By Jake Donovan
Once upon a time, the unwritten rule in boxing was that you simply don’t pass on a good heavyweight fight.
That was then, this is now.
June 20 was slated to have an action-packed, if not terribly competitive, heavyweight fight when Wladimir Klitschko, presently serving as the division’s de facto leader, was set to defend against brash former cruiserweight king David Haye. The bout was to air live on HBO in front of a sold-out crowd of 60,000 in Gelsenkirchen, Germany.
The date still holds for Klitschko, though gone are two key elements – the opponent and stateside coverage.
Haye pulled out last week after suffering a back injury during training camp. The moment Haye was removed from the fold, so too was HBO, who would have preferred both sides to reschedule for a month later, when everyone was healthy enough to keep together the original bout in which the network heavily invested.
Klitschko declined to wait, having already been out of the ring since his one-sided glorified sparring session with Hasim Rahman last December. They moved forward with the next best choice. To their credit, no soft touches were sought, instead beginning at the very top. Two names piques their interest the most – Nikolai Valuev and Ruslan Chagaev.
“Nyet” and “nein” were the respective responses offered by HBO when pondering the possibility of Klitschko facing the Russian Giant or the undefeated Uzbekistan southpaw now based out of Germany.
The network is generally regarded as the boxing leader in the United States, with by far the deepest pockets and for the most part, the best fighters of the world residing in their stable. Naturally, any fight worth a damn will automatically bring HBO to mind. If they decide to pass, then it’s onto the other networks the promoters begin to shop, though not before first wondering why HBO rejected their product.
Chagaev was eventually selected as the opponent. K2 Promotions is now on a shopping spree, and of course wondering aloud why HBO rejected their product.
First and foremost, it’s HBO money, therefore their decision regardless of what anyone else thinks. Such logic was mentioned when they decided to pass on Carl Froch’s super middleweight title defense against former HBO house fighter Jermain Taylor a few weeks ago. It was questioned beforehand, and especially after Froch offered the come-from-behind photo finish to retain his title and send Taylor’s career into a tailspin.
In HBO’s defense, a fight between Klitschko and Chagaev isn’t exactly the most appealing from an entertainment standpoint, which is really their – and every other boxing programmer’s – primary interest these days. Though not similar in styles, the thought of Chagaev – an undefeated southpaw titlist from the Eastern Bloc – will automatically drum up memories of the last cat to fit that bill, which would be Sultan Ibragimov, whom Klitschko defeated more than a year ago at Madison Square Garden.
The bout served as the first heavyweight unification match in nine years, but didn’t stop fans from unleashing boos for as long as the fight lasted, which of course was 12 very painfully boring rounds of jabbing and slapping. Klitschko didn’t take a single risk in the fight and Ibragimov barely threw a punch in a fight that had a hard time tempting fans to not switch over from HBO to an ESPN-televised college basketball game between the best two teams in the country at the time (Memphis and Tennessee).
This fact obviously wasn’t lost on the HBO brass when presented with the idea of getting in bed with another fight between Klitschko and another undefeated southpaw.
But where the network misses the forest for the trees is in realizing what’s now at stake with such a matchup.
The winner will, for the most part, gain worldwide recognition as THE heavyweight champion. Most fans were willing to concede such honors whether Klitschko faced either Chagaev or Valuev. Some entities, such as the boxing department at ESPN.com, were willing to call him the true champ after the Ibragimov fight, for fear that a long time would pass before the next similarly meaningful fight in the division.
For this particular fight, famed boxing publication THE RING magazine has elected to put their vacant title at stake. Klitschko is ranked number one by the magazine and Chagaev is number three. Number two is presently occupied by Wladimir’s older brother Vitali Klitschko.
The boxing siblings have often mentioned that they would never face each other in the ring as a promise to their mother, no matter what’s at stake. With that in mind, the magazine made an exception to their normal number-one versus number-two boxoff, and settled for their optional number-one versus number-three format, used for special occasions, for which this fight qualifies.
No matter how you look at it, there is far more at stake in this fight than would’ve been the case with Klitschko-Haye.
If you’re a fan of lineage, then a starting point for a new true heavyweight king will begin for the first time since Lennox Lewis formally announced his retirement more than five years ago.
If you’re a firm supporter of THE RING’s championship policy, then Wladimir has the chance to follow in the footsteps of his older brother Vitali, the last man to hold their version of the heavyweight title before a series of injuries forced him to relinquish in late 2005.
Even if you’re a fan of the alphabets, and only believe a bout to be a title fight when one of their trinkets is at stake. No fewer than three major titles will be on the line for this bout, with only Vitali Klitscho’s belt the last holdout in declaring a truly undisputed heavyweight king.
Whatever your flavor, the history behind a Klitschko-Chagaev fight is all the more reason for this fight to be made, and all the more reason to tune in, regardless of on what network it does or doesn’t air.
Jake Donovan is the managing editor of Boxingscene.com and an award-winning member of the Boxing Writers Association of America. Contact Jake at