After Mayweather-Canelo, heavyweights take center stage in boxing

Shaun Botterill

Though boxing's biggest fight of the year is behind us, the sport has several more big time bouts coming our way, including a pair of major fights in the much maligned heavyweight division.

Heavyweight boxing isn't what it used to be, which surely you've heard a million times in the last 20 years or so, and particularly since the brothers Klitschko have taken firm grasp of the weight class that once boasted boxing's most notable pugilists, as well as its biggest fights. If there's one truth that fans both hardcore and extra casual can agree on, it's that the sport of boxing just doesn't have the intrigue with the big guys that it once did.

Not only is there no Joe Louis, Rocky Marciano, Muhammad Ali, or Mike Tyson, there is no Larry Holmes, Evander Holyfield, or Lennox Lewis, either. While Wladimir and Vitali Klitschko do, at least in my view, measure up for quality in ability to many of those fighters, this is simply a different heavyweight world. Its biggest fights have not taken place in the States for years now, and the division's American fighters are generally a collection of also-rans too often bulging at the waist line, a visual aid that frequently adds easy insult to the mediocrity.

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Wladimir Klitschko was supposed to be here, except then he wasn't. A heralded amateur who won gold at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, the now 37-year-old younger brother of Vitali figured to be a pro force. In 1998, he was stopped by Ross Puritty, but years went by and it was assumed by most to be a fluke, a quick hiccup that was worked past. But then in 2003 and 2004, he was knocked out by Corrie Sanders and Lamon Brewster, a pair of upsets that seemed to stop his progress. His glass chin was going to prevent him from reaching the heights of the division.

Then it didn't. Uniting with Hall of Fame trainer Emanuel Steward, Klitschko perfected the art of protecting himself and using his 81-inch reach to deliver powerful jabs that discouraged, stunned, and even hurt future opponents, which opened them up after to his monstrous right hand and underrated left hook, both show-stopping punches.

When he was counted out, he began to rise, and has gone on to more success than was predicted initially, basically owning the division since 2006, when he beat Chris Byrd to win his second world title (the first coming in 2000, also in a win over Byrd). Since then, he's been expected to have his chin betray him many times, but it just hasn't happened. He got revenge on Brewster and has walked through all of his other opponents. The last time he was even tested came in 2005 against Sam Peter. He made that one right in 2011, when he destroyed the big Nigerian.

While they have not gained great fame in the States (they are known here, but not always for good reasons), the Klitschkos are big draws overseas, particularly in Germany, where most of their fights are staged. Big audiences turn up in Hamburg, Mannheim, and Düsseldorf to see them physically and mentally dominate all comers. In recent years, Americans, Brits, Russians, Nigerians, Poles, Italians, Frenchmen, Lebanese, and Cubans have all fallen far short of their goal to remove the brothers from power, many of them claiming that they'd be the man to finally relieve boxing fans of their misery by knocking out the supposedly vulnerable Wladimir or the aging Vitali. Nobody has come close since Vitali returned in 2008.

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David Haye was the biggest name of those who have boasted about what they'd do to the Klitschko brothers, and he was also arguably the biggest flop. Haye, unlike no-hopers such as Jean-Marc Mormeck and Francesco Pianeta, had at least some chance going into that fight, and many felt that the athletic, powerful British star really was going to beat Wladimir, though the odds were in Klitschko's favor.

Haye, who had talked his way into that fight more than anything, instead turned in a lackluster performance made all the more unfortunately memorable by his blaming an injured toe for his sorry, flopping effort, which saw him falling about the ring in desperate attempts to get points taken, or maybe lure Wladimir into something stupid and thus a disqualification. In front of a packed stadium in Hamburg, Haye was as inferior as anyone. The fact that he stood up on a folding table and stuck his toe in everyone's face after the fight just made it easier to make fun of for two years and running.

Following his loss to Klitschko, Haye had to endure the inevitable press and fan backlash. He tried to shrug it off with a planned retirement which predictably did not last long, and he worked for BoxNation as an expert analyst in Germany in February 2012, when Dereck Chisora was in town to challenge Vitali. At the post-fight press conference, Haye made headlines for the wrong reasons again, brawling with Chisora in a whole big production that eventually led to the two of them licensed by Luxembourg and fighting on U.K. soil despite lacking BBBofC credentials. This time, Haye's notoriety at least led to money, as his star power and knack for controversy and attention-grabbing quotes made the fight with Chisora a hit. He then smashed Chisora in five rounds. Now just shy of 33, retirement plans are gone for the time being -- he wants another Klitschko crack, against either brother.

