Ask a boxing fan -- casual or diehard -- about Wladimir Klitschko, and you've got a really good chance to receive an eye roll, groan, or some form of guttural noise indicating a clear disgust and distaste for the current world heavyweight champion of boxing.
Ask that same fan about Floyd Mayweather, and while you might get that same response, chances are it will be something different. If not admiration or excitement, it will be something more ... whiny? Would that be the word?
Klitschko inspires a feeling of boredom from many fight fans, whereas Mayweather, through his "Money" caricature, seems to elicit a negative reaction that more lines up with annoyance than any sort of true dislike. It's easy to see how this happens. It's mostly just in the sell.
Take their upcoming fights, for example, on back-to-back weekends. On April 26, Klitschko will face Alex Leapai in Germany. That fight was just this week picked up by ESPN for the American audience, not exactly drawing the most positive response from some who commented on the bout, yours truly included. The worry is that while Wladimir's name is recognizable, this is just another walkover fight for him, as he'll tower over the mediocre Leapai, a fringe contender whose shot is supposedly his power. We've heard that story before. And if people who wouldn't normally turn in decide to, what are they going to see?
The iconic portrayals of the heavyweight fighter in today's pop culture are Muhammad Ali, Mike Tyson, Joe Frazier, George Foreman, Joe Louis, Rocky Marciano, the fictional Rocky Balboa, and so forth. Klitschko, a robotic heavyweight who has mastered his jab and how to protect his vulnerable chin, hasn't faced anything resembling a stiff challenge in years, because nobody is good enough to test him, let alone beat him. We've seen challengers celebrated and dismissed fall in the same manner, over and over, from David Haye and Alexander Povetkin to Jean-Marc Mormeck and Francesco Pianeta.
It's been nearly a decade, when Samuel Peter knocked Klitschko down three times and lost anyway, since we've seen "Dr. Steelhammer" have any trouble with an opponent. And in his last fight, an atrocious hug-fest with Povetkin where frustration wore out the opponent as much as anything else, Klitschko proved, at least in my view, that he has no business being mentioned with the great heavyweights of all-time. It's not just about the era. He's simply not on the level of the true greats.
Mayweather, meanwhile, fights May 3, one of boxing's two prized weekends every year. The Cinco De Mayo weekend, along with the mid-September Saturday that is closest to Mexico's Independence Day, is always booked for one of the year's biggest pay-per-view fight attractions.
Floyd will face Marcos Maidana on Showtime pay-per-view, seven days after Klitschko handily and predictably disposes of Leapai, either by stoppage or a coasting 12-round decision. At this time, Klitschko has a line of -1600 odds at Bovada. Mayweather is -1100 for his fight. The difference is really minimal. Once you're up into the 10-to-1 and over territory, you're talking about a flat-out mismatch on paper. These are the sort of fights that should not be normal for either man, but they are par for the course.
Mayweather (45-0, 26 KO) is the highest-paid man in boxing, and has set records on pay-per-view with Oscar De La Hoya in 2007, and at the live gate with Canelo Alvarez last September, which nearly broke the pay-per-view buys record, too. Klitschko (61-3, 51 KO), meanwhile, has barely been able to get himself on American TV over the last few years, as HBO and Showtime have shown minimal interest in his services, and when HBO has picked up his fights, the tone of the commentary during and after is always one of impatience and a tired narrative that nobody really wants to bother with anymore.
Yes, Klitschko is his division's best. And nobody cares. Mayweather is his division's -- and the sport's -- best, and everyone seems to care. Either because they love him or want to see him lose. Nobody really cares to see Klitschko fight at all, let alone so fervently desiring to see his downfall that they'll pay $80 on the prayer that it may finally happen.
Part of it could be that Klitschko is not American, and thus does not fight here, but if the money was there in Las Vegas, that is where he would fight. It's not, because the interest isn't there. Vegas casinos still pay greater site fees than anywhere, and the ability to make the most money at the gate is also still to Nevada's advantage. 15,000 at the MGM Grand is a bigger gate than 40,000 in Texas or Germany or anywhere else.
