COMMENTARY | 38 years ago on October 1, Muhammad Ali beat Joe Frazier in the sweltering late-morning heat of Manila, The Philippines. The Thrilla in Manila cemented both fighters' place in history and gave fight fans a glimpse into the heart and soul of true warriors.
After fourteen rounds of back and forth war, both fighters collapsed into their respective corners, looking for a fifteenth round that many say may have brought death to either, or both.
While a dead-legged Ali gasped for air, reportedly asking for the gloves to be cut off, a battered and nearly blind Frazier used up whatever energy he had pleading with trainer Eddie Futch to not stop the fight.
"It's over," Futch told a weary Frazier. "No one will forget what you did here today."
As the fight was being waved off, Ali would get off his stool to celebrate, only to collapse in a heap from pure exhaustion. Later, he would describe that moment as being "close to death."
Fight fans saw greatness that day, true greatness, true triumph of the mind, body, and soul. It's what boxing can give to fans that no other sport can. It's a fighter looking straight into the dark face of death and choosing to fight on.
This coming Saturday, undisputed heavyweight champ Wladimir Klitschko (60-3, 51 KOs) looks to make the fifteenth successful defense of his title by beating perennial top contender, Alexander Povetkin (26-0, 18 KOs) in Moscow, Russia.
It's a bout not without intrigue, but few outside of Klitschko's hardcore fan base are salivating over the oft-delayed title fight. Tossed in as a tape delay afterthought by HBO, Klitschko-Povetkin is part of the televised card headlined by Miguel Cotto vs. Delvin Rodriguez. At the very least, though, the bout is actually being televised in the U.S.
The fight, itself, is tough to nail down. Povetkin certainly has the pedigree to be a legitimate challenge to Klitschko. A Super Heavyweight gold medalist at the 2004 Olympics in Athens, Geece, Russia's Povetkin has been regarded as a legitimate top 3 or 4 heavyweight for the last five years. He's also an undefeated fighter with a fairly solid resume fighting in his home country.
However, Povetkin and his team had already passed on two mandated shots at Klitschko prior to this contest. Allegedly, he wasn't "ready" yet for the tough task of dethroning a Klitschko. That's certainly a valid reason for passing on title shots, but there's nothing to suggest that he's done anything or developed in any way to make himself "ready" since the last time his team nixed a showdown.
The only thing different about Povetkin's situation now is that he'll be earning a career-high $5.8 million, 25% of the $23.3 million purse put up by Russian promoter Vladimir Hryunov. It's up for debate whether five years of Klitschko avoidance will do anything for his ability to compete, but the ploy certainly paid off financially for what may be boxing's longest-awaited mismatch.
Klitschko, who will make 75% of the purse (a career-high $17.5 million), can't help but make most bouts into mismatches.
The long-reigning IBF, WBA, and WBO world titlist has dominated his competition while simultaneously vexing xenophobic American boxing writers, who long for the days of American exceptionalism in the heavyweight division.
Klitschko's recipe for success is a simple one, handed down to him by former trainer, the late Emanuel Steward. Wlad fights tall, using his reach and raw physical strength to keep opponents at bay, and then slowly bludgeons them from the outside with battering ram jabs and right hands. It's not an exciting style for many boxing palates, but it has proven to be infinitely effective for Klitschko's bottom line. Add in a cold, mechanical mindset that never strays from the game plan and you get a man-machine that is as dominant as any other fighter in the sport today. It doesn't hurt that today's talent pool is only ankle-deep, but that's hardly Wlad's fault. He's taken on all challengers, from the hopelessly hapless (Francesco Pianeta, Jean Marc Mormeck) to the downright legitimate (David Haye, Ruslan Chagaev), and is looking as dominant as ever.
The problem is that in a world that values greatness, dominance is often viewed as boring and predictable.
In a lot of ways, Klitschko and Floyd Mayweather have a lot in common as absolutely dominant world champs who may be too good for their own good in a time of relative mediocrity.
Mayweather has made legitimate world class fighters look like five-fight novices and is rarely tested or pushed into showing 100% of what he can do. The only true tests for Mayweather are the artificially manufactured match-ups that see him climbing several weight classes or those "back in time" fantasy bouts discussed on boxing message boards.
And while Mayweather fans clamor for him to be regarded as an all-time great, Klitschko fans do the same. Both have been so dominant for so long that it only seems appropriate.
But greatness is forged in the fires of adversity and shaped by other greatness. Without Frazier, there can be no legendary Ali; without Duran, there's no all-time greatness for Leonard.
Wladimir Klitschko could very well batter and skillfully crush Povetkin this Saturday in Moscow. It would be an impressive feat, measured in its proper context, but it doesn't make the case for his inclusion among the legendary figures of the sport. And it's unlikely that any victory at this point would earn him that distinction.
It's not his fault and it's not fair, but the bar is very high in the world of professional boxing. Fight fans have come to expect death-defying bravery and the warrior spirit in their greats. They've come to expect fire against adversity, not steely-cold dominance coming from a tremendous physical advantage exploited and executed by rote.
Klitschko, just like Mayweather, will be remembered as great, but it will be a qualified greatness. It will be the greatness of a boxing virtuoso who never truly proved his mettle as a fighter.
Paul Magno was a licensed official in the state of Michoacan, Mexico and is the author of Notes from the Boxing Underground. His work can also be found on Fox Sports and as Editor-in-Chief of The Boxing Tribune. In the past, Paul has done work for Inside Fights, The Queensberry Rules and Eastside Boxing. For breaking news, additional analysis, and assorted crazy commentary, follow him on Facebook, @TheBoxingTribune or on Twitter, @BoxingBTBC.
Sources: ESPN, IBTimes
- Sports & Recreation
- Wladimir Klitschko
- Joe Frazier
- Alexander Povetkin
- Floyd Mayweather