In the last six and a half years, Wladimir Klitschko is 13-0 with 10 knockouts. He has been one of the most dominant figures in boxing since 2005, scarcely losing a round. Behind a punishing jab and a destructive right hand, Klitschko, 55-3, is considered the best heavyweight in the world, with his older brother Vitali as the only man who can make a case otherwise.
Klitschko stands as an athletic freak feasting on a division that doesn’t have much in the way of physically imposing opponents. The quick fighters he has faced – Chris Byrd, Sultan Ibragimov, and Eddie Chambers – were several inches shorter and dozens of pounds lighter. The sizable opponents he fought – Ray Austin, Samuel Peter, and Tony Thompson – were immoderately slow of foot and hand. Others were both small and slow. The best win of this group may be Tony Thompson in July of 2008, certainly a respectable heavyweight, but not one that was ever in danger of being spectacular. A boxer with a combination of speed, power, and size is nowhere to be found during this reign of terror.
The last opponent that met this criteria was Corrie Sanders in 2003, an underachieving South African who flattened Klitschko within two rounds. To be fair, this was Klitschko, Kiev, Ukraine, before he received tutelage from Emanuel Steward, before ‘jab and grab’ was a predominant tactic, and before he was allergic to throwing combinations and left hooks to the body. Steward effectively ended Klitschko’s disposition as an exciting fighter to create the paradox we have today: a tediously cautious knockout artist, one of the few in history. And while his style isn’t endearing, this restrictive approach makes him more capable of surviving the rough moments he encounters inside the ring.
But the fact remains that his opposition under Steward lacked the tools to touch his shaky whiskers. That may change on July 2nd at Imtech-Arena, Altona, Hamburg, Germany, against United Kingdom’s David Haye. At 6’3, Haye, 25-1 with 23 knockouts, doesn’t quite match Klitschko’s physical stature, but he is a decent-sized heavyweight with a blend of speed and power that is unique in today’s division, a wasteland of love handles and man boobs. Mirages of athletic talent are worth reaching for, even if they end in disappointment.
Indeed, the former cruiserweight conqueror has his fair share of flaws. His chin may be even less stable than Klitschko’s, and 200 pound Jean Marc Mormeck dropping and severely staggering Haye in a 2007 cruiserweight bout begs the obvious question of what’s going to happen if Klitschko lands his patented right hand. Also, his struggles with 7-foot sloth Nikolay Valuev raised further doubts on how Haye is able to deal with bigger opponents. He won a majority decision but never seemed comfortable in the ring. Only a temple shot that left Valuev knock-kneed in the final round provided hope that Haye can be a disruptive force in a bland landscape.
The braggadocios Brit has done his job during the glacial build-up to the most intriguing heavyweight bout in years. A 2008 confrontation at Excel Arena in London became a Youtube sensation. A t-shirt worn by Haye in 2009 that featured him triumphantly holding the decapitated heads of the Klitschko brothers uncharacteristically roused the robotic siblings. Memorable statements such as “he’s clearly a dickhead” made on a recently aired episode of Face Off with Max Kellerman into grand entertainment, along with Wladimir Klitschko’s expression after being asked again about the aforementioned shirt.
Still, while Haye describes the matchup as “the gulf of difference between a tremendous little man and a good big man,” doubts revolve around how tremendous Haye really is. Prime Evander Holyfield, an exuberant combination puncher who had the intangibles to overcome huge size disadvantages, he is not. Instead, Haye’s a speedy pot-shotter with iffy stamina and durability, and in a bout that may end the first time someone makes solid contact, the safe route may be to bet on the bigger man with the consistent, accurate jab.
But the fascination is genuine when a fighter on the mountain top faces the stiffest test of his title reign. The dominance of Klitschko’s run is muddled by the strident weaknesses of his opposition. Defeating a true athlete is another step towards validation, and a measure of redemption for the black marks on his resume. Through the last three years, David Haye has been a proud representative of Klitschko’s critics, persistently questioning the legitimacy of his tour de force. July 2nd, Klitschko has a chance to finally knock those criticisms hollow.