Klitschko-Ibragimov could be step one

Kevin Iole

NEW YORK – Wladimir Klitschko said all the right things on Wednesday, about how the heavyweight division has lost its way and that boxing needs a good and popular heavyweight champion and how he aims to be that man.

He's fighting Sultan Ibragimov on Saturday at Madison Square Garden to unify the IBF and WBO belts as part of his bid to restore the luster to the division, which, he sincerely believes, would invigorate the sport as a whole.

We'll soon get a chance to see how serious Klitschko is about this whole thing. Not so much on Saturday, because he should handle Ibragimov with relative ease, but the truth will come in a few weeks when he's about to take the next step on his journey.

Two weeks from Saturday, in Cancun, Mexico, Oleg Maskaev and Sam Peter will meet for the WBC heavyweight belt. It would seem a logical progression for that winner to fight the winner of Saturday's bout, but in boxing, nothing is as it seems.

But if, as expected, Peter wins that WBC bout in a few weeks, we'll get an idea of how serious Klitschko really is about this whole unification thing.

That's because the specter of Don King would suddenly be looming and Klitschko has a serious aversion to doing business with King.

Adding to the intrigue is that Klitschko's older brother, Vitali, is not officially retired despite not having fought since Dec. 11, 2004. He announced his retirement in 2005 when a knee injury forced him out of a title defense with Hasim Rahman and the WBC quickly gave him the designation as the champion emeritus.

That designation didn't seem to amount to much, but now it is a major factor in whether or not the IBF, WBA, WBC and WBO belts will be unified by year's end.

King has a promotional interest in Peter which, given the Klitschko brothers' notorious reticence for doing business with him might render that bout all but impossible to make. But King said Thursday that Wladimir Klitschko's words about wanting one man to hold all the major belts is little more than idle chatter. King said the Klitschkos have long maneuvered to have Vitali Klitschko fight the Maskaev-Peter winner for the WBC belt.

"And they have always said the brothers wouldn't fight each other, so that means no unification," King said. "They want to deprive the public of this but they don't want the people to know the deceit and the deception and the duplicitousness that's going on here."

King said it goes further than just wanting to avoid working with him and that the Klitschkos essentially are looking for an extra shot.

He claims Vitali Klitschko's champion emeritus designation will soon factor into the mix.

"If Sam wins, which I believe he will, they want him to fight Vitali first and then if Sam wins that, then they would be willing to fight Wladimir against him," King said. "They want him to fight two Klitschkos for the price of one."

If Vitali Klitschko were to opt to stay retired – and history says that with his fragile body, he will, even if he says he wants to fight – it's no guarantee that Wladimir Klitschko will be on board for a potential IBF-WBO-WBC unification with Peter.

If Peter were to win, Klitschko would have a significant decision to make because while his distaste for King may tell him to walk away, he surely realizes this might be his last best chance to collect all four major belts.

The decision he makes will answer plenty of questions about him.

It's going to be exceedingly difficult for him to walk away, because of how remarkably things have fallen into place.

He's already beaten Peter once – though he was knocked down three times in that bout – and has to understand that he would be a solid favorite to win. That would leave him one fight away from accomplishing his goal of cleaning up the division and establishing himself not as a champion but as the champion.

"We don't have big names in the heavyweight division, so there's no chance for a pay-per-view fight," Klitschko told the New York Times. "You win a title and lose your next fight. We need someone to have the title a long time. We need a role model, and that's my ambition."

Including Klitschko's three, the four men who stake a claim to the heavyweight belt have a combined six defenses. None other than Klitschko have been around long enough to make it to rerun season.

The path is obvious for Klitschko, but being the man requires taking on all comers, even if one of those comers happens to be promoted by Don King.

Klitschko's adviser, Shelly Finkel, has an extraordinarily contentious relationship with King. The enmity that exists between them is real and deep.

If Klitschko gets past Ibragimov and holds the IBF and WBO belts, he'll have most of the leverage in talks with King. He's HBO's preferred choice, he's the bigger draw and the more established name.

Plus, he already has that win over Peter.

King, who once had a vise grip on the heavyweight division, has only a loose connection to it these days, with only partial promotional rights to guys like Peter, 7-foot Russian Nikolai Valuev and ex-middleweight James Toney, who is attempting to return after serving his second steroids-related suspension.

It shouldn't be hard for Klitschko to say yes to a bout with Peter, but his distaste for King may give him pause.

Of course, he has to get past Ibragimov to make any of this meaningful, and Klitschko has lost before as a significant favorite.

Klitschko at his best would be a formidable foe for any heavyweight of recent vintage. He's got the size few ever have had, but he has the athleticism of men much smaller.

His trainer, Emanuel Steward, has magnificently rebuilt his career after a series of stunning defeats and poor performances, largely by restoring Klitschko's confidence.

He did much the same thing a decade or so earlier with Lennox Lewis, making Lewis the prototype of the 21st century heavyweight. That is clearly what Steward has in mind for Klitschko, too.

" I consider Wladimir one of the best heavyweights in history, (because of the way he) moves on his feet and (his) accurate punching," Steward said. "Lennox didn't have a marquee fighter. There are no names out there, so he has to try to be the unified champion."

Klitschko has made all the requisite complimentary statements about Ibragimov and Steward has insisted Ibragimov is the best opponent Klitschko has faced.

Ibragimov is a decent fighter, but he's one of those guys who has a belt only because the era is so diluted. He would have been little more than a steppingstone during any decent era in heavyweight history, but is near the top today simply because the division reeks. He couldn't put away a long-over-the-hill Evander Holyfield in October in his first title defense, which should tell you something about him.

Klitschko may have problems for a while because Ibragimov has decent hand speed and is a southpaw.

Chris Byrd, though, had better hand speed, was more elusive and was also a southpaw, and Klitschko twice beat the stuffing out of him.

He'll do the same on Saturday to Ibragimov. And then his attention will focus on Cancun, where you know he'll be praying for a Maskaev victory. It will only be if Peter wins, though, that we will learn of Klitschko's true intentions.