The Klitschko brothers have been a strange one-two punch in the
heavyweight division for some years now, their potential defined
more in the novelty of their brotherhood than in their capacity
for championship. That is to say, they have lingered as
newsmaking contenders mostly because they're ... interesting. If
you're going to lose fights to Chris Byrd (that would be Vitali,
who quit on his stool with a shoulder injury) and Corrie Sanders
(Wladimir, the "talented" one, destroyed in two) it helps to have
a storyline to float your career--huge, robotic siblings with
Ph.D.'s, from Kiev, ever eager, if reliably inept at crunch time.
But now Vitali, the taller (6' 7 1/2") and older (32) of the two,
is filling a niche that we forgot even existed: the red-hot
heavyweight contender. Nearly 11,000 in his ever-growing fan base
came to Madison Square Garden last Saturday night chanting his
name as he dismantled Kirk Johnson inside of two rounds. He
wounded Johnson with powerful shots to the body, dropped him with
a right to the head. This comes on top of his loss to WBC
champion Lennox Lewis in June, a brawl Klitschko was improbably
winning on all scorecards until it was stopped on a cut. (That
fight, on HBO, reached 4.6 million homes, the highest rated
heavyweight fight since 1997.) Could one of these brothers be for
real, after all?
It is a lot to hope for, but given the state of the game, it's
hard not to rush and anoint Vitali as the chosen one, again. Who
else is there? Lewis, whose reign has been impressive at times,
has been strangely silent since the Klitschko fight, not at all
anxious to be granting rematches. We may have seen the last of
him. Mike Tyson? Also MIA. Roy Jones? He's only interested in
cherry-picking heavyweight also-rans, and the smaller the better.
Everyone else in the heavyweight division is of the recycled
variety, fighters who had their chance and didn't acquit
themselves well enough to deserve a second.
Of course, that would seem to define the Klitschkos as well. Each
stumbled on his way to history, in a fashion sufficient to plunge
other fighters out of the game. Vitali's loss to Byrd was
especially damaging, inasmuch as it suggested lack of heart. That
misstep allowed Wladimir, whose more fluid and athletic style is
better suited to American boxing, to blossom. But on his way to a
fight with Lewis, he got stopped by a boxer who hadn't been
active for nearly two years.
So now it was again up to Vitali, the harder puncher of the two,
to keep the story alive. His second chance came when Lewis's
opponent, the aforementioned Kirk Johnson, bailed out with an
injury. Lewis, feeling cockier than he should have, agreed to
Vitali as a show-saving replacement and may have been bombed out
of the sport as a result.
Boxing demands an exciting and dangerous heavyweight. That's just
the way it is, has always been. Oscar de la Hoya, Sugar Shane
Mosley, Bernard Hopkins, Roy Jones--they can keep the sport going
just so long. Their charisma and skills are great entertainment,
and their shows do great box office. But the overall health of
boxing depends on firepower from above, the huge destroyers who,
in the breadth of their shoulders and wallop in their fists,
represent the purity of pay-per-view menace.
Is Vitali that guy? Recent history (as well as Johnson's poor
conditioning) reminds us to be cautious. Still, after two fights
in which Vitali has shown he has the heart for this game after
all, maybe it's different this time. The Klitschkos, and Vitali
in particular, may indeed re-energize the sport. Two well-spoken
guys (in four languages, on top of it) with size, power, talent
and (here's hoping) determination could restore some of that
perverse glamour that has buoyed boxing in its best days.
COLOR ILLUSTRATION: ILLUSTRATION BY STEVE BRODNER
"Wallace reared back and chucked a basketball at a teammate."
--PORTLAND PURGE, PAGE 32