What makes Sultan Ibragimov dangerous is that he doesn't look very dangerous.
You can't tell a book by its cover and you often can't tell a boxer by his outward appearance either. Take one look at the WBO heavyweight champion for example and you think - well - truck driver. That's before you consult with two guys who don't look anything like truck drivers - Shannon Briggs and Evander Holyfield.
Ibragimov beat them both half to death in winning the title from the former and defending it against the latter last year. One would not have thought him quicker then both, more aggressive than Holyfield or a stiffer puncher than either but he was all that and more. That may not mean a thing when he squares off against reigning IBF champion Wladimir Klitschko on Feb. 23 in New York but at the moment it has Jeff Mayweather believing there are surprises to come that night.
"His speed for a heavyweight amazes me,'' said Mayweather, who trains Ibragimov and marvels at how quickly his 32-year-old champion moves. "Klitschko isn't going to be able to handle that.''
Even Emanuel Steward, who trains Klitschko and was in Lennox Lewis' corner when he unified the title at Holyfield's expense in the last such heavyweight unification bout nine years ago, had to admit that while a Sultan does not a heavyweight king make the guy can move.
"He doesn't look impressive but looking at him closely I think he'll be the best fighter Wladimir has fought in his professional career,'' Steward said. "He's not a big guy but he knows how to win big fights against big guys. He has very good hand speed. He explodes and then he moves away quickly.
"Ibragimov has fast hands and he knows how to move in and out with his feet. Very good feet. Wladimir has had to spend a lot of time on his footwork preparing for this fight.
"Mayweather has done a great job with Ibragimov. He's actually improved a lot since winning the title. He's taught him how to fight without taking risks. He moves in and out really well. He makes most big guys' size a handicap for them.''
Whether the 6-2 Ibragimov will be able to do that to the towering Klitschko, who stands 6-6 1/2, will outweigh him by around 20 pounds and has a massive reach of 81 inches, is open to debate. Yet one cannot deny that Ibragimov (22-0-1, 17 KO) has a surprisingly unexpected quickness that could, for a time at least, immobilize Klitschko as it did the well-faded Holyfield and the totally baffled Briggs.
As Klitschko admitted, "He doesn't look (physically) impressive but he's very effective. He's a southpaw and he's shorter, which means he's faster than me. I am expecting him to jump right out and be explosive and aggressive.''
He may have a long wait if the latter is what Klitschko expects however because Ibragimov fights with an eye toward picking his spots. With a distinct disadvantage in reach, strength and punching power, he knows he must rely on speed and guile, using the former to create openings and the latter to escape once his work is done.
A decided underdog, Ibragimov knows many expect Klitschko (49-3, 44 KO) to repeatedly peck away at him with his long, powerful jab before landing booming right hands behind it once he has opened up his defenses in the way the banderilleros and picadors do a charging bull before the matador comes in to finish the weakened and bloodied animal off.
Ibragimov must come up with answers to that by avoiding the jab and beating Klitschko to the punch. If he can do it and drag the often tiring Klitschko into the deep waters of the late rounds an upset might be possible. Likely? That's another story all together.
Ibragimov is indeed a skilled boxer who will come at Klitschko from an unorthodox left-handed stance and, more importantly, will arrive with a sound jab as his accompaniment. That jab, combined with his quick hands, gives him the kind of technical skill to force Klitschko to do more than simply impose his will upon a smaller man. That is why Klitschko decided to include among his sparring partners undefeated middleweight Andy Lee (14-0, 11 KO) for three weeks as he began preparing for what he hopes is the first of several such unification bouts. Klitschko knew he needed to become accustomed to an opponent with more speed than most of the opponents he's faced and admitted he had trouble hitting Lee at first...emphasis on "at first.''
"I see two strong sides to him,'' Klitschko said of his opponent. "He is unbelievably fast and he moves a lot. I don't want to underestimate him. But also I don't want to overestimate him. He has weak sides. It just doesn't make sense to talk about them. I will show you in the ring.''
