It’s no secret that today’s heavyweight ranks are thin and devoid of intrigue. The general consensus is that it may be the worst shape that it has ever been in and that there is no talent. In reality we are going through a dry period but at the same time things aren’t necessarily as bad as so often advertised. The titles are fractured, yes, but such has been the case, for the most part, for over thirty years. At the top of the heap you have Wladimir Klitschko, the current IBO/IBF, WBO and Ring Magazine heavyweight champ. Next you have the popular if aging Vitali Klitschko, the elder of the two brothers and current WBC heavyweight titlist. After that you have Britain’s David Haye, holder of the WBA World heavyweight strap. Three talented and compelling figures atop a landscape not completely devoid of color and potential, but we’ll get to that a little later.
A quick five year review of the heavyweight division and more to the point, the careers of each of the aforementioned alphabet rulers is telling. Without question, Wladimir Klitschko is the current World heavyweight champion. The WBC and WBA straps are handy, and they do have some bargaining power, but the fact remains Wladimir has been a champion longer, and key to the point at hand he’s provided us with more clarity than has his elder brother and Haye. He’s defended a total of nine times since April 2006. Seven of those title defenses have been against legitimate top-ten tier competition and underlining that assertion all the more, two of those defenses were in actuality important title unifications with Sultan Ibragimov and Ruslan Chagaev, at the time top-five men that held the WBO and WBA straps respectively when they contested Wladimir in the ring or just up until before it. In short, Wlad stepped up, put his cards on the table, defeated them, and took their available belts and their undefeated records. The fact that action-starved fans may wish to consider Vitali Klitschko or David Haye as the legitimate World heavyweight champion has no basis in reality. They came after and have done less, period.
For a long time I’ve read how fragile Wladimir Klitschko is and that his ability to traverse today’s heavyweight waters has more to do with how weak the division actually is than any positive attributes or abilities on his part. To me such thinking is highly flawed and unreasonable. It has more to do with negative bias than anything else. In September 2005 Wladimir handed then-undefeated slugger Samuel Peter his first career loss, having climbed off of the canvas three times to clinch a well deserved unanimous decision victory. It was a year in which doubt surrounded the younger Klitschko, having suffered devastating knockout losses in both 2003 and 2004. The talk was that by taking on Peter, Klitschko was essentially putting his cards on the table in an effort to regain top status as contender in the division as it stood at that time; a way of re-establishing himself while looking to get the monkey off of his back. The consensus opinion of the victory over Peter was that Wlad had backed his way to the win with excessive holding and running. I call bullshit on that train of thought. In fact, Klitschko showed me some serious stuff in that one, employing the ring generalship and prudent survival tactics past greats such as Muhammad Ali and Larry Holmes had used to great effect. In Wlad’s case the difference was he wasn’t American and he didn’t fold along the dotted lines like so many expected. Fast forward to summer 2010 and Samuel Peter is announced as Wlad’s next scheduled title defense. Again many called for a hungry and reinvigorated Peter to lop Klitschko’s head off. In the rematch the outcome was no different, save for the fact that the thoroughly dismantled Peter was left a crumpled heap on the canvas after being dominated from the first bell.
Wladimir Klitschko has been dominating his opposition with the exacting thoroughness of a skilled surgeon, hence the moniker Dr. Steelhammer. Take away his domination of Sultan Ibragimov for the WBO belt and his systematic hammering of Ruslan Chagaev, the WBA titlist up until the last moments before that would-be unification, the two bouts with Peter serve well as bookends on a career that has progressed sharply upward. In taking out the garbage, as I once put it, Klitschko has been giving fans what they always called for from a heavyweight champion; activity against the best available contenders or pretenders to the throne, the systematic removal of each question mark that appears in his midst.
Let’s move on to WBA World heavyweight titlist David Haye, the supposed great talent and potential “savior” of today’s Gobi Desert-dry heavyweight ranks. Haye is an interesting story in and of himself. An undeniably compelling and destructive force at cruiserweight, Haye made a name for himself in November 2007 by climbing off of the canvas to win the WBA Super World/WBC cruiserweight titles against Jean Marc Mormeck. A few months later in March 2008 he added the WBO belt to his collection with a devastating 2nd-round knockout of Enzo Maccarinelli in a high profile unification bout. After that Haye abandoned the cruiserweight ranks in search of a heavyweight championship, promising to face only the very best contenders in his march towards the beheading of Wladimir Klitschko. Months passed before Haye actually did anything and when he did, it was another off-the-deck performance, this time against remnants of Monte Barrett, a mere fraction of the contender he once had been years before. Haye did make good on his promise to come out on top, but in reality he greatly lowered his aim from that of hitting the top marks in the division as he had so boldly predicted months earlier, thus the cracks in his game began to appear.
In 2009 the war drums beat loudly for Wladimir and David Haye to meet. Despite having done nothing of any real merit as a heavyweight, and after having lobbied in loud and colorful fashion for a heavyweight title shot against the younger Klitschko, Haye was granted the opportunity and the two were signed for June 20th. With just weeks to go before the bout, David Haye pulled out citing a number of curious excuses; an injured back, Setanta backing out on its deal with Haye. The pullout led to the Klitschko/Chagaev fight, essentially a unification bout save for the fact that the WBA had confused matters by claiming foul according to its own rules, thus the strap was not a part of the event and later was awarded to the winner of the Nikolay Valuev versus John Ruiz box-off later that summer. Citing a number of excuses for the pullout, Haye pursued a September clash with Vitali Klitschko for the WBC title. Relishing the opportunity to hammer Haye, who by that time had become an all-purpose loudmouth, the elder Klitschko pushed the door wide open only to see matters quickly disintegrate, with Haye opting to face the aforementioned Valuev for the WBA strap, Chagaev’s old title which by that point had been won by the lumbering Russian in a boring distance affair. In short, David Haye window-shopped for a heavyweight title, a title he has defended twice to date against very questionable opposition in a washed-up fraction of John Ruiz and remnants of former top-twenty talent in fellow Brit Audley Harrison (read: nothing).
Wladimir Klitschko signed to defend the World heavyweight championship against undefeated Dereck Chisora this past December. Pulling out of that contest with just a week to go under the pretenses of a torn abdominal muscle, word quickly spread that both he and Haye were once again at the bargaining table. I could go on from there but I won’t bore you, the last three months have been a strangely circuitous path that looks something like Haye-Chisora-Haye or Klitschko-Chagaev-Mormeck-Klitschko, depending on vantage point. As of this writing, the bout is definitely on, sort of, or maybe not. And if it doesn’t happen, word has it that Haye will instead take on Vitali Klitschko, probably, supposedly, almost maybe certainly.
The bottom line is that no one unification fight will do anything more for the heavyweight division than what we are seeing now, forget all of the wheel spin. If the highly anticipated bout between Dr. Steelhammer and the Hayemaker comes off, and that’s a big “IF” given Haye’s history and the variables currently affecting Wlad, we will be back to where we are right now under a slightly altered light; the still maligned younger Klitschko as World heavyweight champion in search of his next hopeless opponent or David Haye as the new World heavyweight champion in search of his next “suitable opponent”, a transparent campaign designed more for the avoidance of Vitali Klitschko than any admirable pursuit of legacy. In short, nothing will be really all that different, and the mega bout that so many are clamoring for now will in essence do nothing for the state of affairs at heavyweight today.