NEW YORK – Sultan Ibragimov might be the most anonymous heavyweight champion in boxing history.
He's so low-profile that HBO, which will broadcast Saturday's IBF-WBO unification bout at Madison Square Garden between Ibragimov and Wladimir Klitschko, took out a nearly full-page ad in several major newspapers Friday that provided top billing to a documentary on former champion Joe Louis.
It's a sign of the times that a heavyweight unification bout – the first since 1999, when Lennox Lewis won the undisputed title by defeating Evander Holyfield in a rematch in Las Vegas – gets squashed onto the bottom of the advertisement promoting it.
And the big attraction on the actual boxing broadcast on Saturday may not be the Klitschko-Ibragimov fight, but the replay of the Kelly Pavlik-Jermain Taylor super middleweight bout that was held last week in Las Vegas.
Ibragimov, who won a silver medal for Russia as a heavyweight in the 2000 Olympics, shrugs at the perceived slight.
The reason he has come to New York to fight Klitschko is because it's the only way to put an end to the era of heavyweight anonymity.
"The people want one champion and when there is one champion, then they'll watch," Ibragimov said. "These are the kinds of fights boxing needs. Only the champions fighting each other."
Ibragimov is so serious about it that when his proposed WBA-WBO unification in October in Moscow fell through as WBA champion Ruslan Chagaev had to withdraw because of injury, he refused to go to Russia for the first news conference announcing that Holyfield would replace Chagaev.
Ibragimov was so focused on consolidating the belts that he initially didn't see the benefit of making his first title defense against a fighter with the most recognizable name in the division.
"Sultan didn't understand and we had to explain that Holyfield was a very good option since we couldn't do Chagaev," said Leon Margules, Ibragimov's promoter.
Since dominating Holyfield, Ibragimov finds himself in an enviable position because the winner of Saturday's bout will be regarded by most as the top heavyweight in the world. And despite giving up 21 pounds and four inches – He's listed at 6 feet 2, though his trainer, Jeff Mayweather, concedes he's not nearly that tall – Ibragimov is supremely confident.
He may have the fastest hands of any of the significant heavyweights and he's a better than average boxer.
It's one of the things that Mayweather had to convince him of when he took over as Ibragimov's trainer a little over a year ago. Despite being relatively small for a heavyweight, Ibragimov is a fearless sort who loved to stand toe-to-toe and slug it out in a battle of wills.
That works fine against second-tier opponents, but against a superb athlete and hard puncher like Klitschko, it's not the wisest option.
"Sultan just liked that meeting power with power type of boxing," Mayweather said. "But I told him even if he kept winning with that style, it wasn't the kind of style that was going to keep him around for a long time. Sultan has a lot of tools and he's not a one-dimensional guy.
"There is this impression out there that Klitschko is unbeatable, but that's because he has HBO behind him. Guys like Sultan and Chagaev, they're good fighters, too. I'm not saying Klitschko can't fight, because he can, but what I'm saying is that he's not unbeatable. People act like he can't win this fight and that there's only one man in there, and that's basically because people have heard of Klitschko because of the marketing push he's gotten from HBO and they haven't heard of the other guys."
Ibragimov's plan is to maneuver Klitschko out of position, where he can then leap in, throw a combination and then move out of danger.
The biggest challenge for Ibragimov will be getting inside of Klitschko's powerful jab. If he can do that successfully, he will have a great shot at pulling an upset.
But Klitschko has won many fights against quality opposition with the jab alone. If he is able to pump it in Ibragimov's face consistently, it won't bode well.
Ibragimov, though, is supremely confident. The only blemish on his record is a 2006 draw with Ray Austin, a fighter whom Klitschko obliterated and stopped in the second round.
Mayweather, who trained Austin against Ibragimov, said there was a big difference in Austin in the two fights. He said it would be a mistake to use the respective results against Austin as a barometer of how the fight with Klitschko would unfold.
"Ray really worked hard and took the fight very seriously against Sultan," Mayweather said. "He didn't have that same attitude against Wladimir. Sultan understands what he has to do to win this fight.
"He's a guy who is used to winning and expects to win. He's not going to be intimidated. People may not know much about him, but they will. He's going to surprise a lot of people, I think."
- Sultan Ibragimov
- Wladimir Klitschko
- Evander Holyfield