By Jake Donovan
The perception in America is that the heavyweight division is dead.
Fortunately for the Klitschko brothers, boxing remains a global sport.
While HBO and Showtime have all but given up on what was for more than a century hailed as boxing’s glamour division, premium network EPIX has thrown its support behind the heavyweights and the Klitschko brothers in particular.
Tonight’s broadcast marks the fourth time a Klitschko has headlined a card on the network. For the second time in four months, it’s Wladimir Klitschko who takes center stage as he defends his lineal heavyweight crown against Tony Thompson in a rematch to their July ’08 bout.
The bout airs live on EPIX’ flagship network, streaming online at EpixHD.com and also on the Jumbotron at Times Square in New York City (Saturday 4:30PM ET/1:30PM PT). The benefit that EPIX viewers enjoy when tuning in to any given broadcast is the backdrop of an actual fight card, as boxing is very much alive and well in Europe.
Whenever a Klitschko fights, it is truly an event. This weekend is no exception, with a capacity crowd of more than 30,000 expected to pour in to Stade de Suisse in Berne, Switzerland – all for a rematch with a former sparring partner to a not-so-competitive fight from four years ago in a dead division.
“I still feel the heavyweight division is the marquee division in boxing even though it’s moved to Germany with the Klitschkos,” notes Travis Pomposello, CCO of EPIX. “It’s a shame for them to not be seen in the U.S.”
The fans in Europe apparently have yet to get the memo that we’re not supposed to give a damn about the heavyweight division. Once the gate receipts are tallied for tonight, the younger Klitschko’s last six contests will have amassed in excess of 280,000 in attendance.
“Whenever Wlad fights, it’s a big deal,” states Pomposello, who digs the ambiance that comes with overseas events as much as the fights themselves. “The Klitschkos truly understand what goes into an event. For this particular bout, fans in attendance but not with the greatest view will be able to pick up the fight on their iPhones with the Wi-Fi in the stadium.
“Even with his short fight against Mormeck or our debut with Vitali and Solis which only went a round, the demand still justifies our interest in the heavyweights and especially the Klitschkos.”
A reminder of just how big of a deal the Klitschkos are came the moment they stopped fighting regularly in the United States. Wladimir has promised to one day return stateside. In the meantime, his past seven fights have taken place in Germany and have played to a concert-like atmosphere.
The matchups haven’t changed much – in fact, the first fight in this very stretch was the July ’08 meeting with Thompson. With the exception of last year’s alphabet unification showdown with David Haye, none of his past several fights came had any business serving as blockbuster events.
Yet because the heavyweight championship still means something to boxing fans around the world, arenas were filled for wins over the likes of Thompson, Hasim Rahman, Ruslan Chagaev, Eddie Chambers and most recently Jean-Marc Mormeck this past March.
The fight with Mormeck was hailed by many as among the worst ever lineal heavyweight championship matchups in decades.
Despite his former stay as cruiserweight king, Mormeck was way past prime and inactive for more than a year by the time he stepped foot in the ring. The actual fight played out even even worse in reality, with Mormeck landing just three punches in four rounds of lopsided action.
The skeptic will say ‘Fool me once…’ as he chooses to tune out Klitschko the next time he’s scheduled to fight. For his dedicated fans much closer to home, it’s not about the level of competition. What matters most is being a part of what they still believe to be something prestigious.
“[T]he Klitschko fights are just huge events in Europe,” Tom Loeffler, managing director for K2 Promotions, points out. “This is the sixth stadium fight in a row that Wladimir’s had and nobody sells more tickets here in Europe than the Klitschkos. They’re really big events. So we’re happy that the American fans will also be able to see this fight.”
Every Klitschko fight threatens to be the last, but not because they’re creeping towards the end of their careers. Both are so dominant that it’s easy to envision their respective title reigns lasting a few more years.
The problem that they have encountered is running the gamut in the heavyweight division without a fresh batch of contenders ready to join the fray. The ones that are willing to vie for the throne just aren’t ready – or simply not good enough. Others – such as unbeaten Alexander Povetkin, who appears to be as good as he’ll ever become – flat out refuse to step to the plate altogether.
With that comes the hard sell of insisting that a rematch with Thompson will be better than the first edition nearly four years ago. Thompson has won five straight, but was already 36 at the time of the first fight. The American challenger has since hit the big 4-0, though his late start in the game makes him fresher than many fighters even 10 years younger.
But does it make him any better?
To his credit, Klitschko refuses to speculate. All he knows is that the man who stands in front of him tonight earned a second shot by fighting his way back into contention. Thompson has won five straight heading into his second – and most likely last – chance at wearing the crown.
“[W]hatever I think, whatever Tony Thompson thinks I mean it could be tough speculations, let us fight and they will see who has been improved and who is not,” Klitschko pleads. “The thing is that’s the easiest way to find, because otherwise it’s going to be a lot of blah blah as usually is, but at the end of the day, less action.”
A rematch with less action than the first would most certainly not be a good thing. Still, Klitschko expects the best of whatever Thompson has to offer this time around.
“It’s always a tough job to get the title, but it’s even tougher to defend the title, or titles in this case. But I’m wanting it, I mean the job that I’m doing, I’m actually looking forward to the challenge,” Klitschko insists.
“And to be honest with you, I’m really looking forward to the challenge because that’s the man that’s coming up to me. So the man is going to come up to me, which is great. So I’m definitely looking forward to this opportunity to fight Tony Thompson again.”
So, too, are the tens of thousands of fans who continue to fill up arenas and stadiums and the millions who continue to tune in anytime he fights where he’s rightfully appreciated.
Jake Donovan is the Managing Editor of Boxingscene.com. Follow Jake on Twitter: @JakeNDaBox