Fallen Klitschko leaves big hole to fill

Promoters and TV moguls relaunch search for next heavyweight hope after giant Ukrainian's demise

When Vitali Klitschko shook his head at the end of round nine in Berlin last Saturday and quit against his American opponent, Chris Byrd, he altered the course of heavyweight history.

Byrd is the new World Boxing Organisation heavyweight champion. But he is not meant to be a player in one of sport's richest games, because nobody wants him. Klitschko was not supposed to quit because he has been recently emerging as the heavyweight of the future. The 26-year-old was unbeaten in 27 fights, with 27 knock-outs or stoppages.

At ringside watching the bizarre end to the spectacle were representatives from the promoters in charge of Lennox Lewis, Evander Holyfield and Mike Tyson. When Klitschko stopped fighting they stopped taking an interest. Also present in Berlin were the cameras for HBO, the American cable company, screening their first Klitschko fight in a bid to lure and control the towering Ukrainian's career. Luckily for HBO the long-term deal was not signed and sealed. HBO had aggressively pursued Klitschko since he left Herbie Hide on the canvas last year in London.

The company increased its pursuit after Lewis and Holyfield stumbled like two old men through their hitless mazurka in Las Vegas last November. Klitschko was present and eclipsed both boxers. HBO wanted him because they knew that somebody was needed to replace the old men.

Sadly, Klitschko is not that man - and neither, despite his victory, is Byrd. The man dominating the hearts and minds of heavyweight boxers is languishing in police custody in Las Vegas awaiting trial for an assault in the gambling city last summer.

His name is Ike Ibeabuchi and last year he knocked out Byrd. Last Friday Ibeabuchi's brief appearance in court for psychiatric evaluation proved inconclusive. However, the judge set an evidentiary hearing for 19 April and it is looking increasingly unlikely that the Nigerian-born heavyweight will be freed. The only other possibly heavyweight of consequence is Michael Grant, who fights Lewis in New York on 29 April, but Grant's flaws were brutally exploited by Poland's Andrzej Golota last year. Grant won but he looked like a novice and was dropped on the canvas before Golota quit. Last Saturday the only man left to take control of heavyweight boxing was Klitschko - but then he went and quit as well.

Now Klitschko will, according to his doctors, require an operation to repair his left shoulder. A press call in a doctor's surgery took place the following morning and Klitschko, who is 6ft 9in, stood passively and looked embarrassed as Dr Peter Benckendorff pointed at the shoulder. The grim photo opportunity was reminiscent of the infamous picture of a subdued but clearly raging Sonny Liston sitting topless in insolent silence as a doctor pleaded his case after he quit with a shoulder injury in his first fight against Muhammad Ali.

In the aftermath of the shock victory last Saturday - Byrd accepted the fight at six days' notice - Klitschko's promoter Peter Kohl barely had time to assess his loss of investment. He said: "We lost the fight, not the fighter. It was important to stop it. Vitali will be back."

So will Byrd, as a return-to-Germany-clause was part of the package that he had to accept when he agreed the fight. Kohl added: "If Vitali had continued and was knocked out nobody would have believed he had an injury."

Fritz Sdunek, the boxer's trainer, was even more overt in his praise of the fight's conclusion. He said: "Many athletes quit fights moaning. Vitali stopped like a man." The Ukrainian was in front at the time.

Kohl is unlikely to put the American back in the ring with either Vitali or his younger brother Vladimir. Both clearly have a problem in the later rounds, as Vladimir was stopped by an American survivor, Ross Puritty, after dominating the early rounds.

Frank Warren, who was not at ringside, has carefully manoeuvred his fighter Tyson into the WBO's No 1 position but he insists it is not a mandatory challenge he will be pursuing. Warren said: "Who needs Chris Byrd? Mike has a schedule and Byrd is not part of it."

Similar words of caution were spoken by Panos Eliades, the liquidator who controls Lewis's career, when he left ringside. "I wanted Vitali, not Byrd," he said. However, Don King is willing to help relaunch the Ukrainian if he signs a deal with him and fights in America. That will never happen.

Now that Klitschko is out of the way - and as long as Ibeabuchi remains on suicide watch having conversations with angels inside the Las Vegas county jail - there remains just one ogre in heavyweight boxing: Tyson.

Meanwhile, in Flint, Michigan, Byrd is due to speak at his local church on Sunday, when the congregation will welcome him back. What a refreshing change the new champion is - and what an annoyance and a vacuum he caused.

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