By Jake Donovan
When Odlanier Solis and Vitali Klitschko appeared on the same card in Germany in October 2008, the night marked a ring return for the latter after a near four-year hiatus.
Klitschko looked like he hadn’t missed a beat, systematically picking apart Samuel Peter en route to an eighth-round stoppage to reclaim his old alphabet belt.
Solis appeared on the undercard, tearing through experienced American journeyman Chauncey Welliver in nine one-sided rounds for his 12th win in a pro career just 18 months young.
The night served as the last time Solis has appeared in a ring in Germany, the same country he called home after fleeing from his native Cuba in late 2006, and the same country where he fought his pro debut in April 2007.
Upon leaving the O2 Arena that evening, Solis knew two things: he’d once again fight in Germany, and he’d one day face Vitali Klitschko in a heavyweight title fight.
One thing that he didn’t believe would be the case: that either instance would take so long.
“I’ve been ready for a shot at the heavyweight title ever since I left Cuba,” boasts Solis (17-0, 12KO), whose fast track to a title shot apparently wasn’t even fast enough for a man who still hasn’t reached his four-year anniversary as a pro.
Nevertheless, his longtime dream has come true, as he and the elder Klitschko are signed, sealed and set to square off on March 19 at the Lanxess Arena in Cologne, Germany.
The fight comes at a dire time for the heavyweight division, once the most celebrated in the sport (if only for its marquee value) but in recent years serving as the butt of most jokes. The past 12 months in particular were among the lowest for the division in quite some time, with not a single notable heavyweight title fight taking place.
Between the Klitschko brothers and David Haye, there took place six fights that carried the “heavyweight title” label. A grand total of none of them came with even the slightest semblance of suspense, which only further accentuated the failure of securing a fight at the very top level of the division – namely either Klitschko versus Haye, a running joke that has not only managed to extend into the New Year, but come with a brand new twist.
Needless to say, the division could use some good news for a change. So, too, could Solis, who didn’t exactly enjoy a banner year in 2010.
The Cuban defector, along with former amateur teammate Yuriorkis Gamboa, has always been celebrated for his elevated level of competition at a point in his career when most others are still feeling their way around and are often treated with kid gloves by their handlers.
Such ambitious matchmaking for Solis led to 15 wins in as many fights against opponents with a combined record of 300-87-14 at the time face them.
So ready did his handlers believe Solis was for heavyweight contention that he was matched up against then-unbeaten Kevin Johnson for a bout slated for October 2009, just 2 ½ years into his pro career.
A win in such a fight would’ve undoubtedly put Solis in title contention. However, his hopes were momentarily derailed when Johnson pulled out of the fight in favor of his own title shot at the elder Klitschko,
Solis wound up facing former title challenger Monte Barrett, easily turning away the New Yorker inside of two rounds of a bout that marked his lone ring appearance on Madison Square Garden property to date.
It wasn’t a win over a Top 10 challenger, but it still should’ve been enough to serve as a springboard for a breakthrough campaign the following year that would lead to a title shot.
Instead, all that Solis endured was letdowns and insults.
Both of his ring appearances in 2010 came in Florida, including his most recent fight in his adopted Miami hometown. The latter - a 10-round disqualification win over Ray Austin – put Solis in position to serve as Vitali’s mandatory challenger, though the journey to that point was anything but a smooth ride.
The fight itself was his first in nine months, not a good thing considering he wanted nothing more than to forget about bout last March against Carl Drumond, who inexplicably quit after three rounds of less than enthralling boxing action.
In between that stretch came a switch in promoters, moving from Top Rank to Don King, as well as a swarm of commentary mocking his physique.
While the nine-month break – the longest of his career to date – wasn’t exactly welcomed, it ultimately served its purpose. Switching promoters turned out to be the right move; Top Rank lacks a horse in the heavyweight sweepstakes, while King seemingly gets his super-sized fighters title shots at the snap of a finger.
But the stretch of inactivity also left too much time to allow the fat jokes to pile up, without having the opportunity to prove that – if forced to choose – it’s better to be in boxing shape than just in shape.
That Solis boasts a less-than-eye-pleasing physique will always leave him subjected to ridicule. Most often pointed out is the fact that once upon a time, he was the best 201 lb. fighter in the world, at least on the amateur circuit.
It was where he knocked out Haye and won a Gold medal, the latter coming just six year ago. Yet he’s managed to pack on as much as 70 lb. to his frame, having weighed a career heaviest 271 lb. fight for his fight with Barrett, though arguably his biggest win to date.
No predictions are being offered on his part in regards to what he plans to weigh for his title shot against Klitschko. More concerned than weight, are the areas which he chooses to weigh in for the sake of setting the record straight.
“Everyone seems so concerned with my weight, and assumes that I don’t train,” Solis believes. “I do my abdominal work every day; in fact I do more sit-ups than any other fighter I know. My conditioning shows up on fight night, not on a poster.
“My goal is to be a heavyweight champion, not a runway model. Other fighters can have their six-pack; I have a better looking resume.”
The latter part has always been the primary objective. Never has it crossed his mind to dip his toe into the water before eventually jumping in. Given his extensive amateur background, the cannonball approach was always going to be the way to go.
While Solis is content for at least receiving respect in regards to his level of competition for a fighter not even four years in, he’s disturbed by the fact that his run is the exception and not the norm.
“When you go the Olympics or fight for world amateur titles, you have to beat the best in order to become the champion. I look at the best fighters around in the heavyweight division, and I’ve already beaten them all in the amateurs. Why waste time fighting guys that do nothing to make me a better fighter when I can fight the best and become the best.”
Solis plans to carry the same approach if and when he makes it to the top of the heavyweight mountain, although a part of him for a moment ponders life in the skin of another.
“Maybe after I beat Vitali, I’ll just do what everyone else does – pick tomato cans and make money. Forget about fighting the best, I’ll just screw over the fans and screw over any real fighters in line for a title shot.”
The last part is obviously a direct shot at the hysterically sad inability to get Haye and either Klitschko in the ring for the sake of piecing together an appealing heavyweight superfight.
So concerned was Solis about receiving his own title shot that he actually preferred having to go through fringe contender Ray Austin in order to secure a mandatory ranking.
“It’s sad, because it shouldn’t be about politics, not when you’re talking about the heavyweight championship of the world. But a fight with Austin, it was a necessary step for me. Had I not fought him and become the mandatory, I know that Vitali would’ve looked for reasons not to fight me.”
There is of course an industry-wide belief that Solis will find out he’s biting off way more than he can chew. The precaution is perhaps for good reason, as nary a heavyweight posed very much of a threat to either of the Klitschkos in more than five years.
Naturally, Solis doesn’t believe himself to be like other heavyweights. If he was, he’d milk his mandatory ranking for as long as possible in delaying a title shot, and certainly not pursue one after less than four years in service.
“How long or short you fight is irrelevant; when you’re ready, you’re ready. As far as I’m concerned, it’s taken too long to receive my shot. I can be like everyone else and adopt the mentality to fight tomato cans to protect my record and my ranking - or I can do the right thing and take over the division, right now when I’m ready to be the best.”
Jake Donovan is the Managing Editor of Boxingscene.com. Follow Jake on Twitter at twitter.com/JakeNDaBox or submit questions/comments to [email protected] .