Klitschko-Haye: Polar Opposites Means Sure Fireworks

By Krishen Rangi


Klitschko-Haye: Polar Opposites Means Sure Fireworks

The year was 1984, and boxing was cold. The death of Korean boxer Duk Koo Kim after a nationally televised fight with Ray Mancini had caused a serious cry for the ban of boxing. Others said boxers should be mandated to wear Olympic-style headgear. The heavyweight division was plagued by boredom. Larry Holmes kept winning, but if a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound? His fight with Gerry Cooney had made plenty of noise, but it was a Don King production. Enough said. Holmes was immortalized for the next generation by Tupac Shakur, many or most who probably had never seen him actually, "..looking like Larry Holmes, flabby and sick"...

Soon, Tupac's hero would be on the scene to rescue the division and the sport, a seeming inevitability that happens without notice or fail in boxing. By 1986 the rise of the young superfreak Mike Tyson seemed destiny, and by November of that year a new era in the sport had dawned. Tyson anchored a boxing golden era that only of late has begun to show signs of fading. But while boxing fans will argue the heavyweight division is just another division, it is no secret the general public's interest is dictated by the big men. Whenever MMA enthusiasts want to take a shot at boxing they say, "Who does boxing have, Klitschko?" And while it's probably true it wouldn't take more than a couple of minutes for Klitschko to flatten any MMA fighter, it is also true Klitschko is a far cry from a heavyweight champion boxing can be proud of. Apart from the fact that he rarely fights anybody anyone has ever heard of, his history of hitting the canvas makes it a distinct possibility he can get knocked out by anyone at anytime. Corrie Sanders proved this by flattening him in the second round, Samuel Peter something similar, though he didn't get the decision. Even when he was dominating Lamon Brewster, battering him from pillar to post, he couldn't end it, a few minutes later only to have the favour returned by Brewster, who did end it. Of course the nature of the fight made things even more embarrasing, Klitschko awkwardly stumbling around exhausted, then making pathetic excuses afterwards that he had been secretly drugged. And this was with Manny Steward in his corner.

While his plethora of powerful handlers have done a marvellous job of putting him in the best light--Page 6ing him as often as possible, putting him on Conan O'Brien (where as the show's second guest he was the butt of unintentional comedy), getting him ridiculous and non-sensical exclusivilty on HBO, getting him the best and most clever manager/trainer/hype man/inside man in the game (Steward)-- and doing what they can to make people forget the facts, the bottom line remains Klitschko is not good for American boxing, not that he is much better for any other boxing, except perhaps German.

Recently Klitschko was confronted at JFK airport in New York by David Haye. Haye mocked his comedy of mandatory opponents and demanded a shot at his belts. With cameras recording the episode, Klitschko in broken English tried to do what his handlers have taught of him-- to behave in a refined, genteel manner. He first attempted to dismiss Haye, saying he had yet to prove himself as a heavyweight, then said he had to fight Tony Thompson and Alexander Potevkin before he could fight anyone else. "I don't want you to get beat by those two bums," replied Haye.

Haye of course is the cruiserweight sensation who splattered Enzo Calzaghe inside two rounds in front of 20,000 fans in London in March to end all questions of the division's supremacy. Last year he knocked out Jean-Marc Mormeck in Paris, in one of the year's most exciting matches to claim the Ring Magazine title. A former Versace model, 20 of Haye's 21 wins have come by knockout. His right hand may be the biggest the game has seen in years, something he plans on showing American audiences with his new promoter, Golden Boy Promotions, who he signed with a few weeks after his chat with Klitschko. Haye would go on to sign an exclsuive broadcast deal with Setanta in the U.K., and with the painful paucity of quality fighters in the division, a showdown with Klitschko seems forthcoming.

In many ways Haye is the precise opposite of Klitschko. While Klitschko comes packaged, managed, and presented from all angles, Haye seems natural, letting his ring accomplishments speak for themselves. Unfotunately in boxing it doesn't always translate to automatic popularity, and in Haye's case the public needs to be guided to him before he can let his gifts speak for themselves. "He does have tremendous power," says Freddie Roach, who saw Haye in Las Vegas at the Hopkins/Calzaghe fight. "It would be very interesting...it's good for the heavyweight division."

Legendary fitness consultant Mackie Shilstone, who has worked on special assignment for some of the biggest names in boxing over the last 25 years is one of those that believe size is not necessarily an issue when big fights bigger. "At cruiserweight you're already having a sub heading of heavyweight," says Shilstone, who most recently worked with Bernard Hopkins and won effusive praise. "It depends how high he's moving up. You don't have to be as big as Klitschko to beat Klitscko as long as you're a powerful puncher. Klitcshko doesn't have great balance. He tends to reach and lean." Shilstone goes on to add, "If he (Haye) adjusts his body composition it may be an advantage."

