Klitschko respects fellow champs but seeks title unity
Whether it is the dawn of a new era or merely a passing fad, the answer has yet to emerge.
One thing is for certain, however. The heavyweight division has discernibly changed over the past year. Complexions have gotten lighter. Names have become laborious to pronounce. Faces have gotten less familiar. Except for one, of course; the countenance belonging to the universally recognized big man of the hour, Wladimir Klitschko (46-3, 41 KOs).
It wasn't too long ago that Klitschko, a heavyweight champion who is white, was an aberration, but that holds little shock value now. Until recently, all four major belts were held by white men from regions of former Soviet republics.
On Saturday, Sergei Liakhovich of Belarus suffered a TKO loss to Shannon Briggs in Phoenix, a fight in which Liakhovich was leading on the judges' scorecards before falling to Briggs in the 12th and final round. Still, the big picture isn't lost on Klitschko.
"I get asked about the significance a lot," the 30-year-old Klitschko said one afternoon from his training camp in the Poconos. "But I don't think it means much. It's like when you order a chicken, it doesn't really matter where the chicken is from. You just eat the chicken."
His comments aren't meant to disparage his countrymen; Klitschko merely cares little for jingoism. He is a man born in Kazakhstan, raised in the Ukraine, living in Germany, whose favorite neighborhood haunt is a Greek bistro. His is a sentimentality expressed by the legendary rap duo Erik B. & Rakim: "It ain't where you're from, it's where you're at."
Nor is it to imply Klitschko ignores the goings-on of his fellow belt holders; the 6-foot-6 heavyweight is prone to reflection of all varieties. On the subject of the 7-foot WBA champion Nikolay Valuev, who most recently disposed of a relatively undersized Monte Barrett, Klitschko tips his cap. "You must respect a guy with that size to become champ and have two title defenses," he said. "Instead of easy, it's been hard for him. Lots of criticism."
Regarding fellow former Soviet fighters WBC champion Oleg Maskaev and Liakhovich, the diplomatic Klitschko refrains from specific critique of personality or fighting styles. "Maskaev's an older guy," he said, stating the obvious. "I had him a 50-50 chance against Rahman [a fight Maskaev won by TKO]."
Days before the Liakhovich's WBO title defense against Briggs in Phoenix, Klitschko said even though Liakhovich had just won the title against Lamon Brewster on April 1 and was fighting Shannon Briggs, "The jury's still out."
The verdict: Briggs scored a TKO against Liakhovich at 2:59 of the 12th round, knocking him out of the ring to end what had been, up to that point, a boring fight.
As for the heavyweight champion who most piques Klitschko's interest in the ring, he quickly chooses the most imposing. "Valuev. Because of his size. I've never fought anyone bigger than me," he says. The most daunting obstacle? Finding sparring partners of ample altitude. "I'd have to get them from the NBA," he said, joking.
Currently, his attentions remain focused on his impending Nov. 11 title defense against Calvin Brock at Madison Square Garden. According to their monikers, the match pits "The Doctor" (Klitschko) versus "The Boxing Banker" (Brock), which sounds more like a health-care symposium than a bout between the world's top heavyweight and The Ring's ninth-ranked challenger who possesses an unblemished 29-0 (22 KOs) record. But the bout should be an engaging one, and following unexpected intimacies with the canvas courtesy of Corrie Sanders and Lamon Brewster, Klitschko is careful not to take any opponent lightly. "Brock is young, undefeated, and strong," said the IBF champion. "And very motivated."
Motivation remains a lingering question in the Klitschko corner. Harking back to gastronomical themes, the Ukrainian citizen has never lacked for hunger in every facet of life. He speaks four languages fluently. Both he and brother Vitali earned doctorates. Spend some private time with Wladimir, and it's evident how ravenous he is for talk of culture, politics, philosophy, literature and athletics. With so many interests, one wonders if he still possesses the requisite drive to maintain a singular goal -- unification.
He assures that he does. "I don't consider myself champion of the world," Klitschko said in the unwavering voice of a politician or a professional quarterback. "There are still three others. That is my motivation."
Perhaps the answer lies with the newest cook in the Klitschko kitchen, trainer Emanuel Steward. According to Klitschko, Steward's experience and knowledge are certainly invaluable, but it's his unique relationship with Klitschko that has had the most impact.
"It's not like dog and master, 'do this' and 'do that.' And it's not just throwing combinations,' " Klitschko said. "We work together and it's not simply training. We're creating a way of fighting and thinking. We're creating art." The fighter likened their partnership to a music producer collaborating with a singer or a chef mentoring a sous chef.
Whether the tandem produces lasting works remains to be seen, but there is little argument among the cognoscenti as to who rules the heavyweight roost. The Brock bout should serve as a mouthwatering appetizer, one Klitschko is expected to win, but the main courses -- the three belts he needs to unify -- lie ahead. He clearly possesses the talent, strength and heart to achieve this quest. As for his appetite? We shall have to wait and see.
Tim Struby is a features writer for ESPN The Magazine.