Boxing

Klitschkos' combo punch threatens to KO heavyweight division

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History will show July 2 marked the birth of an empire. It may also go down as the death of a division.

On that rain-swept night in Hamburg, Germany, Wladimir Klitschko unified the four major heavyweight belts under one surname, boxing his way to a 12-round unanimous decision over David Haye. Klitschko took Haye's World Boxing Association title, adding to his WBO and IBF hardware, while his older brother Vitali is the WBC strap holder.

But for all the skill and power of the brothers Klitschko - and there is plenty - there seems to be just as little American interest in a sport, already on wobbly legs, dominated by a pair of Ukrainians who refuse to take on their top competition.

That is, each other.

"The heavyweight division is on the cusp of being canceled," said boxing historian Bert Sugar. "In the U.S., it's a non-division. (Americans) like big fights, big cars, big yachts, big-chested women. Here, we love heavyweights."

Nicknamed "Dr. Steelhammer," Wladimir's fists did little to forge Haye's head into a malleable lump during 12 mostly meandering rounds. Using his reach advantage and superior technical proficiency to offset Haye's speed, Klitschko utilized a left jab, an occasional left hook and, even less seldom, a straight right hand to stymie the loquacious Brit.

For his part, Haye displayed an inverse amount of fight compared to his incessant trash-talking - or, in hindsight, faux browbeating - of the siblings the past two years before coming up literally, and physically, short. He proved to be nothing more than yet another in a long line of so-called heavyweight contenders whose bark was worse than his bite.

"I've been trying to celebrate my 50th knockout, but tonight, it didn't work," Klitschko said afterward. "But we'll be celebrating with my brother that we collected all of the belts in the heavyweight division."

It was vintage Klitschko, a boxer in the purist sense of the word who uses the ring the way a professor uses a chalkboard - the man does hold a doctorate in sport science, after all. His thesis statement is that potent left jab at the end of an 81-inch reach, a punch "he can hit you with from his corner while you sit in yours," according to Sugar.

Vitali, a.k.a. "Dr. Ironfist," also has a Ph.D., employs a similar style and may be the better boxer of the two since many experts argue he has the better fighter instincts.

However, that debate will never progress beyond words. The brothers have already stated they will not fight each other, and, unlike most fine wines that improve with age, there is a good chance the heavyweight division will die on the vine while they punish underwhelming challengers.

American fans appear to have already given up. There is currently no one to rally behind, but also because the Klitschkos are out of sight and out of mind. Their management group is based in Germany, their training base, Austria, 4,000 miles across the Atlantic - a distance that may also reflect the competitive gap between the brothers and the others.

Yet the blame of the bane in the division doesn't originate in the giant shadows Wladimir and Vitali cast.

It isn't their fault a challenger has failed to emerge since Lamont Brewster knocked out Wladimir in 2004 - a defeat he avenged in 2007 while defending his IBF and IBO titles. It isn't their fault Haye and Tomasz Adamek - Vitali's next opponent, come September - are little more than overhyped and undersized cruiserweights stepping up to a division once steeped in glory and now mired in mediocrity.

What the Klitschkos' reign should have in length it will most assuredly lack in era-defining victories, a critical component that could insert either - or both - into a debate of where they rank among the pantheon of great fighters.

"Part of the assessment and criterion for being an all-time great is meeting and beating other greats," Sugar said. "For the Klitschkos, that number begins and ends with zero."

The current gap in talent is augmented by their imposing size. Wladimir is 6-foot-6 1/2 and 242 pounds, while Vitali stands 6-7 1/2 and weighed 250 in March when he posted a TKO of Odlanier Solis in the first round.

There are few who can look them in the eye, and one who can - 7-foot-2, 315-pound Russian behemoth Nikolai Valuev - lost the WBA belt to Haye to set up last Saturday's unification bout. The only standard to even begin to measure the Klitschkos is Lennox Lewis, incidentally the last undisputed heavyweight champion.

Lewis beat Vitali back in 2003, when the elder Klitschko was a last-second replacement for Kirk Johnson - due in part to the fact that he was already on the undercard. Klitschko staggered Lewis early and led on all three scorecards, but Lewis opened up a horrific gash in Klitschko's left eyelid - it eventually required 60 stitches - and the ringside doctor refused to let Klitschko start the seventh round.

Six months later, having seen a glimpse of the Klitschko empire in victory, Lewis opted to retire rather than give Vitali a rematch after the WBC named him the mandatory challenger.

"Lewis showed us a man at 250 pounds could move, box and punch," Sugar noted, "as opposed to Rocky Marciano at 189 pounds, Joe Louis at 204 and even Muhammad Ali, who was his heaviest at 224 pounds."

The bad news for aspiring heavyweights and ambitious cruiserweights is Wladimir relishes the idea of extending his newly gained family dynasty for many years.

"I am super motivated now that we've collected all the belts in the Klitschko family," he said. "It's an exciting game... I definitely am challenged to do better and will continue."

Who it's exciting for and what that challenge is remains to be seen. Because the kings are dead in the heavyweight division.

For champions Wladimir and Vitali Klitschko, however, long live the kings.

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