Against Klitschko, Haye would have clear advantages that he could exploit. Apart from the ability to intimidate based on his history of chin troubles, Haye's speed and overall athleticism pose serious threats to Klitschko getting touched every round. "Whatever your competitive advantage you want to maintain that, you want to empahsize it," says Shilstone. "The bigest mistake fighters make changing weights is they try to become something else." But whereas failed basketball and football athletes who try transitioning into the fight game as a last resort often erroneously cite athleticism as an advantage, Haye's athleticism comes in addition to his fighting skill. His father is a karate expert, and he has been in the ring since he was three years old. In 2001 Haye won a silver medal at the World Amatuer Championships, en route beating Sebastian Kober, the 2000 Olympic Gold Medallist. His amateur pedigree continues to serve as his foundation even as he has gone on to make his name as a murderous puncher.

"To be a powerful human being you don't have to be big," says Shilstone. "The issue is how quickly you can deliver your strength. When you're talking about Klitschko he's kind of a sitting duck. When you're moving up to face him you want to be mobile. You want to come at him at 45 degree angles, then he's not as mobile."

And at 6'3'', compared to Klitschko's 6'5'', the tale-of-the-tape asymetry may even offset in Haye's favour. "Right now there are not a lot of great heavywights to pick from," says Shilstone. "The talent level is not what it was. If you take Klitschko when I had Bowe, Bowe would have destroyed him. Bowe was light on his feet and he was quick. But Klitschko is a very smart man. He has a doctorate in physical education."

To be sure, Klitschko will have advantages of his own against Haye. His overall size is massive enough that he often has to do little more than stick his left arm out. Though semi-illegal, the move--as evidenced against Sultan Ibragamov in his most recent fight--is effective in keeping opponents at bay. And when he does connect, his jab is powerful enough to be considered a power shot. Though rare, and slow to come, his right hand is also devastating, and when it connects it usually ends fights. "The Klitschkos are both very good. Very rangy, very smart, excellent corners, excellent manager," says Stacy Mckinley, trainer of WBC champion Peter. "They're not average fighters, they've been on top a lot of time, they're always going to be in top few fighters."

Of course Klitschko also has Steward in his corner, perhaps the most shrewd operator in the game. Steward's manner belies the dirty tactics he so eagerly teaches his charges; leaning and pushing down on opponents to exhaust them, ample use of forearms, and fitting fighters with chest protectors in the place of standard cups, and getting away with it by preemptively accusing opponents of doing the same. Steward is a master of putting his capital of credibility to good use in maximizing the political and grey areas of the boxing's rules. And with his HBO colleagues, who see him sometimes on a weekly basis, calling fights, they are unlikely to accuse him of any serious wrongdoing. "He has a great trainer in Emmanuel Steward, has a great mind in (manager) Shelly Finkel, says Mckinley. You're not dealing with amateurs." Indeed, you're dealing with some of the most well versed operators in boxing's slimy underbelly.

It's likely Haye will take a few warm up matches as he gets to the weight he wants to fight Klitschko at. Though he made a cameo at heavyweight last year, knocking out Thomas Bonin in two rounds, fighting at 217, it is likely he will fight even higher now that he is at heavyweight to stay. Like most fighters, Haye has made the cruiserweight limit with great dificulty and says his best days are ahead now that he can fight without the worry of weight. Haye has targeted the fall for his next fight. He called out former champion Hasim Rahman, but negotiations didn't get far. But with Golden Boy handling his American promotions (and in the process of getting several to-be-announced HBO dates), Haye is about  to get the exposure he needs to become as famous and popular in America as he is in Britain.

In the meantime the inevitable showdown continues to percolate. Boxing is clearly in a transition period, perhaps even at a crossroads. While those that have front row seats know--"Heavyweight lineage is unlike anything. MMA will never apporach the art of boxing," says Shilstone-- many of the game's brightest stars from the 90's continue to carry the discourse as fewer and fewer potential stars emerge through the traditional pipelines. Klitschko's people have taken full advantage of the situation, doing all they can to install him as the legitimate heavyweight champion. And while it may serve them well outside the ring, even claiming the Ring magazine title, once the bell rings and only two men are in the ring, Klitschko has still to prove himself to any credible degree. Certainly the rehabilitation of his image has yet to follow into the ring where watching him on his knees against Sanders, Brewster, and Peter are inescapable. To be sure they are most indelible in the mind of Klitschko himself, whose swagger and self-belief will never come close to Haye's because of it. As Steward is fond of saying, fighters get 30% better when they win a title, no matter how abstruse; the reverse has to hold true with Klitschko, who always seems ready to go.

Regardless, boxing, like all sports, will have its ebbs and flows, and is in no way predicated by Klitschko's tenuous status. But when Haye/Klitschko does materialize, the boxing world, maybe the sports world, will have a day of clarification where a true big-man champion emerges.