The Pugilist: Battle of the flat-track bullies

Mon, 27 Jun 10:56:00 2011

Our boxing blogger The Pugilist returns with a damning assessment of heavyweight title rivals David Haye and Wladimir Klitschko.

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"We have a theory about the heavyweight championship, that somehow each of the great figures to hold the title manages to sum the spirit of his time."

"Just as people get the governments they deserve, so each period in our history seems to create the heavyweight champion it needs to express itself on the platform where body language and social currents fuse."

Budd Schulberg, 1972

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In the spring of 1908 Jack Johnson, the black American heavyweight, sailed to England for the chance to compete for the heavyweight title, a chance denied him by the American boxing authorities.

The white Canadian champion Tommy Burns was in London, and had commendably declared, "I will defend my title against all comers, none barred...if I am not the best man in the heavyweight division, I don't want the title."

Johnson was to be disappointed when the English National Sporting Club offered only a derisory purse for the bout, a purse that Burns rejected.

Johnson would eventually get his chance in December 1908. He beat Burns to become the first black heavyweight champion, but not before he had followed Burns the length of the world to Australia.

Such was Johnson's determination to attain the recognition he deserved, and to win the greatest prize in sport.

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The eyes of the world will turn once again to the heavyweight championship on July 2 when David Haye and Wladimir Klitschko contest the WBA, IBF and WBO titles.

Call this one 'The Battle of the Flat Track Bullies.'

Haye and Wladimir have one thing in common - neither man is eager to fight Vitali Klitschko, even though the WBC champion turns 40 next month.

No matter what anyone says, when the dust settles on July 3 neither Haye nor Wladimir will be the undisputed heavyweight champion, and sport's greatest crown will still await its next King.

Vitali contested the last legitimate heavyweight title fight, a humdinger with Lennox Lewis in 2003. Lewis won that one a little fortuitously when the referee stopped it on a cut and the Brit then chose to retire rather than allow Vitali to contest a rematch.

Thus the heavyweight title was vacated by Lewis in rather shabby fashion, and it has remained vacant for an unprecedented eight years. These years have truly been the unheroic age of heavyweight boxing, and popular interest has correspondingly waned.

Vitali has long had the strongest claim to the throne but he did not properly cement his position as champion before beginning a four-year lay-off in 2004.

By the time Vitali returned in 2008 his brother Wladimir had unified the IBF and WBO titles. Today the Klitschkos are generally recognised as the two best heavyweights but whilst they refuse to fight each other neither can be champion.

Since 2003 Vitali has followed the Lewis defeat with 10 consecutive wins. In that time Wladimir has won 15 and lost to Corrie Sanders and Lamon Brewster.

Whilst Vitali was once superior he is now in decline, and Wladimir, 35, is in his prime. A contest between the brothers has never been more intriguing.††

The brothers' truce has become accepted and there is a tendency to overlook the fact that there is something amiss in their refusal to meet each other in the ring.

The brothers are willing to beat up second-rate contenders - but not each other. This reticence suggests that they have moral qualms about the sport of boxing, and, if they do, they probably shouldn't be professional boxers.

Alternatively the brothers may think they know who would win between them but choose not to prove this decisively. As it is they each claim to be champion, and earn money on that basis.

Last year the IBF and WBO champion Wladimir said, "Vitali was a born fighter...I think Vitali is the better of the two of us."

The Klitschkos are good-hearted, highly-educated humanitarians but the ambiguity that they have created in the heavyweight division has been bad for boxing.

It is hard to imagine Jack Johnson being content to share the title with his brother. Indeed, it is a nonsense even to suggest that the heavyweight title can be shared. Boxing is not a team game.

There is little boxing fans dislike more than ambiguity so pulses quickened when the exciting cruiserweight champion David Haye bulked up to heavyweight in 2008, promising to release the division from the stultifying stranglehold of the Ukrainian brothers. Haye has not delivered.

Haye criticised the brothers for engaging in dull fights against hand-picked opponents who posed them little threat.

Haye then beat 'Sugar' Nikolai Valuev for the WBA title, a contest in which he threw an average of just 12 punches a round, before defending his belt against the 38-year-old John Ruiz and the 39-year-old Audley Harrison.

