Dearth of competition for Klitschkos killing interest in heavyweight division, boxing

There are so many excellent fights staged regularly in boxing that it’s puzzling why so many fans are obsessed with the talent-starved heavyweight division, where an excellent fight occurs less frequently than a total eclipse.

For years, the heavyweights fueled the sport. Legendary talents such as Jack Johnson, Jack Dempsey, Joe Louis, Rocky Marciano, Muhammad Ali, George Foreman and Joe Frazier competed in jaw-dropping bouts that combined skill, savagery and drama and created memories impossible to forget, even decades later.

Those memories have to be the only reason the fight crowd today remains so fixated on what is easily the sport’s most mediocre weight class. The concern, though, is that so many fans want to see heavyweight fights, and when they realize heavyweights are routinely awful, they tune out the sport entirely.

Wladimir Klitschko (L) and his brother, Vitali, pose with their title belts.
(AP photo)

There is a lot of truth to the old adage, “As the heavyweights go, so goes boxing.”

The Klitschko brothers, Wladimir and Vitali, own all of the major heavyweight belts, though Alexander Povetkin has a “championship,” as well, because the World Boxing Association in its infinite wisdom has seen fit to declare more than one man a champion at the same time in the same class.

That foolishness notwithstanding, the Klitschkos are the be-all and end-all of the division. While they preside over what is unquestionably the worst era for heavyweights ever, there is no doubt they are good enough to have competed successfully at any point in history.

They wouldn’t have necessarily been champions in any era, though they would have been among the best no matter when they fought.

The issue that plagues boxing, given fans’ obsession with watching heavyweights, is their lack of credible opponents. On Saturday in Dusseldorf, Germany, Wladimir Klitschko will complete a three-week run of heavyweight title matches when he meets former cruiserweight champion Jean-Marc Mormeck in front of an expected crowd of around 50,000.

[ Video: Klitschko-Mormeck keys to victory ]

Klitschko and trainer Emanuel Steward have worked hard to try to build up Mormeck, who hasn’t fought since 2010 and who has performed poorly as a heavyweight. They went so far as to compare him to Mike Tyson, a comparison that even Mormeck laughed off.

I’m not Mike Tyson, though sometimes it’s a good PR stunt,” Mormeck said. “I have neither the explosiveness nor the punch.”

Steward, in particular, tried hard to sell Mormeck as a difficult challenge when everyone in the industry knows it would be essentially a loss if Klitschko allows Mormeck to make it a long fight.

Mormeck struggled with guys like Vinny Madalone and Timur Ibragimov, who are weak sisters even in the worst era in heavyweight history.

Steward used the clever strategy of taking a Mormeck weakness and trying to turn it into a strength as a means of drumming up interest. Mormeck is just 5-foot-11, short for modern heavyweights and pint-sized in relation to the 6-foot-6 Klitschko.

Steward, though, managed to present Mormeck’s lack of size and range as a problem for Klitschko and not for Mormeck.

“I think the biggest obstacle in Wladimir’s upcoming title defense is the fact that we’re fighting a fighter with a style unlike any that Wladimir has had to fight,” Steward said. “Everyone says it’s a total mismatch, but styles make fights. And in fighting Mormeck, we’re fighting a guy with a bob-and-weave-type style that’s something that Wladimir has not fought. And as he and I were just speaking about, it’s the most difficult style for tall fighters.

“I know most of the guys I’ve trained, from Tommy Hearns, Lennox Lewis and even myself when I fought, we were all tall fighters, and I know the biggest problem was all these guys with their heads down, bobbing and weaving, because you don’t have much of a target, and you’re always in danger of breaking your hands. And so it’s not the type of a fight that he can come out like everyone thinks and just blow the guy away.”

Klitschko, though, needs to blow the guy away in an attempt to build up interest in the division.

Vitali Klitschko fought Dereck Chisora on Feb. 18 in Germany and won a unanimous decision in a bout for the World Boxing Council belt that was much more entertaining than anyone had a right to expect. Chisora wasn’t nearly as talented as Klitschko, but he came to fight and forced Klitschko to work to beat him.

Last week, Povetkin scored a questionable decision over ex-cruiserweight champion Marco Huck to retain his WBA belt. Forgetting the fact that it was a fraudulent title fight, it was an entertaining, action-packed match. More of those kinds of fights out of the heavyweights may help to revive it.

Both of those bouts, and Saturday’s Klitschko-Mormeck match, were broadcast in the U.S. on Epix and streamed live on its website at

Fans who watched had to be encouraged by seeing good fights.

[ Related: EPIX makes move to improve streaming for Klitschko fight ]

If Wladimir Klitschko can come up with an exciting knockout on Saturday – it’s too much to ask for Mormeck to be competitive – Epix’s heavyweight series will have accomplished something in the U.S.

“This issue with heavyweight division, especially in [the U.S.] or the view from [the U.S.] is that it’s kind [of dead], right?” Wladimir Klitschko said. “So that’s actually [the opinion that] a lot of people have. On one side, I agree, because there have been not many great challengers.”

He went on to say the challengers have nothing to lose because no one expects them to do much, if anything. All of the pressure, Klitschko said, is on his brother and himself.

Performing when the pressure is at its greatest and when the spotlight is most intense is what the superstars do. It’s what is expected of both of the Klitschkos.

And so, they need to do their part by fighting hard and putting on good shows, trying to keep interest in the division until that challenger comes along who will make a match that captivates the world.

If you think the interest in a fight between Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Manny Pacquiao is intense, just wait until – or if – a star emerges who is good enough to challenge one, or both, of the Klitschko brothers on even terms.

While they wait for that challenger to arrive, Steward said he urges Wladimir Klitschko to be on top of his game so he still holds the belts when the moment finally comes.

“I’ve always told Wladimir, ‘If you keep the championship of the world, sooner or later, out of some crazy situation, there will be a challenger who will come up out of nowhere and shake up the division,’ ” Steward said. “I remember when Joe Louis had it, it was so bad that they called his opponents ‘The Bum of the Month Club.’ He was fighting bartenders and a small light heavyweight, Billy Conn. He almost lost to Conn and created a big super fight in the rematch. … “But, you know, as long as you keep the title, all roads lead to a Klitschko. And [as we do that], regardless of what’s there, there will be something to come up. But in the meantime, it’s frustrating for me, but Wladimir seems to enjoy training and boxing, so we just do the best we can.”

There is no one on the immediate horizon who figures to make a mega-match for either Wladimir or Vitali. Sooner or later, though, it will happen. If the Klitschkos hold up their end, eventually boxing fans will be pining for a big heavyweight fight like they are now for one between Mayweather and Pacquiao.

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Kevin Iole covers boxing and mixed martial arts for Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Twitter. Send Kevin a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Friday, Mar 2, 2012