Boxing: How the Klitschkos came to rule German fight game

Ukrainian brothers are box-office gold in unique world of boxing in their adopted nation, so Wladimir's fight against David Haye on Saturday will set new records.
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The Independent Online

During the last decade the Klitschko brothers have dominated the relatively new and unique boxing business in Germany and this Saturday's fight in Hamburg is expected to be the biggest so far to feature either of the delightful émigré boxers.

On Saturday there is a chance that the record for the attendance at a live fight will be shattered and there is every chance that both the number of fans watching on television and the percentage of the audience tuning in will be the best for over a decade. The Klitschko brothers are big in a business that only deals in big events and big fights, which makes it unique in the boxing world; there is no small-hall culture, no York Hall equivalent on a Tuesday night on the Rhine.

All of the recent fights involving a Klitschko brother have done excellent business at the box office and on television, as has Wladimir Klitschko's opponent on Saturday, David Haye, by the way. A Klitschko fight is an event in Germany with marquees set up near the arena or stadium to deal with the after-fight crowd. Recent entrances have included a live-set from the Pussycat Dolls, who performed from the centre of the ring, and a quite astounding ringwalk by Vitali, the elder of the two brothers, between holograms of modern heavyweights wishing him the best from behind a beam. It was a Star Trek classic.

But how did the Klitschko brothers come to dominate German boxing? They simply followed fighters from the old Soviet bloc and, when it came time to discard their vests, they based their professional careers in Germany. They fought as amateurs for Ukraine and are old enough to have been part of the Soviet system that identified talented sportsmen and women and placed them in sporting academies. Wladimir won an Olympic gold in Atlanta and made his professional debut a few months later in Germany: Vitali turned professional the same night.

"The German boxing business really started in 1992 when my dad did the deal for [German boxer] Henry Maske with [TV channel] RTL," insists Kalle Sauerland, whose father Wilfred kept the business ticking over for 15 years before the Maske deal. "There are three people responsible for boxing in Germany: Wilfred Sauerland, Henry Maske and Hans Mahr of RTL because he took the risk and it looked like a risk at the time." Maske went on and had 12 world title fights between 1993 and 1996 and averaged 17.8m viewers, with a peak at 23m.

The crazy thing about Maske, who was a product of the thoroughly professional East German system, was his relatively dull and predictable fights. He won 11 of the 12 world title fights, they were all in Germany and ten of the fights went the distance. "When Henry boxed it was like a national holiday," remembers Sauerland.

"The Germans love their boxing but they have a funny way of showing it," said Frank Maloney, who in 1997 took his Irish heavyweight Kevin McBride to fight Axel Schulz in Berlin. "They don't say a word, they just sit there and when it's over they go crazy. But, don't think they don't care because they show up in their thousands and they are loyal."

Maske was neatly followed into the German boxing business, and the developing battle between competing television channels, by Sven Ottke, a fighter with even less flair but more skill. Ottke, who was born in West Berlin, reigned as super-middleweight world champion from 1998 until 2004 and made 21 defences and never left Germany. Also, at the same time, the Polish-born world light-heavyweight champion Dariusz Michalczewski, who had 26 world title fights between 1994 and 2005, was at his best. The Tiger, as he was known, was entertaining and 25 of his world title fights took place in Germany.

In 1980 I was in Berlin at the Spandau club with a team of amateur boxers from London and we had the post-fight celebration at a bar belonging to Ottke's father. At the time there were just a few professionals in Germany, but the amateur business was thriving. "It was an odd time to be an amateur boxer in Germany during the Eighties because there were very few options available and then it all changed," said Ottke. When the wall, which was a few minutes from Ottke's home, came down, the fighters started to arrive.

"The German boxing business is different to other countries," continues Sauerland. "At Sauerland we do 12 big shows each year and that is the way the German business works; it's only big events." Last week Matthew Macklin's fight with World Boxing Association middleweight champion Felix Sturm was watched by 4.5m viewers, a figure that would be welcomed by any of Britain's terrestrial companies. In the list of the most watched sports events in German history, nine of the top ten places are currently occupied by either Maske or his heavyweight counterpart Schulz; Wladimir Klitschko will change that this weekend against Haye.

Now the Klitschko brothers rule supreme, with massive outdoor fights generating crowds of more than 40,000 on a regular basis and television figures of between 11m and nearly 14m for their fights. The brothers have performed better than the German national football team on occasion, including last year when Wladimir easily beat the reluctant "Fast" Eddie Chambers in front of 51,000 people in Dusseldorf.

The fight, a one-sided massacre of another confused and unmotivated American, was watched by 13.7 million people on RTL, the biggest television audience for a sports event since the European Championships in 2008. Tickets, incidentally, for the Chambers fight at the Esprit Arena started at just €20 (£18).

When Haye won the WBA title in Nuremberg in 2009 against Nikolai Valuev, who was born and raised in Russia but based locally, the television audience was 8.4m; more importantly, and amazingly, the fight was viewed by 40.5 per cent of all Germans watching television that night. The Klitschko figures dwarf that, with as many as 60 per cent of all Germans watching television on a Saturday night tuning in to watch another calculated Klitschko win.

"Most of the success I have achieved has been in Germany," adds Wladimir. "Germany feels like home and the fans feel like my fans. We love the fans, we fight for the fans and they come out and support us. It's a special relationship."

A couple of years ago when I was working at Setanta, Vitali came over to work in the studio before Haye's real heavyweight debut against the American Monte Barrett. I arranged for Vitali to stay at the Hilton in Holland Park, London, and when he arrived, there was a welcoming committee of a dozen Hilton executives, bowing and falling over themselves to please Vitali. Some had even flown in from Germany to welcome him to the hotel. It was mad, and made me realise just how adored the pair are in their adopted homeland. There is simply no reason to fight in America or capture the American market.

Wladimir was an ambassador for Germany's (failed) 2018 Ryder Cup bid and both brothers have the same role for Ukraine at next year's European Championships. They are smart, tall, athletically gifted and they are forever praising Mrs Klitschko, their dear old mum; dream athletes in many ways. Wlad still talks about the purity of boxing – less so since his association with Haye, who Wlad has dubbed "the king of crudity". However, and let's get this straight right now, they are still safety-first fighters and that is why they are not stars in America. They are respected in America and the Haye fight, which will be shown on television giant HBO, could very well be the fight that changes the landscape. Haye, meanwhile, is crude, rude, ruthless, exciting and not very German.

Wladimir's last three fights have been watched live by a total of 155,000 paying punters and 34m on television, and in any age, in any country, those figures are impressive. This Saturday Klitschko and Haye could set a few records of their own: richest fight in German history, most paying customers, least dignified entrance, most dignified... take your pick. Either way, it's massive business for the Klitschko brothers, who are also the promoters.

A fanbase to rival football

German satellite television station RTL owns sole broadcasting rights to the fights of both Klitschko brothers. RTL then sells the rights to mainland and eastern Europe. The brothers signed a five-year extension to the deal this year.

German football stadiums give the brothers access to big crowds. Over 60,000 watched Wladimir's defeat of Ruslan Chagaev in 2009 at Schalke's ground. Wladimir fought Eddie Chambers, in March 2010. It was held at the Esprit Arena in Dusseldorf, home of second-tier side Fortuna Dusseldorf, in front of 51,000 people.