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|The Klitschkos could teach us a lot about sportsmanship by fighting each other.|
This story appears in the June 27, 2011, issue of ESPN The Magazine.
BOXING'S HEAVYWEIGHT DIVISION is such a bore that it was fun to hear WBA champ David Haye recently taunt Wladimir Klitschko about their July 2 title bout, saying the Ukrainian usually boxes "little fat puddings who turn up for a paycheck." There's real animosity between these two, and the extended buildup to their long-delayed fight has injected some life into the sport. When the dust settles in Hamburg, Germany, the winner will hold three of the four heavyweight belts. But just boxing's luck, if Wlad comes out on top, the unification bout that would generate huge pay-per-view profits will never happen. Why? Because it would pit Klitschko vs. Klitschko, Wlad vs. Vitali, who holds the other belt.
As the brothers see it, bloody family spectacles are best left to reality-TV shows or movies like Warrior, the upcoming flick about MMA siblings put on a collision course by their boozing ex-boxer dad (played by Nick Nolte in a bit of reality casting). The Klitschkos long ago promised their mom that they'd never cross gloves professionally, and in 2009 Wlad told London's Daily Mail that if he were to fight his brother, "we'd both be losers."
I don't buy it. The 39-year-old Vitali has parlayed his WBC belt into a career as a politician in the Ukraine, while Wlad, four years his junior, has collected alphabet titles (IBF, IBO, WBO) and Hollywood starlets. Boxing has been very, very good to them, so if the pugilistic stars align, why shouldn't they step up and pay it forward?
I know it may sound ghoulish. The Manning brothers can go to war on the gridiron without ever coming face-to-face, and the Williams sisters can safely gun baseliners from 78 feet apart. Fighting, on the other hand, demands close, punishing contact. Other than a few small-time bouts, there's little history of brothers meeting in the ring. The Klitschkos have made their stand, and in MMA, stars Nick and Nate Diaz just say no too. Even when sibs are game, promoters can't quite stomach the idea. At a recent press conference, Strikeforce CEO Scott Coker rolled his eyes when heavyweights Valentijn and Alistair Overeem said they're ready to rumble. "I'm sure they've had their rumbles growing up," Coker said with a tight smile. "But I think we should keep that in the house and not put it in the cage."
But why? It's because fighting can be gruesome that two brothers worried about each other's safety would be forced to elevate their craft by employing surgical strikes and cunning. Let the Klitschkos, both of whom have PhDs in sports science and are chess fanatics, show us that boxing is a thinking game. Give them a chance to restore the heavyweight division with a master class in gentlemen jabbing.
Barbara B. Meyer, head of the sports psychology lab at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, says sibling stars shy away from public rivalries because they feel they can't be their true selves. A few years ago, after an NHL player told her he dreaded meeting his brother on the ice (obviously not one of the Primeaus; Keith and Wayne memorably dropped the gloves in 1997), Meyer rounded up five pairs of athlete siblings -- from Olympic diving, track and field, cycling, swimming and NCAA soccer -- and asked them how it felt to compete against each other. One cyclist told Meyer she typically ignored crashes but would sacrifice a few seconds looking back if her sister was involved. A swimmer admitted she often taunted rivals but would want her sister to perform well.
Meyer concluded that "siblings want to win, but not at the expense of the other, so they treat the competition differently." Maybe it's no surprise that last year's Manning Bowl resulted in a 38-14 Colts blowout, or that Venus and Serena have met in eight Grand Slam finals with only three tiebreakers in 18 sets. But Meyer says it need not be that way. She tells clients: "You can be a good brother or sister and still play to win. It's about figuring out what you can each do to have a best performance."
As strange as it sounds, the Klitschkos could teach us a lot about sportsmanship and the true art of the sweet science by fighting each other. Then again, if Haye wins on July 2, Vitali will be called upon to fight for something even more elemental: family honor.
Shaun Assael is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.