Wladimir Klitschko is the best heavyweight in the world, by a long shot.
He's also its most puzzling, by a long shot.
He'll defend his IBF title against Lamon Brewster on Saturday in an HBO-televised fight from Cologne, Germany. It's a rematch of a forgettable 2004 fight in which Klitschko lost his conditioning, was knocked out by a badly outclassed Brewster and which will be remembered for Klitschko's baseless allegation that he was drugged.
Klitschko is the most graceful big man in the game, who moves effortlessly around the ring. He has the power in both hands that befits his chiseled 250-pound frame.
His jab is a weapon, let alone his right hand. When he's good, he's capable of competing on nearly even terms with any heavyweight from any era.
The problem, though, is that you only see glimpses of the dominant Klitschko. And he's had enough inexplicable defeats that he still has a lot of work to do if he someday wants to gain entrance into the International Boxing Hall of Fame.
Klitschko is a two-time heavyweight champion, which at one stage in the sport's history meant automatic induction.
It does no more, though, when the likes of Henry Akinwande have been able to call themselves heavyweight champion.
Klitschko is so vastly superior to his peers in physical tools that he shouldn't even be challenged, and his 48-3 record and two reigns as heavyweight champion would indicate largely that he hasn't been.
It's those three losses, though, far more than any of the 48 victories, which define this man.
And no loss defines Klitschko more than his last one, which came at the hands of Brewster on April 10, 2004, at the Mandalay Bay Events Center in Las Vegas.
Klitschko was a huge favorite, as Brewster was widely seen at the time as an underachiever with questionable heart.
Predictably, Klitschko was in command in the early rounds, hurting Brewster repeatedly with quick, hard punches.
But like a truck with a ruptured gas tank, Klitschko's body suddenly shut down. He would ultimately claim he was drugged, but a far more plausible scenario is that he panicked when Brewster didn't fold like anticipated, and exerted so much energy so early into trying to finish the fight he had nothing left by the fourth round.
It was the second time he'd lost a fight that way. His first pro defeat, on Dec. 5, 1998, came at the hands of Ross Puritty, a fighter who was all but the dictionary definition of a journeyman.
He accepted the Puritty loss as a learning experience, but he reacted much differently to the Brewster defeat.
He had his attorney write a letter to Daniel Bogden, the then-U.S. Attorney for Nevada, demanding a federal investigation.
Attorney Judd Burstein sent a baseless and over-the-top diatribe to Bogden, calling the drop in odds from 11-1 to 3-1 suspicious and essentially accusing everyone but the usher in section 208 of being in on the so-called plot.
Burstein wrote, "Inexplicably, beginning in or about the second round, and prior to having been hit with any significant punches, Mr. Klitschko exhibited and experienced a rapid loss of energy, coherence and equilibrium.
"This fact was noted and is corroborated by the personal observations of his corner men, who uniformly characterized his condition as something they had not seen previously in their long careers. They noted that he appeared to collapse during the bout, not from the effects of any blows, but rather from some other unknown cause."
Bogden is one of the eight U.S. Attorneys fired last year in the ongoing Department of Justice controversy. His dismissal was unfair, but would have been justified had he taken Klitschko's letter even remotely seriously.
Klitschko wasn't drugged before the Brewster fight – period – although he may have been the other day when during a conference call he called Brewster one of the toughest fighters in history.
Given that outrageous comment, perhaps the boxing authorities in Germany would be wise to do a pre-fight urinalysis of Klitschko.
Klitschko, though, has recently been fighting like the Hall of Fame talent he is. He blew away the lightly regarded Ray Austin in April. And though it's reasonable to say that Austin didn't deserve to be in a world title bout, Klitschko made that point by getting rid of him quickly and efficiently, ending the bout in less than two full rounds.
His three opponents before that, though not Ali, Frazier and Foreman, were far more representative and Klitschko handled them as if they were amateurs.
Samuel Peter, Chris Byrd and Calvin Brock had a combined record of 92-2-1 at the time he met them, but Klitschko won all three, two by stoppage.
That's the Klitschko who should be dominating the game, but every so often the Klitschko who wilted against Puritty and Brewster shows up.
And that's where the intrigue lies in Saturday's fight, because if it was simply a talent contest they wouldn't even sanction the fight.
But every Klitschko fight is a bigger adventure than Alfonso Soriano trying to run down a fly to the gap, because every minute of every one of his fights is like overtime in the Super Bowl.
He can win at any moment, but he can lose at any moment as well.
Brewster is a charming guy with a likeable personality, but this is Klitschko's show.
If Klitschko wins, as he should, it will be another manifestation of his enormous talents. If Brewster does, as Klitschko's history suggests is at least possible, it will be because Wladimir Klitschko didn't understand how to harness those Hall of Fame skills.
- Wladimir Klitschko
- Lamon Brewster