how feasible it is to keep denying the obvious that he's the best and we're lucky to be stuck with him in the post-Lewis era. A guy who speaks four languages and has a Ph.D. ain't bad, either. There aren't a lot of them running around in boxing -- or anywhere else, for that matter -- much less bucking to carry the biggest title in sports, or in my case, already holding the title by default if not for the intransigent political nature of the beast which has only delayed the obvious from transpiring. Klitschko is the best.
If you think otherwise, put your money where your convictions are and bet even money on anybody else versus Klitschko. After your bookie is done laughing, you'll have all the answers you'll need that were not supplied here.