By Jake Donovan
We’ve been down that road before. A fight or event is sold as must-see, the one where if you couldn’t watch any other even that year, this is the one you had to see.
It’s not fair to say that Wladimir Klitschko’s lineal title defense against David Haye this weekend in Hamburg, Germany (Saturday, HBO, 4:45PM ET) is the one event that you can’t miss.
But it’s certainly one that can go a long way towards resuscitating the heavyweight division.
Or killing it altogether.
There are a bunch of sayings surrounding the heavyweight division in relation to the shaping of the sport. One is, “There’s boxing… and then there are the heavyweights.” Another is, “As the heavyweight division goes, so does boxing.”
None are any longer applicable, especially after major boxing player HBO considered the division taboo. The network had always made it a point to showcase the lineal champion, or at least its most recognizable face.
Under current terms, the younger Klitschko would remain in HBO’s rotation, yet that hasn’t been the case for more than two years.
It hasn’t been that long since HBO saw it necessary to turn its back on the division altogether – Vitali Klitschko managed to score a couple of slots late in 2009, including his 10th round stoppage of network favorite Chris Arreola. But it was the sleep-inducing non-performance of opponent Kevin Johnson that left the brass thinking twice about investing in the big boys.
Once Arreola fell short against Tomasz Adamek a few months later, the heavyweight division was blacklisted altogether.
At least until it came through on the very short list of fights deemed worth a damn by the viewing public.
Both are on tap over the course of the next few months, beginning with this weekend’s titanic showdown featuring a slew of heavyweight hardware, including its highest prize.
Helping the anticipation heading into the weekend is the fact that this particular matchup has been nearly three years in the making. Haye has been clamoring for a showdown with the Klitschkos as far back as his lineal cruiserweight title reign. The brash Brit knew from the moment he climbed off the canvas to knock out Jean-Marc Mormeck in 2007 that he was heavyweight bound.
However, the journey has conjured up another longtime saying; “Be careful what you wish for.”
Months after scoring a spectacular knockout of Enzo Macarrinelli to cap his cruiserweight reign, Haye turned back the challenge of former heavyweight contender Monte Barrett in a fight that announced his arrival on the contender level.
His next several moves came dangerously close to announcing his death sentence.
After Kllitschko wrapped up a three-fight campaign in 2008, talks turned towards a showdown with Haye. HBO was in love with the idea of the fight and prepared to invest heavily in order to obtain the rights even though it meant airing live from overseas.
A June 2009 date was targeted and circled on everyone’s calendar, only for Haye to come up lame approximately three weeks before fight night.
What Klitschko didn’t realize at the time was that the move would result in his own exodus from the network that had funded his previous nine contests dating back to 2005. HBO had never apologized for its fawning over the Klitschko brothers, going out of its way to showcase their bouts over the course of the past decade.
Yet without an explanation – or at least a very good one – the younger Klitschko suddenly found himself on the outside in regards to further enhancing his profile among the American boxing audience.
The message was already being sent – fight a heavyweight the public truly cares about, or find somewhere else to fight.
So off went Wladimir, cutting a deal with ESPN Classic for his vacant lineal championship showdown with Ruslan Chagaev after HBO decided that such a fight wasn’t a fitting replacement for the one on which Haye bailed.
It was clear that Haye was the selling point, as the next planned event on the Network of Champions was for the Brit to step up and face older brother Vitali.
A promise was made, but ink never made its way to paper as Haye instead opted for the path of least resistance, which was a shot against then alphabet-titlist Nikolai Valuev.
Neither that bout nor his following two would be picked up by an American network.
The lesson to be learned – fight a Klitschko, or continue to fly under the radar.
Meanwhile, the entire ordeal has resulted in further waning interest in the heavyweight division. Wladimir Klitschko continues to take on the highest ranked heavyweights, but the common denominator in his fights are always that they look more impressive on paper than in reality.
In fairness to the 1996 Olympic Gold medalist, much of the blame has to fall squarely on the shoulders of his opposition, which manages to shut down the moment the hulking Ukrainian gets his offense going.
Top American challenger Eddie Chambers overcame an uninspiring showing against Alexander Povetkin to punch his way into contention with impressive wins over Samuel Peter and Alex Dimitrenko. Yet when it came time to step to Klitschko, he put up little to no effort, resulting in a forgettable affair until he was stretched in the final round in highlight reel fashion.
Much of the same was offered in his following – and most recent bout, a rematch with Samuel Peter. The former titlist accepted assignment after Klitschko endured another opponent withdrawal, as Povetkin was advised bv trainer Teddy Atlas to skip on the fight under the belief that he wasn’t yet ready for such a fight.
He couldn’t have been any less prepared than Peter, who landed less than five punches per round in what is likely his last ever crack at a major title.
Just to give an idea of how sorry was the heavyweight title picture in 2010, the year’s most notable bout – in terms of matchup and execution turned out to be Haye’s title defense against John Ruiz.
All told, six heavyweight title fights took place last year. None were carried live by an American network, with the Klitschkos each scoring a bout apiece on ESPN3.com and then airing a day later on ESPN and its affiliate networks.
Once again came the push for Haye to face a Klitschko, but it would take for Tomasz Adamek to sign the equivalent of a blank check in order to get all parties properly motivated.is
After a slew of tune-ups in efforts to stay busy after his win over Arreola last year, Adamek agreed simply to face a Klitschko. It didn’t matter which one, as long as consideration was given to fight in his native Poland.
Before long, Haye finally joined in on the act, renewing negotiations and making the necessary concessions to convince the boxing world that he was once and for all serious about both repairing his damaged reputation and to upset the power structure atop the land of boxing’s big boys.
The long growing concern is that the division remains a two-headed monster with no reasonable means of resolution. The Klitschos will not face one another, therefore who is truly the better of the two will always remain open to debate.
The only way to truly settle the dispute is for a third party to intervene – one brother loses, the other steps up and faces his sibling’s conqueror.
It’s how they did things long ago, and always with stellar results.
It certainly wouldn’t hurt the division for history to repeat itself in that regard, and for the first step to be taken towards a heavyweight series that can once again capture the public’s imagination.
But it doesn’t necessarily take a Haye upset to get people to give a damn again about the division. All it takes is for a TV-worthy performance from bell to bell to give the networks reason to remain in the heavyweight business.
More than two years after first jawing at one another, Klitschko and Haye are finally ready to do their part. The press buildup proved that interest still lies in the sport’s one-time glamour division. Their fight doesn’t need to save the sport, or even the heavyweights as a whole.
It just needs to provide enough of a reason for everyone – paying patrons, television viewers and network brass alike - to keep coming back for more.
Jake Donovan is the Managing Editor of Boxingscene.com. Follow Jake on Twitter at twitter.com/JakeNDaBox or submit questions/comments to [email protected] .