Throughout this period Haye continued to claim that the brothers were wary of a showdown, even though Wladimir had signed to fight him in 2009. And Haye pulled out of that date, citing a back injury.

Before travelling to face Valuev, Haye promised fans that he would emulate British heavyweight champion Lennox Lewis by capturing the WBA title.

Haye omitted to mention that the Panamanian organisation's title has lacked credibility ever since the WBA stripped Lewis of their belt back in 2000, following a request from Don King.

Also, given that Nikolai Valuev lost the WBA belt to Ruslan Chagaev in 2007, and that Chagaev has only lost to Wladimir Klitschko (in June 2009), it may confuse lesser mortals as to how Haye managed to win the WBA belt from Valuev in November 2009.

The Haye-Valuev 'world title' fight was a great success on Sky Box Office.

As a cruiserweight Haye backed up his big talk with actions but the big paycheques of the heavyweight division turned his head, and his heart followed.

As a heavyweight Haye has taken the low road, bringing the money-driven ethics of Premier League football to heavyweight boxing, whilst relying on his PR blitzes to spare himself a backlash.

Haye's own mother rebuked him for his cruel words towards the cultured Valuev back in 2009 but, even though he can hardly claim he knows no better, Haye has shamelessly continued his antics.

Haye went on to predict that his fight with Audley Harrison, a voluntary title defence organised by his own promotional company, would be "as one-sided as a gang rape". At that time BoxRec had the enigmatic Harrison ranked outside their top 30, and that was about right.

The fight itself was a short, disquieting spectacle that led Naseem Hamed to tell reporters, "I didn't like what I was watching." Carl Froch's opinion was that Harrison was "scared to death".

Nonetheless the fight broke ticket and pay-per-view records for an all-British clash.

Haye seems to have thought that British fans would support him no matter what, especially when he finally challenged Wladimir Klitschko.

Klitschko has suggested that patriotism is no refuge for a scoundrel, telling reporters, "I was really surprised how many people over there in Britain were more supportive of me than of David Haye. It's shocking."

Wladimir has tried to put the record straight, mocking Haye's title credentials and telling him, "Don't be happy about something that you haven't accomplished."

Klitschko also continues to seek an apology for a t-shirt that Haye once wore which depicted Haye holding aloft the decapitated heads of the Klitschko brothers, with their bodies slumped in a ring. No apology has been forthcoming for a stunt that the late Sir Henry Cooper condemned as being "bad for the reputation of boxing".

Haye has little answer when the gentlemanly Klitschko upbraids him for his behaviour and, the closer the fight comes, the more Haye resembles a petulant teenager being denied his way.

Elsewhere in the division, a 40-year-old Vitali Klitschko will fight the fourth-ranked heavyweight Tomasz Adamek in September.

Were Haye to beat Wladimir he would have the chance to fight the winner of Vitali-Adamek for the real title, and yet Haye is threatening to retire in October, before his 31st birthday, and before a unification fight could be made.

Haye claims he is "in it for the glory" but the fact that he even contemplates retirement before competing for the undisputed title demonstrates the ambivalence he has for his sport and its rich history.

All in all, Haye and the Klitschkos still manage to fit Budd Schulberg's theory of the heavyweight title.

Sons of communism who were raised together in a Soviet military academy, the Klitschkos have not quite grasped the concept of competition.

A son of the city of London, Haye has concluded that competition is all about making money, regardless of how, and regardless of the cost to one's reputation.

None of these three 'champions' seems to truly care about securing the undisputed heavyweight crown, and none of them has.

Boxing fans are duly excited to see a competitive, top-line heavyweight clash when Haye and Wladimir Klitschko finally square off on July 2, a fight originally scheduled two years ago.

There will at least be major bragging rights on the line and the loser's boxing legacy will be significantly tarnished. The winner will be declared the heavyweight champion of the world.

Don't believe it.

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"I don't care about what I say. I don't care about upsetting people. I don't care if everyone hates me."

David Haye

"Little dogs are barking, and keep barking, but the caravan keeps going."

Wladimir Klitschko

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James Garner / Eurosport

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