by Cliff Rold
Fighters of exceptional talent don’t always become fighters of exceptional reach. In a sport full of markets insulated by geography, the evidence abounds. The bridge from national to international star is narrow and not everyone can pass.
Not everyone tries.
Felix Sturm has won three alphabet titles at Middleweight, one WBO and two WBA. He was an Olympic representative for Germany. In 2004, he tried. In the eyes of many, he got screwed and sent home.
Sturm put his WBO Middleweight belt on the line against Oscar De La Hoya, a Del La Hoya challenge of the then-real Middleweight king Bernard Hopkins hanging in the balance. There were some who saw the contest even, many more that felt Sturm won, and almost none were making a case for De La Hoya winning the fight.
De La Hoya won the fight.
Sturm hasn’t been back to the States since. He didn’t need to return. His fans back in Germany loved him even more after the De La Hoya debacle and his star grew. With quick hands and one of the game’s best jabs, Sturm could have tempted fate and found a road back towards Bernard Hopkins (or Jermain Taylor, or Kelly Pavlik, or Sergio Martinez).
Instead, he took the road of steadier, safer income and rode it out for most of the last eight years. There have been bumps along the way, a shocking and later avenged stoppage loss to Javier Castillejo the worst of them. There have been also reversals of fortune. The debatable scoring of the De La Hoya fight visited in kind on Sturm opponents Martin Murray and Matthew Macklin, both of whom left Germany with every bit the right to feel they’d won Sturm left Las Vegas with in 2004.
If Sturm retired today, given what he’s accomplished, he’d have to be considered a success. Winning belts and making money is a big part of the fistic success matrix and he’s done that. How much a success?
That’s a different story.
Being a fiscal success and proving a great fighter are dramatically different things. No Middleweight who won consistently from the reign of Hopkins through to the reign of Martinez, (the division’s true lineage) without challenging anyone in the line could or should be taken seriously in a historical context.
It’s not like Sturm has fought in an era with few challenges or a lack of talent at the top of his class. Instead, his career posture has indicated he and/or his people weren’t sure Sturm could succeed at the upper echelon, and might not have found his talent great enough to merit risking a steady local attraction in Germany.
If an imprint on history matters to Sturm, he won’t ever get back the last near decade. He can make choices, now age 33, to attempt to clarify his talents with the time he has left. Daniel Geale, the IBF Middleweight titlist, is a fine place to start.
Almost twelve years into his career, and almost nine to the day since he won his first strap, Sturm will engage in a unification match. Is it the beginning of a dramatic career close?
Or is it just a Sven Ottke-Byron Mitchell moment?
Ottke, the former Super Middleweight titlist, was a lot like Sturm. He was an attraction in Germany, wasn’t a big puncher, and stayed close to home to his official benefit. Ottke, way more than Sturm against Macklin and Murray, benefitted from dubious officiating at times in his career. There was rarely any interest shown in facing the other top man in his class, Joe Calzaghe, and his unification opportunity was carefully chosen.
Byron Mitchell was a big puncher who struggled to get off consistently throughout his prime, a fighter who often plodded rather than pressed. If Ottke could avoid single bombs, it was his fight to win.
He did, and was retired a year and a few fights later. Mitchell was the climax to a career long on numbers and shallow in context.
Sturm-Geale is, on paper, probably a tougher fight than Ottke-Mitchell. There are a lot of reasons to like Geale’s chances. The question at play here is what happens afterwards if Sturm wins.
Let’s assume facing the other WBA beltholder at Middleweight is off the table. It looks like a duck, quacks like a duck, and probably is a duck when it comes to Sturm fighting Gennady Golovkin. Golovkin fights tough Gregorz Proksa in the U.S. while Sturm goes to scratch in Germany. The continental divide is probably fine with Team Sturm.
So then is this the climax to his career, the extra belt he can hang on the mantle to truly cement that he was the best second best Middleweight of his time? Or will he actually try to be the king before he’s done? If Sturm wins Saturday and says, “Sorry, no time for Golovkin. I want the winner of Chavez-Martinez and want them now,” wouldn’t that be okay?
Sure, he might not get the winner of that one but at this point, isn’t that what he’s supposed to say?
Already there is chatter about a domestic showdown with longtime rival Arthur Abraham at 168 lbs. That’s a pretty good fight, but Abraham is maybe the fifth best fighter in his division. Sure, he’s got a belt, but so do the last two men to beat him.
Just making a good fight is fine, but at some point isn’t there a point of professional pride that demands asking more of oneself? In the case of Abraham there was. He fell short of the glory in the Super Six tournament, but he showed up for every fight he was supposed to and gave it his shot.
There is a hint of irony if Abraham ends up being the place where Sturm goes to further burnish his credentials, the man who played it safe versus the man who didn’t. Abraham could be seen as a cautionary tale for some, an example of what happens when one reaches too far.
Or he could be seen as a response to those who worry of disaster. Abraham lost some fights. Then he came home, kept selling tickets, and got himself another belt.
Sturm tried once to be more than just a local star. He should have succeeded. This weekend, he takes the sort of fight that might hint he’s looking to try again. Let’s hope, if he wins, it’s not just one and done.
Cliff Rold is the Managing Editor of BoxingScene and a member of the Yahoo Pound for Pound voting panel and the Boxing Writers Association of America. He can be reached at [email protected]