Keeping up with the Klitschkos
We are ugly Americans.
If it wasn't born on U.S. soil, doesn't speak unbroken English or come slathered in mayo or BBQ sauce, we aren't interested. It's the way of the world -- our world, anyway. We Yanks are as provincial as any clan can be, and if the Heavyweight Champion of the World doesn't happen to also be our heavyweight champion, then we might as well go check the score of the Packers game.
It's too bad, really, because the Ukraine-born Klitschko brothers -- Vitali, 40, and Wladimir, 35 -- are something to behold. They both stand at least 6-foot-6 and weigh 240-plus pounds, a couple of chiseled hurt dispensers from a far-away land. Though a bit stiff, they're undeniably athletic and legitimately skilled -- not just a couple of lunks. They even have nicknames that strike just the right balance of cheese and charm: "Dr. Steelhammer" (Wlad) and "Dr. Ironfist" (Vitali).
So with Wladimir having dropped out of Saturday's fight with Jean-Marc Mormeck after requiring two operations to remove a kidney stone, it seems as good a time as any to ask the question: Why are we so eager to cut the Klitschkos loose?
Against the backdrop of the brothers' utter dominance of the heavyweight division, there are some who crave more competitive fights and who suffer from the indifference that ensues when anyone, no matter how engaging, monopolizes a sport for too long. At some point, everyone's gotta go. Michael Jordan, meet Kobe Bryant. Brett Favre, make way for Aaron Rodgers. New blood and all that.
But my sense is that if the Klitschkos were from, say, North Philadelphia or Georgia's back woods, we wouldn't be able to get enough of 'em. Vitali is a politician (a one-time candidate for a reform party in Ukraine). Wlad golfs, juggles and makes cameos in music videos. Look, they play chess! They're humanitarians! They're doctors -- real ones (in sports science)! Wlad even dated an American-as-apple pie actress, Hayden Panettiere. Cripes, how many babies do these guys need to kiss to get a Happy Meal action figure?
Another argument: The Klitschkos are boring automatons who just happen to be the best thing going in a laughably bad division.
But that's not entirely accurate either. Floyd Mayweather Jr. is a cautious, defensive fighter. Bernard Hopkins is downright ugly to watch. Why are we not running them out of the fight game?
And although there's no handful of modern heavies that can hold a candle to the Ali-Frazier-Foreman triumvirate of the 1960s, that's true of every other era. Jack Dempsey and Rocky Marciano fought against mostly watered-down, marginally competent competition, yet they're revered.
The only answer to shake us from these doldrums, then, is to pit the Klitschkos against each other, right? Find out which is the best, the true heavyweight champ. Settle this thing once and for all.
But that's yet another American conceit -- and a not-always-attractive one. The Klitschkos have steadfastly refused to fight each other, and seem horrified at the mention of the idea. It's a sweetly human and reasonable reaction, which, from my perspective, only makes the Klitschkos more interesting.
I can't hold it against the Klitschkos that there's no Lennox Lewis or even a Chris Byrd left in the division to push them to greater achievements. And as much as I'd like to see Wlad unload a haymaker now and then, why should he when he has built-in defensive advantages that border on the absurd and a mind-scrambling jab?
Back-and-forth fights that drip with drama are part of boxing's rich pageant. But so are supremely great fighters, even those who drain all uncertainty from a bout before the ring walk is over. For those of you who can't wait for the Eddie Chambers-Tony Thompson era of parity, excuse me as I enjoy the moment while the good doctors are still in.
That's entertainment? I'll take parity
It's impossible not to respect the Klitschko brothers. What they've accomplished, the class with which they've carried themselves, the way both have rebounded from career adversity -- it's all very admirable.
Together, Vitali and Wladimir Klitschko have dominated the division for about seven years. Maybe the talent pool has been shallow, but that domination still counts for something.
Here's the problem: Dominance is boring.
Especially when it's coming from a Klitschko.
Wladimir, in particular, has perfected a hit-and-don't-get-hit style that protects his unreliable chin and incorporates true aggression only when the risk of return fire is minimal. Don't let those 49 KOs among 56 wins fool you into thinking he's a stone-cold killer. Stone-cold killers don't play patty cake with Sultan Ibragimov for 12 rounds with the American public's interest in the heavyweight division hanging in the balance. Wladimir is simply so mammoth, heavy-handed and talented that he knocks guys out almost by accident.
Compared to Wlad, Vitali has a style with slightly more potential to entertain. The problem is, you have to go back to his 2004 bout with Corrie Sanders to find a time when it actually did.
As skilled as the Klitschkos are, we won't miss them when they're gone. The departure of the Ukrainian brothers will open the door for two things heavyweight boxing desperately needs: clarity and parity.
With Wlad and Vitali at the top, refusing to fight each other, there is no hope of answering the question, "Who's the best heavyweight in the world?" Subtract the Klitschkos, and it becomes possible again to answer that question, to enjoy clarity.
And when you subtract the Klitschkos, you'll see the return of competitive championship fights. Sure, the quality of the fighters will be a level (or two or three) below, but parity means drama. It means fights where the outcome is still uncertain entering the championship rounds. Hell, after what we've been through with the Klitschkos, we'd settle for fights where the outcome is still uncertain entering Round 2.
I can't tell you that the next generation features any particular individuals destined to go down among the all-time greats (as the Klitschkos, admittedly, will). Alexander Povetkin is a solid boxer-puncher with a gold-medal pedigree. Robert Helenius has Klitschko-like height and a much more fan-friendly style. Seth Mitchell is the latest American hope, and he looks the part even if he's still very much a pugilistic work in progress.
Individually, none of these up-and-comers has me overly excited. But it's different if you view them as a collective, if you embrace the thought of them competing with each other in back-and-forth slugfests for superiority. That's what the Klitschkos have failed to give us. That's why the post-Klitschko era holds more promise than whatever is left of the Klitschko era.
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