Klitschko Cruises Past Ibragimov, Unifies Titles

KLITSCHKO CLAIMS SECOND HEAVYWEIGHT CROWN WITH DULL DECISION

The first heavyweight unification bout since Lennox Lewis and Evander Holyfield unified titles in 1999 took place nearly a decade later when IBF Champion Wladimir Klitschko won a dreary but imperative unanimous decision over WBO Champion Sultan Ibragimov, a triumph that helped to point boxing’s most muddled division in the right direction.

When Lewis, the last undisputed champion, retired in 2004, he left the heavyweight throne without a king, a vacancy that continues to plague a division that what was once the focal point of boxing. With all of the titles in the hands of non-American heavyweights who have so far eluded the inhibiting promotional hand of Don King, the doors for unification have recently reopened. Klitschko and Ibragimov, who had both expressed a strong desire to become the recognized champion of a weight class that sported as many as four, decided that the time for talking about a unified champion was over and took the preliminary step toward making that ideal situation a reality.

Unfortunately for fight fans, that alleged passion shared by both champions failed to materialize in the ring on Saturday night. Klitschko and Ibragimov instead put forth dismal efforts in their bid for the title, but fortunately one man decisively won the bout. That man was Wladimir Klitschko, now the IBF and WBO Heavyweight Champion, but the road to reaching that accolade was anything but pretty and took twelve uneventful rounds to conclude.

Klitschko’s size and reach gave him an insurmountable physical advantage over Ibragimov, who is considered a small heavyweight at 6’2″ and around 220 pounds especially when compared to his 6’6″, 240 pound opponent, yet Wladimir settled for doing just enough to win each round, seldom throwing more than a keep-busy jab in Ibragimov’s direction. Sultan won the first round on activity alone, which is to say he was slightly more aggressive than the docile Klitschko, but after allowing Wladimir to gain control of the match with his exceptional boxing skills, Ibragimov started winging wild shots at the IBF Champion in the hopes of landing something big enough to turn the fight in his favor.

But Ibragimov is far from a big puncher, having gone twelve rounds with every respectable opponent on his resume. Sultan, unlike most heavyweight champions, earned his title not with his punch but with a tricky southpaw style and admirable work rate. Still, Ibragimov’s ability to out hustle opponents never showed up against Klitschko, negated by the IBF Champion’s ability to control the fight with the jab and threaten his opponent, should Sultan get too close for comfort, with a straight right by and large considered the most powerful punch of any heavyweight in the post Lewis era. Thus, Wladimir, who twice defeated and even floored on several occasions an even better southpaw in Chris Byrd, had no excuse for not pursuing and punishing Ibragimov.

The bout’s one real highlight came in the ninth round when Klitschko, well ahead on the cards, unleashed an overdue assault on Ibragimov, landing a solid straight right that knocked the WBO Champion backwards into the ropes. Referee Wayne Kelly gave Sultan the benefit of the doubt and decided the combination had not resulted in a knockdown, though it could be argued that the ropes were the only thing keeping Ibragimov’s backside from touching the canvas. Despite the successful results of the flurry, Klitschko refrained from seriously going after Ibragimov again before the fight concluded. On the contrary, it was Sultan who made a stand in the tenth round in the form of a tackle, the closest he came to hurting the taller Klitschko all night.

When the final bell sounded, it was followed by a sigh of relief rather than a round of applause. The outcome was obvious, though the judges mercifully managed to see a few rounds in Sultan’s favor. By scores of 119-110, 118-110, and 117-111, Klitschko became a double champion, the holder of both the IBF and WBO titles. While he is not yet the undisputed champion without Oleg Maskaev’s WBC Championship and Ruslan Chagaev’s WBA version, Klitschko has established himself as the number one man in the division with the most legitimate claim to being the champion.

AND THEN THERE WERE THREE…

Prior to the unification bout, few debated Wladimir, who had been stopped three times by sub par contenders, was the best among a terribly weak crop of heavyweights before the fight with Sultan. Now, ironically, his most important victory to date may end up costing him more than he earned in winning the WBO belt. Klitschko’s routine approach to a fight that should have garnered interest in the heavyweights once more left a lot to be desired and will more than likely convince casual spectators to look the other way, not draw them back in.

Aside from a lack of fan interest, the division might suffer from internal strife as well. Impediments both short and long term remain that could prove detrimental to establishing an undisputed champion. First and foremost, Chagaev and Maskaev each have mandatory contenders they must face before attempting to unify titles with Klitschko. Klitschko, too, will have his share of mandatories, which will require double the workload to satisfy the demands of both the IBF and WBO. His performance against Ibragimov did not reflect that of a man with enough desire to handle such a burdensome schedule. Tragically, he appears to be the only man capable of conquering everyone else.

The most problematic hindrance, however, will be the on-again, off-again career of Wladimir’s brother, Vitali Klitschko, who relinquished the WBC Championship in 2005 due to repeated injuries. A recent comeback in 2007 was derailed by another injury, yet Vitali continues to state his intentions of facing the WBC Champion, a right given to him by the organization when he retired, as soon as he is fully healthy. Whenever discussing titles, the Klitschko brothers have expressed a shared dream to be champions simultaneously. One can only assume the brothers would refuse to fight one another should they both hold portions of the fractured heavyweight title, but if they are the best two fighters in the division, which they certainly seem to be, the belts would remain in the hands of at least two fighters until one retires.

In an era when the heavyweight division needs a unified champion to reclaim any semblance of respect, the Klitschko dream could crush that of everyone else, leaving fans absorbed in frustration and longing for the past glory days of what was once boxing’s most heralded fraternity.

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