- Jason Probst
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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
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
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
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
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
Three heavyweights call themselves a champion, but only Vitali Klitschko deserves the label.