Felix Sturm and Daniel Geale will unify -- or at least attempt to unify -- a pair of middleweight titles this Saturday in Germany, a fight that will clearly name, for the time being at least, a world's second-best middleweight.
In and around boxing, we have a habit of throwing about wild expectations, both good and bad, and often overlooking clean realities, and the fact that fighters can be rightfully accused of something that "hurts the sport" or whatever, and yet still be legitimately good, quality fighters in the ring.
Sturm (37-2-2, 16 KO) is a prime example of a guy who might not be a favorite of many, but who also probably gets more guff than he's really earned. It's easy to say that Sturm has spent much of his career hidden away at home in Germany, often taking on weak world title challengers, piling up cash in front of a fanbase that is appreciative and loyal.
Without meaning to cause any offense to our German boxing fan friends, it does not often seem that competition is the real motive for the sport there -- they are an easy audience, pleased with seeing their favorites win, and quick to disregard the mediocre nature of many of the visiting opponents that come around.
In Sturm's last ten fights, we've seen this happen plenty. In order, he has faced Jamie Pittman, Randy Griffin (a rematch of a surprisingly competitive fight), Sebastian Sylvester, Koji Sato, Khoren Gevor, Giovanni Lorenzo, Ronald Hearns, Matthew Macklin, Martin Murray, and Sebastian Zbik.
While it's easy to take exception to those being called bad fighters, here's a different way to phrase it that perhaps isn't so harsh: They were pretty much all mid-tier guys in a division that hasn't exactly been on fire in the first place. How many came in considered genuine threats to Sturm's belt? How many were able to muster much resistance?
Macklin, of course, gave Sturm all he could handle, and in the minds of the viewing majority around the world, a lot more than Sturm could handle. But Sturm came away with a disputed victory, and Macklin never got a rematch, something both sides argued about for a good while after.
A few months after that, Martin Murray came in and fought Sturm to a draw. Both fights were entertaining, good battles, and in each of them, Sturm showed his weaknesses and shortcomings, as well as what makes him an actual good fighter. He is far from the perfect boxing machine, and is indeed quite beatable.
But he is a fine boxer, tougher than he often gets credit for being. He's a solid, savvy technician, good defensively, and when he gains confidence, he can attack fairly well, too.
Sturm's reputation has taken a hit not because he can't fight, but because he seems so content to not go out of his way to prove just how good he is. With his back slightly against the wall following the Macklin and Murray fights, the German returned this year to face countryman Zbik, a fighter who had become overrated by many because he gave Julio Cesar Chavez Jr a pretty stiff test.
Zbik, though, had never done much in his pro career besides rack up his own soft, pretty record. Sturm vs Zbik was, on paper, the protected facing the protected, at least to some degree, and what we wound up with was Sturm clobbering the hell out of Zbik for nine rounds before the fight was stopped.
It showed the class difference. Maybe Sturm wanted to really prove something. Maybe their rivalry was a little more personal, both fighting at home after talking about one another for a good while. Maybe it was just Sturm showing what he can do when he wants to, against an inferior opponent.
The good news for us, and perhaps the unfortunate news for Sturm, is with Geale, he doesn't have an inferior opponent on Saturday.
Geale seems younger than Sturm, and in ring years, probably is. But their birthdays show a mere two-year difference between them. When Geale turned pro in 2004, Sturm had been robbed in Vegas four months prior against Oscar De La Hoya, a fight that should live in infamy because it in turn robbed us of ever seeing Sturm in the United States again, and can probably be at least partly blamed for Sturm erring on the side of caution most times.
The 31-year-old Aussie Geale won his IBF middleweight title in May 2011, beating Sebastian Sylvester in Neubrandenburg. It was a clear and deserved victory for Geale, who like Sturm is a classy operator, a boxer before a fighter. Unlike Sturm, he's making strides to prove he's not going to be a fighter pleased to sit on his title belt and let the locals call him a hero.
Since beating Sylvester, Geale has defended his belt twice, both against game but ultimately grossly overmatched opponents on his home soil in Tasmania. Eromosele Albert was an understandable victory lap foe at home, to show the people who have backed him from day one his status as world champion. But Osumanu Adama to follow gave me the sad feeling that Geale would be happy to stay at that level.
Perhaps not, though. Here we are just 16 months after his title win, and with two easy defenses gone, he's headed back to Germany, largely regarded as a haven for incompetent or corrupt officiating, to face a man who has been the beneficiary of that officiating on more than one occasion.
In other words, Geale has proven he's ready to take the risk. And he's silenced the worrying voice in my head telling me that we were in for another good, talented middleweight who was happy to play hide-a-belt. He doesn't want to be Sturm Jr -- he wants to be the best.
We've got a well-matched bout on our hands here, I think. They're about even in terms of talent. Sturm has more miles on the odometer, but it's a question of whether or not he has more tools, and knows how to dig deep a little better, and whether at 33, he's still got enough left to hold off a guy who can box with him.
To be honest, I think if it gets into physicality, Sturm is in a matchup where he actually has the edge. Geale is fairly slick, likes to move around and use the ring, fight from the outside and stay very comfortable. Sturm likes to utilize his jab as his main weapon and certainly isn't a power puncher, but in comparison to Geale, he doesn't fight as "athletically." Sturm is generally right there, using good, basic defense to open up his frankly basic offense. And he's very good at that.
We've seen Geale outclass his last two opponents, and he was just plain better than Sylvester. But Sturm is also better than Sylvester, and is a damn sight better than Adama and Albert.
Geale can win this fight if he's able to stay at the distance he prefers, but while that might seem relatively easy against a guy like Sturm, I don't think it will be. Sturm showed against Matthew Macklin that if he has to go there, he can find that part of himself that will go toe-to-toe and fight. Geale won't fight like Macklin, but Sturm might have to fight like the guy from the second half of the Macklin fight to get to Geale, to wear him down, and to beat him. Geale's style is tricky for what Sturm generally likes doing, but Felix does have more than that to his game if he needs it.
I never pick draws, because that's a totally bunk move, but if I ever wanted to predict a draw, this is that type of fight. I'm going to go with Felix Sturm by close decision, and possibly with one card being preposterous in his favor, something no one could possibly have legitimately scored. I think we're looking at a 7-5, 6-6 type of fight here, though. The loser won't be happy, and not just because he lost.
It's a lot better to prepare for close fight controversy, I think, than just prepare for a forgettable wipeout. This is a good fight that deserves the attention. All we can do now is hope that when the dust has settled, we don't remember the judges more than we remember the fight.