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Alexander Povetkin has been floating around the fringes of true relevance since 2007. He's been allowed to call himself "world champion," but even his "full" title is a secondary version of the WBA "super" belt held by Wladimir, and reality is that the only world titles that mean anything are held by Wladimir and Vitali.

Twice, Povetkin was signed up to face Wladimir and pulled out on short notice. In 2008, after beating Chris Byrd and Eddie Chambers in a four-man mini-tournament meant to crown an IBF mandatory challenger, Povetkin signed to face Klitschko in December. He backed out, and was replaced by the lumbering shell of Hasim Rahman.

In 2010, he was again supposedly set to face Wladimir in September, and press conferences were held, where Wladimir posed with a stand-up cut-out of Povetkin, who hadn't shown up, because he hadn't signed a contract that he and promoter Sauerland Event did not agree with -- and while it's certainly an easy knock against Povetkin that he bailed twice, the reality is that Klitschko contracts have been called into question by more than one opponent over recent years. As the division's kings, they reportedly attempt to dictate very one-sided terms for their fights. Most opponents need them so much to make a good payday that they go along with it. Some, like Povetkin and Haye, have resisted and made their feelings very public.

After winning a paper world title, the 34-year-old Povetkin still hasn't quite won the respect of boxing fans, who once hailed his arrival in the sport after a decorated amateur career as a big add for the division. In eight years as a pro, he's failed, in the eyes of most, to capitalize on his ability.

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Tyson Fury is new to all of this, the big fight world. (So is Povetkin, really, but I think we basically covered that.) Fury has been barking and shouting and screaming and yelling since turning pro in December 2008, loudly proclaiming that he would soon be world champion, that he would dethrone the Klitschkos, that he would give a spark to the division that has been lacking.

Fury, now 25, has had to earn his respect, because he did a fantastic job of getting people to think he was just another full-of-shit carnival barker playing the role of future heavyweight champion. At 6'9", Fury is taller than even Wladimir (6'6") or Vitali (6'7"), but he does not have their thunderous power, nor their steely, emotionless demeanors. Fury is, instead, a boxer-puncher who does not rely on one-punch thunder or even a range-keeping jab, but a rare ability to mix up his punches, and as he's improved his conditioning over the years, he moves shockingly well for a man of his size, having grown into his body as well.

Of course, many still think of him punching himself in the face with a whiffed uppercut ahead of the vast and noteworthy improvements he's made as a fighter. That might not be right, but it is funny.

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On back-to-back weekends, these four men will duke it out in Manchester and Moscow, in the two biggest heavyweight bouts of 2013. Whether or not there's much entertainment to be had from either bout is another story; Wladimir's fights are rarely exciting at all, while Haye-Fury figures to be interesting in some ways, but with a distinct possibility that both men may wait too much for the other to do something.

On September 28, Haye and Fury will clash in Manchester, live on Sky Box Office in the UK and on HBO in the United States. For pure enjoyability in action, this really should be the superior fight, but it's not the more truly significant. It's going to be a big box office hit in the United Kingdom, and both men are well-known around the boxing world, too. All eyes will be on this one on the 28th. A win for Haye really does put him in line for a shot at a Klitschko again, while a win for Fury not only puts Haye's career in doubt, but it makes for a potentially very interesting, young contender for one of the kings, too.

The next weekend in Moscow, thanks to a record-setting purse bid by Povetkin's now-former manager Vladimir Hryunov, we'll finally see Klitschko vs Povetkin. We have definitely reached a point in Povetkin's career where this had to happen for him to even have a shot at going down as more than a propped-up pretender who played it way too safe for way too long. And for Wladimir, this is the first time since beating Haye that he's had an opponent considered a true live body across the ring, even if it's once again a big underdog.

No matter what goes down, these fights will not bring the attention that Mayweather-Canelo did in the States, as the star power is just not the same. There's no Floyd here. There's not even a Canelo Alvarez. But these are well-matched fights that will showcase arguably four of the five best active fighters in the division (Kubrat Pulev being the other, with Vitali Klitschko's career at a standstill for now), and there's not much more you can ask of any fighter in the sport than to face their best available foes in the division.

The heavyweights aren't what they used to be, and frankly, they probably never will be again. But for at least a moment, the sport's biggest men will again have the spotlight. Now all we can hope for is something worth having a spotlight shining.

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