George Foreman told me once that he went down on his knees at a tiny chapel in Houston’s troubled Fifth ward and the tears flowed down his cheeks as he begged his Lord to make Muhammad Ali fight him.
Foreman’s prayer was ignored, and he had to spend 20 years in a torturous exile before finally regaining the world heavyweight title that Ali had won from him at dawn one day in the fight known as the Rumble in the Jungle. “I just wanted redemption, another chance to put right what went wrong in Africa,” said Foreman.
Just five years ago Bernard Hopkins was finally able to close his eyes without seeing Roy Jones Jnr in his head. Hopkins had lost to Jones Jnr in 1993 and finally gained revenge in a fight that was strictly personal and dull – he easily won the belated rematch in 2010. “I got rid of that loss and that loss haunted me; I never gave up on getting that fight,” Hopkins insisted.
Last week Tyson Fury dressed as Batman to push the pay-per-view sales of his heavyweight showdown with Wladimir Klitschko on 24 October in Dusseldorf. Fury you see, just like Hopkins and Foreman, has one fighter occupying the inside of his head night and day. However, somewhere between the comic antics at a press conference in north London and a private jet back to his adoptive homeland of Germany, Klitschko managed to get a partial muscle tear of the left calf. The fight was off two days after Batman’s antics, a new date has been promised – but I keep seeing the reluctant look in big Wlad’s eyes.
“I knew he would pull out,” Fury said. “I knew it. I could see it in his eyes and I told him [at last week’s press conference].” Klitschko also withdrew from a world-title fight with Dereck Chisora in December 2010 and on that occasion, just 48 hours before the first bell, something very similar happened.
“I’m telling you,” Chisora told me, as I interviewed him live from Germany for a radio show that I once had, “he will not fight me. He is scared.” The next day, the day of the weigh-in, Klitschko withdrew with a niggling injury, the type of flaw that causes sniggers and concern. Do you remember the scorn that David Haye faced when he blamed his loss to Klitschko on a swollen toe? The chief chorister of mirth was Big Wlad, who in a Bond villain voice said: “It looks like a wasp stung you.”
Klitschko, it needs to be said, is a heavyweight master, who just might be one of the greats, but the Chisora withdrawal and the latest fiasco with Fury will remain as blots on his record. Klitschko, who is 39 now, could walk away – or, in his case, hobble – and settle for retirement after two spells as world heavyweight champion, 25 wins in world-title fights and an Olympic gold medal back in 1996.
He is both dignified and complex, a defensive genius with a highly developed sense of survival inside the ropes. Also, no heavyweight in history has lasted as long as him at the top without blowing bubbles and struggling to pull on a pair of socks.
It did look like Fury was a challenge, the latest unbeaten fighter (five of his last six had never lost) with a genuine plan to fight Klitschko. However, the heavyweight division is divided at the moment, with interim and regular champions holding WBA belts, and even a so-called full-champion holding the WBC’s version; Klitschko does not have, and he has not had, a natural rival. The truth is that all great fighters have had their rivals, a man the boxing public demands they meet, and that missing link could possibly add to his decision simply to walk away.
He has a lucrative TV deal, he can keep making millions, but his struggle for respect has taken too long and the combined chorus of the fallen has so far failed to convince boxing people that Big Wlad is an exceptional fighter.
Fury clearly poses a significant threat to Klitschko because of his boxing intelligence and not just his height and weight; Fury has developed into a very smart boxer, even if he disguises his boxing brain behind stupid comments, with a subtle eye on adopting what has made Klitschko so successful over the years.
Fury, just like Foreman 40 years ago, just might find that his relentless pursuit, which has not always been pleasant, has been in vain.
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