Boxing - Wladimir Klitschko v Alexander Povetkin: How Russia won the heavyweight war
Soviet savagery comes of age and crushes the American top division challenge once and for all when Klitschko and Povetkin of the Eastern Bloc meet in Moscow for one of the biggest purses of all time
Friday 04 October 2013
It started 20 years ago with the usual Cold War jargon, a reference to a Rocky opponent called Ivan Drago and a lazy mention of an Eastern Bloc robot. They have all helped create a conflict between the East and the West in the ring. The war ends on Saturday night in Moscow when the 10-year struggle for control of boxing's heavyweight division finally becomes a crushing Soviet victory, leaving the Americans' decade-long search for a champion in ruins.
"The guy who was meant to be the next heavyweight champion of the world is playing football or basketball; it's that simple," said Don King recently, and yet 10 years ago he was confident a champion could be found; the mission has nearly ended, crushed by the volume of Eastern Bloc heavies.
There has been a brutal coup in the heavyweight division during the last decade and on Saturday, under triumphant beams and stirring trumpets, Ukraine's Wladimir Klitschko fights Russia's Alexander Povetkin for the world heavyweight title in a fight that ends the American heavyweight dream. The pair will split the second-highest ever guaranteed purse for the division, over 30,000 will be there live and 100 million will watch the fight on television in Europe and marvel at President Putin's tiny cameo.
The last American men to hold a slender version of the world heavyweight title were a decent but flawed group of individuals who swapped punches and belts in obscurity, mostly ignored by the fans who still remembered and cared about the giants that once ruled the sport.
Chris Byrd, Hasim Rahman and Lamon Brewster all lost their titles in 2006 and the veteran Shannon Briggs let go of his belt in 2007; they were barely the ghosts of champions past, but they did their best to try and halt or delay the Eastern Bloc onslaught.
In the last 10 years, eight boxers from the old Soviet empire have held a version or two of the heavyweight title, a reign of mixed blessings interrupted only briefly by David Haye's lucrative flirtation with the Goliaths of the sport.
Klitschko and his brother, Vitali, now have absolute control of the heavyweight division and regularly attract crowds in excess of 50,000 in Germany, where they are based, and television audiences of more than 15m. The current gang of American heavyweights, all of whom are a year or more away from being sent to Europe for slaughter, can only fantasise about the figures as they fight for peanuts on the undercards of lighter champions.
Povetkin has held a version of the world title since 2011, is unbeaten in 26 fights, was an Olympic champion like Wladimir, and is the reason why Vlad Hryunov, a Russian entrepreneur, bid over $23m (£14m) to promote the fight in Moscow.
The Klitschko brothers put in a bid for $7.1m and Povetkin's German promoter, Sauerland, went in with $6m. It is the largest guaranteed purse since Las Vegas hotelier Steve Wynn paid $32.1m for Buster Douglas against Evander Holyfield in 1990. There was a bid for $50.1m the following year from Dan Duva for Holyfield versus Mike Tyson, but Tyson went to prison on a rape conviction and Duva kept his cash.
Povetkin's apprenticeship was textbook perfect, something that the men and women looking after Anthony Joshua should study, and he beat a solid list of former world champions, challengers and faded bangers to get the crucial rounds.
In private the Russian, who was briefly marketed as the "White Tyson", took part in ferocious sparring sessions that were real fights and the men chosen to "test" him often left with as much as $10,000; they deserved every penny if the stories of savagery are true.
In 2009, a fight against Wladimir Klitschko was first mentioned and the brothers bid just less than $9m to promote it. But Teddy Atlas, the irascible American trainer who at the time worked with Povetkin, refused it. "My man is not ready, not yet. It's not a fight, not yet," he said. The pair split last year but Atlas believes that his former fighter can beat Klitschko. Atlas was also the man behind the closed-door fights and it seems his departure was hastened by his continual scepticism.
Klitschko has been in 23 world heavyweight title fights, winning 21, and his last 14 defences have mostly been controlled massacres with the men in the opposite corner often failing to win a round. Haye went 12 and was mildly competitive but wore the now familiar look of pain and confusion when the last bell tolled.
Manny Steward, the iconic American trainer credited with turning the last of the Soviet machines into a great fighter, never tired of the look. "They have no idea what has just happened, no idea that Wlad was that fast. I feel sorry for them," said Steward, who died last year and left in place two of his protégés, Jonathan Banks and Javan Hill, to continue his work.
The two world title defeats on Klitschko's record took place during a 13-month period and were both nasty stoppages. The loss to Brewster in April 2004 was also Steward's first fight with Klitschko; it was Klitschko's last defeat and in 2007 Brewster was beaten in six rounds. "I was destroyed when I lost twice. I was at the bottom and I had to fight my way back," said Klitschko. "People forget that time, forget how hard it was. I had to fight to save my career." Klitschko has beaten 10 Americans since the loss and all have been stopped or knocked out.
It will be an emotional night for the two Olympic gold medal-winners, the two veterans of a regime that created fighters, ballerinas and swimmers based on physical and mental tests when the subjects were still tiny children. It is fair to say that Soviet sport has come a long way since two little boys called Wlad and Alex first enlisted at their local academies. This fight is a very grand graduation and will be a proper test for Klitschko.
Klitschko v Povetkin is live and exclusive on BoxNation (Sky channel 437, Virgin 546). Join at boxnation.com
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