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Heavyweights, Moving Forward?

Wladimir Klitschko was so upset with his performance last Saturday night in winning the WBO portion of the heavyweight title from Sultan Ibragimov that he called his Hall of Fame trainer, Emanuel Steward, at 4 in the morning to apologize for his performance. What that tells us is at least the first unified champion in heavyweight boxing since Lennox Lewis understands the significance of the problem in his weight division and the need to solve it emphatically.

Klitschko did some but not all of that when he easily but boringly outpointed the reluctant Ibragimov to add the WBO portion of the title to the IBF version Klitschko already held. For all intents and purposes he knew what that made him. It made him half a champion, a situation he believes is the same as not being a champion at all which, coincidentally, is about half right.

On March 8, another small step forward for the division will be taken when WBC champion Oleg Maskaev defends his quarter of the title on HBO against interim champion Samuel Peter. If that fight ends more resoundingly than Klitschko-Ibragimov did it will help enliven a division that has not had a universally recognized champion since Lennox Lewis last unified the titles in 1999.

The power of that act became clear later when, predictably, the various alphabet organizations couldn't wait to peel some of those belts off Lewis' waist when he was unwilling or unable to participate in meaningless title defenses against men hardly worthy of such distinction.

They could take away those belts but what they could not do was take away the public's recognition of Lewis as the true heavyweight champion. He held that far more important title until his retirement 4 1/2 years ago, after he'd taken a divot out of the face of Klitschko's brave but beaten brother, Vitali, in his last fight. Since then various bodies have held portions of the title as Klitschko, Maskaev and WBA champion Ruslan Chagaev now do but no one has captured the only title Lewis held and the only one that matters - the one that exists in the mind of the people.

Klitschko the Younger didn't succeed in winning that in outpointing the defense-first minded Ibragimov but he at least removed one name from the equation and then made clear by his late-night talk with Steward that he understood more is needed.

Steward told The Sweet Science's Michael Woods on Sunday that his fighter was so down in the dumps he had to remind him it really wasn't THAT bad a performance because Ibragimov simply refused to come forward and fight, even in the 12th and final round. Ibragimov, of course, blamed Klitschko while the crowd of 14,011 at Madison Square Garden rightly blamed them both.

What is more significant moving forward is that Klitschko appeared to understand that simply winning is no longer enough because the division has been under such a cloud for so long that only the spectacular will convince boxing fans to put any faith back in what was once the most important division in the sport.

Right after the fight Klitschko said the most important thing was just to win but his late-night/early-morning call to Steward indicates upon further reflection he knew better. That may be somewhat unfair but that's the situation the division is in and only one champion can change that. The last one standing.

"I know you're not satisfied but I have to keep the belts and knock, everybody else out,'' Klitschko said publicly but later, in his talk with Steward, it seems clear he understood life is no longer that simple for anyone claiming to be heavyweight champion these days.

Ideally what happens next is Peter knocks Maskaev out cold in two weeks and then demands a rematch with the younger Klitschko, who immediately accepts. Or Maskaev does something similar to first Peter and than Wlad Klitschko. Sadly, heavyweight boxing is not a place where ideals flourish very often.

That simply can't and won't happen because the Maskaev-Peter winner is obligated to fight Klitschko's older brother, Vitali, first and there's no way the first partially unified champion is going to interfere with that. Whoever wins that fight then already seems locked into defending against former cruiserweight champion Juan Carlos Gomez, who frankly probably deserved such a shot a long time ago.

The real bad news is that if the elder Klitschko prevails through all and wins the WBC title the two brothers will never do battle over it. Perhaps Vitali might retire and try to will the WBC crown to his younger brother but that wouldn't work either so you see the depth of the problem.

The wildcard then is Chagaev, who is obligated to defend his share of the title against former WBA champion Nikolay Valuev in his next fight. Regardless of who wins, the biggest money fight for them would be a showdown with Wlad, who judging by his statements and recent actions would probably be open to such a possibility.

Klitschko agreed to a 50-50 split with Ibragimov even though he is by far the bigger draw, a move he made because he didn't want to get involved in a protracted fight over money when money isn't the issue for him any more. Becoming heavyweight champion is and, as he's said in the past, as long as there are guys with a claim to a portion of the title out there he cannot really claim that championship is his.

What he can claim, and rightfully so, is that he is now the No. 1 heavyweight in the world. He is the leading contender in a field thankfully peopled with one less world title belt holder than there was a week ago but still no champion.

"This is a great sport that needs one champion,'' Klitschko said and he's right. Perhaps if he ends up with three titles and his brother one the sport can live with that. Or maybe the two will split the belts 2-and-2, sort of like golfing match play, and half the hole.

But while that would make history and a feel good story, what the sport needs now is one heavyweight champion. We are not there yet but Wladimir Klitschko is both the leading contender and a guy who realizes it is more important than holding belts.

It is the risk to win it all to be sure but it is one that would be richly rewarded by boxing's loyal and long-suffering fans. Until two men are in position to do that and have the willingness to there, a vacancy will exist at the top of the business of heavyweight boxing. It will exist, very likely, for at least another year but in the interim if Wladimir Klitschko can convince the Chagaev-Valuev winner to get into the ring with him he will have done more for heavyweight boxing than anyone since Lennox Lewis and Evander Holyfield agreed to square off eight years ago to decide who the baddest man on the planet really was.

If he and the eventually holder of the WBA title agree to such a showdown before the year is out boxing should rejoice. We still won't have the issue settled but it would close. Very close for the first time in too long a time.

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