Commentary

Klitschko makes hay, but not in States

Originally Published: March 17, 2010
By Don Steinberg | Special to ESPN.com

In the video, Wladimir Klitschko is a cowboy, a good ol' boy in some American honky-tonk. Yes, that's the heavyweight champ lip-synching in the 2009 music video for "Part of Me," a 2009 Latin-flavored tune by Chris Cornell. Wlad looks great in a plaid shirt and white Stetson. As the beat bumps, the 6-foot-6 Ukranian rises from a seat at the bar, swaggers over to a pretty blonde and lets the dude she's dancing with know it's time for Wlad to cut in.

[+] EnlargeWladimir Klitschko
AP Photo/Frank AugsteinWladimir Klitschko -- smart, attractive and dominant in the ring -- somehow can't gain a foothold in the U.S. His fight with Eddie Chambers on Saturday won't air on American television.

It's fantasy, of course. Klitschko can only pretend to command such respect in America.

Last weekend, in the real house of America's Cowboys, more than 50,000 people watched Filipino Manny Pacquiao outpunch Joshua Clottey of Ghana. This Saturday, Klitschko will defend his championship, against underdog American Eddie Chambers, in another packed football stadium. Except it will be in Dusseldorf. Klitschko's fight will be on network TV -- in Germany -- but no TV at all in the United States. Viewers in North America will have to watch online, at Klitschko.com, for $14.95.

The reality is that American sports fans have given up on Wladimir Klitschko and his big brother, Vitali, who each hold heavyweight belts. It's a shame, really. Wladimir could be a champ America loves: He's smart, witty, young (33), good-looking, scandal-free, built like a quarterback. He's a savvy businessman and a great humanitarian, and he loves to rock. (He enters the ring for every fight to the Red Hot Chili Peppers song "Can't Stop," because he knows the guys in the band and, he said, "I picked the song because that's exactly what it means: can't stop. I think it's perfect for walking in the ring.")

"Wladimir and Vitali are superstars in Germany -- you'd equate them to LeBron James or the New York Yankees," said Ross Greenburg, president of HBO Sports. But American sports fans have about as much interest in the LeBron James of Germany as they would in, say, the Brett Favre of France.

"For a while, Wladimir was hell-bent on maintaining a presence in the United States, and we were starting to break through with him," Greenburg said. "Unfortunately, at the same time [2008], his brother decided to come back, so that kind of confused the consumer again in the United States. People have trouble differentiating."

It probably doesn't help that Klitschko earns a living bullying American fighters and taking our women (his current flame, Hayden Panettiere, is expected to be ringside in Dusseldorf) -- and making his fights appear so robotically easy that anyone who had ever been intrigued has lost interest. Klitschko is 14-2 with 12 KOs in title fights. It sounds exciting, but the fights have been dreary. (Against Ray Austin in 2007, Klitschko won by TKO in Round 2 without ever throwing a right hand.)

"Well, maybe it looks easy," Klitschko told ESPN.com earlier this month, phoning from his training camp in the Austrian Alps. "All of these guys that I fought, and my brother, Vitali, fought, are good. They have boxing skills." But, he admitted, "I definitely have an issue with opponents right now -- especially opponents that I can fight in the United States. I wish that I had as many opponents as Muhammad Ali had in his time. It would be more exciting for the division and more of a challenge."

Greenburg insists it's no disrespect that HBO didn't pick up the Chambers fight -- it's economics and timing. The Klitschkos' Euro fame makes it lucrative for them to fight there. The time difference means fights air live in New York at 5 or 6 p.m. This weekend, that bumps up against NCAA basketball. How many U.S. sports fans would watch Klitschko versus Chambers (whose only prior HBO appearance was his lone loss, a late-innings fade against Alexander Povetkin)?

If he gets past Chambers, Klitschko owes a mandatory defense to Povetkin. Until then, all Klitschko can do is sell Chambers as a worthy opponent, and maybe bait David Haye into a fight. The Klitschko brothers say one of them will fight Haye.

"I believe that Eddie Chambers is a much better boxer than David Haye," Wladimir said, showing a knack for trash talk that is, characteristically, underappreciated by Americans. "Haye is ridiculous. He bailed out from my fight, from a fight with Vitali. He actually admitted he was going to fight Valuev because it's an easier fight for him. So he fought Valuev in a very boring way for 12 rounds. And -- excuse me -- Valuev is just a freak show."

Don Steinberg, a winner of the Boxing Writers Association of America's award for best column in 2005, covers boxing for The Philadelphia Inquirer.