Klitschko in no-win situation

Kevin Iole

How can this not, in boxing’s best year in at least a decade, be the bout that everyone is clamoring to see?

Wladimir Klitschko, a charismatic, intelligent and humble man who speaks five languages, owns a doctorate in sport science, and can box as well as any big man ever could, is fighting the most significant match of his life on Saturday.

The only man alive who would be a favorite to defeat him is his brother, World Boxing Council champion Vitali Klitschko. But since they have long said they'll never fight each other, there are no truly worthy challengers for either of them.

In Ruslan Chagaev, Wladimir Klitschko is meeting perhaps the man with the best chance on the planet not named Klitschko of defeating him and leaving the ring with three of the four major sanctioning body belts.

The heavyweight unification bout will be held in Gelsenkirchen, Germany before a raucous throng of more than 60,000 fans. Yet, to the rest of the world, it will largely be an afterthought.

Klitschko is a marvelously talented fighter at the height of his powers, but the heavyweight championship attracts less interest than the super bantamweight title these days.

If you had the choice on Saturday between watching Klitschko-Chagaev or a fourth fight between Israel Vazquez and Rafael Marquez, which would you choose?

Klitschko is never going to be recognized for his truly marvelous ability because of a dearth of quality opponents.

Where some heavyweight champions, such as Joe Louis, Jack Dempsey, Muhammad Ali, George Foreman and Mike Tyson, were larger than life in the U.S., Klitschko is a mere blip on the radar screen.

He barely registers.

Foreman was hawking grills and pitching muffler shops years after he last threw a punch in anger. He became an American sporting icon after ending a 10-year retirement and regaining the heavyweight title at age 45. But he was managed brilliantly and promoted astutely and remains one of the most popular men in the world even as he's passed the 60-year-old mark.

Klitschko has awe-inspiring physical abilities, but he's never fought a fight in which, going in, the opponent was given much of a chance.

Two of his three defeats were due to a failure of his conditioning; in the third, a knockout at the hands of Corrie Sanders, he got caught flush early with a punch from one of the sport's hardest punchers.

Go down the list in most of boxing's divisions and there are at least a handful of fights you're desperate to see.

Go down the list in the heavyweight division and you can begin to appreciate the difficulty in being a matchmaker.

Klitschko's last five opponents were Ray Austin, Lamon Brewster, Sultan Ibragimov, Tony Thompson and Hasim Rahman.

None were a threat. No one in the public or the media bought any of the five as legitimate challengers, let alone threats to win. Yet it's not like Klitschko is dodging anyone he should be fighting. Other than his brother, he's been willing to take on all comers.

It's just that the field stinks.

So he racks up lopsided victories as the public, outside of his home base in Eastern Europe, essentially yawns.

A fighter is judged by the quality of his opposition. Ali fought 14 fights against eight men who are in the International Boxing Hall of Fame: Foreman, Bob Foster, Joe Frazier, Larry Holmes, Sonny Liston, Archie Moore, Ken Norton and Floyd Patterson.

Foreman fought four Hall of Famers; Frazier three. Each man also fought numerous other quality opponents.

Klitschko, though, has never met anyone who will come remotely close to being in the Hall of Fame.

He's going to be remembered as much for the fluky losses to Brewster and Ross Puritty as for any of his victories. He has no such thing as a career-defining victory.

The almost-certain one-sided victory over Chagaev on Saturday will do little to improve that perception.

Klitschko’s handlers need to take him on a world tour after this fight. Exposing him to fans that haven't seen him in person can only help burnish his reputation. He's a great ambassador for the sport, both in the way he handles himself out of the ring and in the way he deals with his in-ring responsibilities.

Many, though, aren't aware of that. And there is no defining opponent on the horizon who will allow him finally to capture the world's respect and admiration.

Saturday's bout will be the fifth in his last six he's fought in Germany. That's good for the short-term bottom line, but it's hardly making him an icon anywhere else.

It says more about heavyweight boxing than it does about Klitschko's talent that he's still not a household figure in the U.S. and that he's no slam dunk to be inducted into the Hall of Fame.

Sadly, a win over Chagaev isn't going to change that.