What Ibragimov expects to see there is that while his right jab and quick combinations are critical for success at some point he will be forced to find other ways to get to Klitschko. This will mean altering his tactics at times because Klitschko's reach advantage and own jab figure to make life more difficult for him than Briggs and Holyfield did and therein lays his great problem. Quick or not, Ibragimov simply can never stand and slug it out with Klitschko, a fact proven by the fact he was once dropped by Ray Austin in a fight that ended in a draw a year before Klitschko destroyed Austin in two rounds.
"He will keep his distance with his left jab,'' Ibragimov said, "so I gotta do something else. I gotta go inside. You will see what I will do. He's different than Briggs. He'll move more. He'll work more.''
What Klitschko will be working hard to attain is more than simply another victory. He has long understood that wearing a champion's belt in these days of hydra-headed championships means little to the larger world. To be heavyweight champion at a time when no one fighter has been able to capture the attention of the world's boxing fans demands more than a title belt. It demands all the title belts, something that has not existed since Lewis out pointed Holyfield in that 1999 rematch. It is something that Klitschko seems to see as his only fistic salvation.
"At this point in the heavyweight division, we are desperate," the IBF champion admitted one afternoon in New York when the Ibragimov fight was first announced. "We have a real problem with the heavyweight division right now. We have so many champions who are not either fighting or they are fighting and losing and winning the title again and then losing so we are looking for only one person. I believe this fight is the next step to that.
"As a fan of boxing I am looking for only one heavyweight champion. I'm not talking about myself. In general, as a fan, I'm looking forward to that. Imagine how many fans around the world are looking for it too. We need only one champion and stop all these conversations when the next unification is going to be. With this press conference it is over."
Actually it's just beginning but that is saying something these days. After Ibragimov won his title by easily out-pointing the somnambulant Briggs last June, the 2000 Olympic silver medalist thought he'd made a deal to fight Ruslan Chagaev in Moscow to unify the WBA and WBO titles before the year was out, a step that would have put him ahead of the unification curve. But in heavyweight boxing the road is littered with curves and one arrived soon after when Chagaev claimed he'd fallen ill and could not fight.
That opened the door for Holyfield's final dream but it quickly became a nightmare last October as the quick-handed Ibragimov gave him a sound thrashing. That victory finally led Ibragimov to Klitschko, of whom Steward has but one opinion.
"I think most people consider Wladimir as the heavyweight champion,'' Steward said, "but he said, 'Forget that. The rest of the world will look at me as the champion when I beat everybody else and that's what I'm going to do.' If they fight him, he will be the unified heavyweight champion.''
Hopefully these two will fight because if they do Ibragimov may offer Klitschko more problems than the public expects. Yet the truth of the matter is just as Ibragimov is not simply a round little guy who can jab a bit, Klitschko is not simply a towering man with a reach advantage. He is an athletic fighter with a powerful straight right and a left jab that can dominate by itself when used to properly.
Steward believes that is why, in the end, this will be a hopeless endeavor for Ibragimov, whose technical skills he respects but who he feels lacks the firepower to hurt Klitschko and the chin to stand up to the assault he will eventually come under.
"Wladimir is a master at controlling the ring,'' Steward said. "He makes you fight the way he wants you to fight at. You think you're going to move around and out speed him with your legs like (Chris) Byrd did and (Eliseo) Castillo but no, he cuts the ring off. He's faster than small guys. Left handed guys. Right handed. It doesn't matter.
"You want to fight on the inside? He doesn't fight on the inside but you can't fight on the inside either. He's going to make you stay at a distance, controlling you with that magic left hand and when he pushes the button for the missile (right hand) you'll never see that missile coming.
"I've watched Sultan Ibragimov. He's a solid fighter but I don't think the fight will go the distance. What we will get out of this is a chance to move toward having a unified heavyweight champion.''
At this point, having one less heavyweight champion is a win in itself, regardless of who's hand is raised. A win for boxing because, as Wladimir Klitschko and Sultan Ibragimov both realize, until there's only one champion there can never be any at all.
HBO WCB - Feb. 23, 2008