But the lack of being American is no longer the issue that it once was, and not just for fighters from Mexico or Puerto Rico, who have always had an easier in with American fans due to the large populations of Mexican and Puerto Rican fans in the States. Manny Pacquiao, a Filipino, has become arguably the biggest global star in the sport over the last five years, and the only fighter who ever even challenged Mayweather as the pay-per-view king in our post-Oscar De La Hoya world, one where Floyd has surpassed even "The Golden Boy" as an instant seller on name value alone.
The heavyweights, too, are still supposed to be the glory fighters in the world. The lack of a decent heavyweight division is one of the things most frequently blamed for boxing's modern depression, an idea overstated by many yet still overprotected by boxing moms in the media and fan base, who see a million people watching a Sergey Kovalev fight on HBO as something to be excited over.
Mayweather has mastered the art of selling himself as a brand name and a product. His job no longer is about "fights," it's about "events." Every opponent he faces is said by Floyd to be young, hungry, and strong. If he remembers to call them lions, that gets thrown in, too. It's unlikely that many buy into this idea, but when Floyd speaks, everyone listens. What they hear from his words may vary, but the world pays attention. Klitschko doesn't talk much to begin with, and while he does a dry, truly strong sense of humor, and while everyone seems to think he's a Good Guy, nobody seems to care much what he says, because everyone agrees that he's not going to be beaten by any of the guys he's fighting.
We also all seem to agree that Floyd won't lose, but people still hang on what he says, either to hype it, pick it apart, or laugh at the banality of it all.
The two men are in basically the same position, but one has made himself the ultimate boxing heel, and the other has simply been content with being the level of player that he is. He is able to draw big crowds and make good money -- money that "Money" would scoff at -- and that, it seems, is plenty good enough for Wladimir Klitschko. To him, the job starts in the gym, ends in the ring, and then starts again in the gym later on. He has fights, not events, though the light shows, live bands, and video packages do give his fights an often-comical air of grandiosity, given the reality of the mismatches at hand.
Boxing has always been about the sell -- making the most of the least you can, maximizing profit and minimizing risk, protecting the golden geese, and leading the public into thinking a fight is something that it isn't. That's what promoting is. That's what it always has been, and that's what it always will be. Like everything, it has evolved into what it is today, not shadier than before, but certainly a more perfected art.
Mayweather, 37, and Klitschko, 38, have everything in common, and nothing in common. They are to their differing degrees products of the sell, boxing's eternal con job. Whether fights or events, they are playing the same game, and have been for a while now. The deck is stacked in their favor on April 26 and May 3, just as it has been for years now. It's easy to see them as vastly different entities, but they're not. They are the best at what they do, with all that entails.
They will win their next fights easily, and then it's back to the carnival barker operation. The next guy will have the power they can't ignore. The next guy will be a threat, even though he isn't. They'll win again. After all, at the end of the day, as everyone says, they do share something beyond the con: a dedication to their craft that may be unmatched by anyone who will oppose them once the bell rings.
While the sell is certainly real, and the mismatches are legitimate, one also cannot overlook the fact that Mayweather and Klitschko wouldn't even be here if they weren't as good as they are. That, too, is real. History may be kinder to them than critics have been in the moment, such as in the case of Larry Holmes, who once was seen as merely the bridge between the eras of Ali and Tyson, and is now regarded as one of the better heavyweights of all-time, if not quite on par with the elite.
"Legacy" is a term overused in boxing and sports in general, because legacies often wind up written by those who weren't there at the time, and the memories of those who were, too, become clouded by a romanticism that didn't exist in the moment. As we get older, we all want to remember our experiences as superior to what is happening at the time. Perhaps down the road, we'll bemoan the lack of a Mayweather or Klitschko in the sport. It may seem unlikely, but it has happened before.
In the present, they'll just go to work, be it fight or event.