- Dan Rafael, ESPN Senior Writer
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Heavyweight champion Wladimir Klitschko knows that he's in a no-win situation when he faces mandatory challenger Tony Thompson in a rematch.
Klitschko beat Thompson once and is the heavy favorite to do it again Saturday, so if the champ loses, it's a disaster. Even if Klitschko merely struggles, it will prompt a negative reaction. And if Klitschko wins? Well, big deal. Wasn't he supposed to?
Klitschko doesn't have a whole lot to say on the topic.
"I want to improve my performance, so I've been trying a lot of things, sparring very well," he said. "But if I would say I would knock him out again, or make a prediction -- I don't want to talk too much. I will keep quiet, not promise anything, and then I can comment after the fight."
The first time Klitschko met Thompson was in July 2008 in Hamburg, Germany, in a mandatory fight. Klitschko started a tad slowly but was in full command in a dominant performance when he caught Thompson with a clean right hand on the chin in the 11th round and knocked him out to retain the title.
Now the long-reigning king of the heavyweight division will face Thompson -- who is again a mandatory challenger -- for the second time, knowing that most observers expect another knockout performance Saturday (4:30 p.m. ET, Epix and EpixHD.com) in Berne, Switzerland, at the Stade de Suisse, an outdoor soccer stadium where a sellout of 30,000-plus is expected.
Klitschko, 36, made it clear that fighting Thompson again wasn't his idea. It's a mandatory bout, and because Klitschko had no intention of letting any of the heavyweight belts slip out of family control -- older brother Vitali Klitschko owns the other major alphabet belt -- he is again facing Thompson, a 6-foot-5, 250-pound southpaw who is one of the few challengers who measures up to the 6-6, 245-pound champion.
"First of all, I didn't pick him out. I have to fight him to defend my title," Klitschko said. "Tony Thompson, I give him respect for fighting his way back to the mandatory position. I've seen some of the fights where he was always mentioning my name and wanting the rematch. He says he didn't do in the first fight what he says he will do in the second fight."
Klitschko has been champion since crushing Chris Byrd in seven one-sided rounds to win a title in 2006. Along the way, Klitschko, who will be making his 12th defense, has collected three major belts and rolled to victory after lopsided victory.
But of all of the defenses Klitschko has made during his second title reign, which began in April 2006, Thompson (36-2, 24 KOs), despite the violent ending, gave him the most competitive fight. Even though Klitschko was in control and leading 99-91, 98-92, 98-92 on the scorecards at the time of the knockout, Thompson at least tested Klitschko to a degree and competed round after round, which can't be said for any of the other 10 challengers Klitschko has routed, including nine knockout victims.
For the rematch, Klitschko said that Thompson -- who served as a sparring partner for Klitschko before his 2003 loss to Corrie Sanders and who sparred with Vitali before his 2009 win against Juan Carlos Gomez -- is "so super-hyped up and motivated that he will do much better than in the first fight, I think. Even if you check the scorecards of the first fight, it was not so easy. Tony is like a spider -- big body, small head and long arms. My timing was off in the first fight. I was missing a lot of shots. His defense is amazing; he doesn't get hit a lot. So, definitely, I give him a lot of respect."
Klitschko (57-3, 50 KOs), of Ukraine, remembers the first fight well and realizes that with Thompson, of Washington, D.C., being 40 and unlikely to get another title shot, the challenger is likely to be quite desperate when the bell rings.
"I'm more paranoid about this fight to be in great shape than other fights because he gave me a tough fight in the first fight," Klitschko said. "I want to make sure everything is in place. It is just my gut feeling that I know I have to be ready, so I'm not taking it easy. When you take it easy, the fight will be difficult. The tougher the preparation, the easier the fight. I know he is going to give me a good fight. He's going to get aggressive, but I like that better because then I don't have to chase somebody."
Thompson's only loss besides Klitschko was a four-round decision in his fifth pro fight, in 2000. The challenger has won five fights in a row (each by knockout) since the first Klitschko fight in order to become mandatory again. He's pumped about the second chance.
"Obviously, our expectations are to reverse the outcome of our last match that we had in '08," Thompson said. "I think we prepared well. My body's strength and conditioning are coming around at the right time, and it's going to be interesting to see what we look like against Wladimir this time."
But what will be different this time around? For one thing, Thompson said he will go into the fight with two healthy legs. He said he went into the 2008 fight with a knee injury that subsequently required surgery.
"I had a torn meniscus in my knee. Unfortunately, I wasn't able to train throughout training camp or, you know, prepare for the heavyweight championship of the world," said Thompson, who could become the first American to hold a heavyweight title since Shannon Briggs made his seven-month reign in 2006 and 2007. "I think this time we were able to prepare. With a healthy body, we actually have a legitimate shot. I can't help what anybody else thinks, if I have a legitimate shot. But we know, and so that's all that matters to me."
Thompson said he is coming to win and isn't content to just show up for the payday.
"I'll fight his ass. You know, a lot of people, they sit back and they just accept the inevitable, but that's not what we are coming over to do," Thompson said. "This is going to be a fight, I can guarantee. I'm not going to say to you that I'm going to guarantee victory and all that -- and, yes, I'm going into this to win -- but one thing I can guarantee is that I'm going to fight. I'm going to come forward. I'm going to press the fight. I'm going to try to take the lead in every round. So I'm not going to sit back and let him jab me, right-hand me to death.
"I'm going to be the one throwing a lot of punches, I'm going to be the one landing most of the punches. So my willingness to fight, I think, is the biggest reason I will win."
Klitschko was annoyed by the discussion of Thompson's knee injury in their previous fight.
"I will suggest to Tony Thompson to fill out [an] application and to tell in advance what kind of injuries he has this time, so we know in advance what is going on," Klitschko said. "Because in the first fight, he said to me without press, 'Wladimir, I'm going to beat you. I know what to do with you. I'm going to win this fight.' And he was very self-confident. I mean, he was super-confident, and there was nothing spoken about any knee injury. I don't want to mention the kind of injuries I have. My suggestion is just, fill out an application, just say what kind of injuries he's having right now so we're aware of that.
"Who is interested in [the knee]? That was in the past. You got knocked out. That's it. Give some respect to the champion and give me a good challenge. In boxing, it's always tough. You break your hands. You tear your muscles, tendons. Whatever could happen in a fight, I have experienced in my life in multiple times. But nobody's interested in that. Everyone is interested in the result."
Wladimir Klitschko took down Tony Thompson in 2008, but the challenger gave Klitschko enough trouble then to create more intrigue in Saturday's rematch in Berne, Switzerland, than any Klitschko fight in recent memory.