Fearless Klitschko takes on all comers

Kevin Iole
Yahoo! Sports
Fearless Klitschko takes on all comers
WBC Heavyweight champion Vitali Klitschko (R) of the Ukraine defeated Cristobal Arreola of the US during their WBC Heavyweight Championship fight at the Staples Center in Los Angeles on September 26, 2009. Klitschko won the fight in the ninth round

There is never a concern in the major pro team sports that the best teams will fail to face each other, as there is in boxing. The best teams meet on an almost weekly basis in the team sports, but it's cause for great celebration when it occurs in boxing.

And that probably explains the delirium over the fact that a fight between Manny Pacquiao and Floyd Mayweather Jr., almost universally regarded as the world's finest boxers, is tentatively set to be held on March 13.

There is little that could be better for the health of the sport than for a pair of elite superstars in their primes to meet. Mayweather and Pacquiao deserve much credit for so quickly and easily coming to an apparent deal.

Their fight will showcase the best boxing has to offer and will expose today's sport to fans who had long ago given up on it because of its myriad problems or to those who hadn't been fans before.

It might be the biggest fight since the rematch between Mike Tyson and Evander Holyfield in 1997 or even since the epic 1971 first match between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier.

And that brings us to the only thing that could be better for the sport than elite boxers agreeing to meet at the peak of their powers and popularity: Elite heavyweight boxers agreeing to meet at the peak of their powers and popularity.

The public remains fascinated with heavyweights, but the biggest fights ever almost always feature heavyweights.

And while there aren't many quality heavyweights today, champion Vitali Klitschko is giving a shot at the belt to those there are.

Klitschko will fight Kevin Johnson, a little known but quality American, on Saturday in Berne, Switzerland, for the World Boxing Council heavyweight belt in a bout that will be shown as part of a doubleheader in the U.S. on HBO.

It will be Klitschko's fourth championship fight in 14 months, a brisk pace for all highly paid boxers but almost unheard of for a heavyweight.

Klitschko ended a 46-month exile from the sport, brought upon by numerous injuries, on Oct. 11, 2008, when he won the WBC belt by stopping Samuel Peter. Since, he's stopped Juan Carlos Gomez and Chris Arreola.

The Klitschko-Arreola bout, on Sept. 26 in Los Angeles, delivered HBO's best rating of the year, an unexpectedly high number.

While much of that may have to do with the popularity of Arreola among Hispanic boxing fans in the U.S., a significant portion of credit has to go to Klitschko for keeping the title in play.

He's fighting at an average of 3.4 times a year now, which is an unusually high number for a quality heavyweight. In his last five years, Lennox Lewis fought a total of nine times. In his final five years, Mike Tyson fought five times.

And while it was always a major event whenever Lewis or Tyson fought (and particularly when they finally fought each other), their appearances were all too rare.

The old adage that "There is boxing and then there is heavyweight boxing," is definitely true. And while Klitschko can't do much about the quality of opposition, at least he's putting the belt in play and giving fans an opportunity to watch championship bouts.

And it isn't as if he's ducking any logical contender. There is nobody, really, that he could have fought that he hasn't fought.

He offered a shot earlier this year to David Haye, but Haye switched gears at the last moment and decided to take the easier path by facing Nikolai Valuev for the World Boxing Association title.

His brother, Wladimir Klitschko, is the top man in the division and holds the International Boxing Federation and World Boxing Organization crowns. As a result, he owes mandatory shots to Eddie Chambers and Alexander Povetkin, so they're not available to fight Vitali.

After coming off his one-sided win over Arreola – a fight many expected would be far more competitive than it was – he easily could have taken six or nine months off and not been seen again until mid-2010.

Instead, he agreed to fight Johnson (22-0-1, 9 KOs), an unbeaten American with little power but good athleticism and a terrific jab.

It's a high-risk, low-reward fight for Klitschko, since Johnson is unknown and not particularly highly regarded. He has never faced anyone of substance, as his last five opponents (in reverse order, Devin Vargas, Matthew Greer, Bruce Seldon, Terry Smith and Jermell Barnes) would attest.

If Klitschko wins, as he should, he'll gain little other than his paycheck for it. But if he loses, it would be a disaster of epic proportions.

The fight will come down, almost certainly, to a battle of jabs. Johnson is 4 1/2 inches shorter than Klitschko, but he has an 82-to-80 advantage in reach, which should mean he'll be able to compete with Klitschko jab for jab.

The difference will likely be whether Johnson is willing to commit to his jab after he gets hit by a few Klitschko rights.

Johnson will have to pull a high-wire act to win. He doesn't have the power to blunt Klitschko's attack, so he'll try to jab and move, piling up points and staying out of danger. It may work for a while, but it's like trying to defuse a bomb with the clock ticking. One mistake and it's over.

Klitschko's jab is not only a point-producer, it's also a weapon. He pounded Arreola with the jab, though Arreola admittedly made it easier on him by continually pressing forward and not using lateral movement.

Klitschko is a strong, powerful jabber and that alone may make Johnson wary. But combine that with a powerful right waiting behind it and it may turn into another Klitschko runaway.

It would be better if media from around the world were going to descend upon Berne and were telling the tale of what would be an epic battle.

Unfortunately, there is no heavyweight active today who could make that kind of bout with Klitschko other than his brother, Wladimir. And because the brothers will never fight, there is no mega-bout for the heavyweights on the horizon.

But give Vitali credit for doing the next best thing and putting the belt up against all comers. The more the belt is in play, the more fans talk about it and the more chance there is for a bout that will once again be buzz-worthy.

When it comes to giving boxing a shot in the arm, Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao aren't at it alone.

Vitali Klitschko deserves a whole lot of credit for doing his part, too.