Monday, June 8, 2009

"Ruslan Chagaev, Dr. Steelhammer Will See You Now"

We won't be seeing Dave Haye in action on June 20th, and HBO is taking a pass - but enter Ruslan Chagaev and the show will go on. Jeff Pryor takes a look at the upcoming heavyweight match-up.

Photo © Marty Rosengarten /

Who wasn't looking forward to Wladimir Klitschko versus David Haye? For many, the British bomber had become the one ray of hope in the dredges of the heavyweight division. A rarity in that he is young, not fat, has power, lets his hands go, gets knocked down, gets back up, knocks people out and runs his mouth, Haye was as promising a proposition as anyone had seen north of 200lbs for sometime.

Regardless of who you favored, you wanted to see one or the other, Klitschko or Haye get knocked out. Whether because of Wlad's safety filled fisticuffs or Haye's heads-off-tshirt-haranguing, someone deserved to get laid out.

Finally, after a seemingly endless cavalcade of lethargic slugs that moped forward into Klitschko jabs and tardy right hands that could have ended the televised nap rounds before, we had a challenger who would flame on or flame out, but either way, light up the ring with a blaze of passion that the heavyweight stage has lacked since the European block invaded the storied division and ushered in the era of giant sized, slo-mo "Carnera-clone-on-downers" breed of "Super" heavyweights. Suddenly, the divisions flatline had a heartbeat and we had renewed interest in walking away from that white light, to re-embrace the living.

And now we don't.

Once word of Haye's injury zipped across the boxing beat, and fans saw the only biggie-sized fight worth watching fade away, general grumbling and outright disdain began to seep out from all corners.

Enter Ruslan Chagaev, not on a white horse as one would hope, but more likely on a hospital sick bed, or possibly the stretcher that he may very well ride out of the arena on. Pick any letter of the alphabet, add hepatitis to it, and Chagaev probably has it. He also has any number of ailments, that routinely cause his fights to be canceled; ruptured tendons, severed arms, colic, slivers, the black plague, you name it...

But for all his varied health deficiencies, Chagaev very well may be the third best heavyweight in the world and as a replacement, incredibly, the best choice that could have been made.

The heavyweight division is in a position where everyone in the top ten is either a known quantity and current or former title holder; Chagaev, Valuev, Ruiz, and the Klitschko's or an unproven prospect/challenger such as Haye, Povetkin, Chambers, Arreola and Dimitrenko.

Other big names have recently come off the boards, most at the hands of the Klitschko's; Samuel Peter, Sultan Ibragimov, Rahman, Maskaev, Toney, Liakovich, Briggs, Holyfield, Brewster...

In truth, much of the "old" has been beaten out of the division, and now fresh talent is starting to make a move. The best and brightest of which; Haye, Arreola, and Povetkin are poised to leap to the fore if and when, fate allows them to.

In the meantime we have Wladimir Klitschko...

Though we might not acknowledge it now, Wladimir Klitschko has been a pretty good champ, particularly on paper, having, in six of his seven defenses, knocked out his foes, all but one by the seventh round. Though the majority having been top ten opponents, his has been a case where there is simply little in the way of worthy opposition available.

But while Klitschko has won in dominating fashion in each fight, the way in which he has done so has left most of boxing fandom cold. His monotonous jab and grab style has lacked pizazz and while effective, it would be fair to say that Wlad's most impressive appearances over the last few years have been opposite Conan O'Brien on Late Night.

When he steps into the ring with Chagaev, many will be expecting an Ibragimov like performance, the bout in February of '08, in which Klitschko played it safe for twelve rounds against a talented, but undersized and underpowered foe, swatting his jab hand out of the air for much of the fight and generally not fighting up to his potential, size or stature as the consensus heavyweight champ.

As Wladimir had intoned before, and would again after that bout, it was one of those "win the fight, look good next time" occasions. Strangely, with Wlad, that "next time" never seems to come.

Klitschko is a very smart individual. "Dr. Steelhammer" isn't just a catchy nickname, Wladimir has a Ph.D in Sports Science and speaks four languages. Klitschko would be wise to learn one more language and with it, let his fists do the talking. A quick dispatch of Chagaev would put the division on notice and maybe make Haye a little more respectful of the reigning champ.

For all his book smarts and boxing acumen, the one thing Wladimir has yet to learn, is that it's not just about winning the fights. It's about winning the minds of each spectator who watches the fight. At least in America, Wladimir has failed to make an impression on fans, other than as a boring champ who is serving as a placeholder for the title until a suitable, and preferably more explosive and action oriented, replacement can unseat him.

Chagaev isn't that guy. He's a placeholder too, for a guy like David Haye or Chris Arreola to come along and put Wladimir to sleep, just as he has put many a boxing fan to sleep.

To Ruslan's credit (provided he doesn't come down with the Swine Flu, Cholera or what-have-you before the 20th) he is taking on the best in the division on short notice. Now if he should upset Wlad, the division will be in truly dire straights as it's head will have been decapitated, in a Haye-as-Nostradamus moment, leaving older brother Vitali, he of the rickety knees, to fend off the youngsters that are beginning to beckon at the door.

Perhaps in the short term, a reinstatement of Vitali as the Klitschko at the head of the class would be best for the division, as he is thought of as the tougher, hardened, and perhaps more talented fighter, but win, lose or draw, Vitali is not long for the sport of boxing. And it would seem that, for better or for worse, Wladimir will be the viable Klitschko when it comes to the divisions true future.

The irony is, that Wladimir Klitschko has all the physical tools and talent to be an incredible champion. He just has to overcome his achilles heel; fear.

Like Juan Manuel Marquez, who has recently transformed from a safety first, dominating technician into a lay-it-on-the-line destruction dueler, if only Klitschko could realize what it takes to truly make a mark on the sport.

With his towering size, threat of power and safety style of fighting, even the best and the brightest of the upcoming heavyweights may not have what it takes to unseat the Klitschko embargo on the division. For Wlad, looking not just to dominate routinely, but to demolish completely, is a risk/reward proposition that it seems he is unlikely to take.

Opening up his offense, means opening up his chin; that which lies at the root of the younger Klitschko's fear.

If he fights Chagaev as he has fought the other prize fighters who have come, mostly for the payday and a nominal shot at winning, then he will add little to his legacy as champ, (aside from another belt, the lofty "Champion in Recess" title bestowed upon Chagaev in all of the WBA's infinite wisdom) and he will mark more time until someone makes him fight.

Makes him be great.

Makes us care.

e-mail Jeff Pryor


dread said...

I heard a rumor that Dr. Steelhammer is #3 on Mark's list