Once there was a time when boxers fought their way to the top. These days advancement, in the heavyweight division at least, seems more a war of attrition than a war of ascension with the warfare end of it often kept to a minimum.
Such has certainly been the route followed by 36-year-old Tony Thompson, a little known but capable American who has risen to No. 1 contender's status primarily because the sport is running out of bodies to put in front of the three presently reigning heavyweight belt holders. That is not meant to imply Thompson can't fight but merely to point out that he didn't have to do much of it to eventually climb to the top of the rankings.
Instead Thompson had to contend with being avoided by a host of other ranked opponents until such time as they had been disposed. Once that occurred he had to be dealt with, a circumstance that took more time than he would have liked but that is now what the best of this lot of champions, in the opinion of nearly everyone, will do with him come July 12.
That night IBF/WBO heavyweight champion Wladimir Klitschko, who managed to unify at least a portion of the fractured title in his last outing somewhat at the expense of Thompson will pay him back tenfold by agreeing to meet at Color Line Arena in Hamburg with 50 per cent of the heavyweight titles at stake. Thompson had been the mandatory challenger for Sultan Ibragimov when Ibragimov held the WBO title but Ibragimov sidestepped him and went right to a more lucrative unification fight with Klitschko on February 23. Klitschko won a boringly lopsided decision that night at Madison Square Garden against an opponent disinclined to use his hands for anything but earmuffs and consequently not only gained 50 per cent of the heavyweight title but also some experience against a southpaw that should be put to good use when he faces Thompson on HBO.
Thompson has long been ignored (his handlers would insist avoided is more appropriate) by as many heavyweights as possible because he is left-handed, tall, has inordinately long arms and an above average jab to go with them and has shown an alarming tendency to win by the use of what he himself has called "effective clumsiness.''
That is not the classic way to describe an effective heavyweight or to get into a heavyweight title fight but it has worked for Thompson, who is 31-1 and has not lost a fight since he dropped a four-round decision eight years ago in a tent on Cape Cod used primarily for summer theatre.
How a man could fight for so long, win so consistently and be so unknown is difficult to fathom but it is only one of the many mysteries of Tony Thompson. The largest is that he didn't even enter anything resembling a boxing gym until he was 26, when he wandered into a health club in Washington, D.C. one day and struck up a conversation with a welterweight of some promise named Derrell Coley who he saw working out there.
A failed high school football player who had dropped out, earned his GED in the Job Corps and was working in D.C. as a sort of guide for out of town visitors, Thompson began to box with some interest two years later when he found the Round One Gym and met a trainer named Tom Browner.
A year later, at 28, Thompson would win his first professional fight and then box seven more times that year, losing once and not liking that experience very much. Since that night Thompson has won 27 straight, including victories over former title contender Vaughn Bean at a time when Bean was 44-3, Dominick Guinn when it was still believed Guinn had a chance to make some noise in the division and Luan Krasniqi a year ago in a WBO title eliminator that ended with the German battered into submission in less than five rounds in the very same arena where Thompson will square off with Klitschko.
So why haven't you heard of this 36-year-old father of seven before now? That's probably because his boxing style is difficult to solve and not exactly considered telegenic by the people who buy fights for television.
Add to that the fact that by heavyweight standards he's a fairly busy fighter and you have just the kind of guy most ranked heavyweights on the rise avoid if at all possible.
Yet those things don't mean there is no risk involved for Klitschko (50-3, 44 KO) however because Thompson's southpaw stance is an immediate problem for any orthodox fighter and his 81 1/2 inch reach increases the difficulty because it allows him to pump his right jab in the direction of his opponents from an odd angle. Add to that the fact that by heavyweight standards he's a fairly busy fighter and you have just the kind of guy most ranked heavyweights on the rise avoid if at all possible.
Klitschko is not in such a position because when he took Ibragimov's WBO title what also came with it was the baggage of defending it against Thompson immediately. His other choice was to face young Alexander Povetkin, who is his IBF mandatory. That he chose the lighter hitting Thompson may say something about Klitschko's reasoning but neither get him any closer to unifying the title, which he has made clear is his intention because he understands that until only one man has all the championship belts there will be no real champion, as there has not been since Lennox Lewis retired.
Often in his career Klitschko has won by using his own superior jab and a considerable size advantage to beat down smaller opponents. Like a picador, he bruises and bloodies them with his jab for a time before eventually nailing them with a powerful, sword-like right hand coming behind it.
That strategy is not likely to change all that much against Thompson, although against a southpaw it is the straight right hand alone that is often the superior weapon for the orthodox fighter. Klitschko's problem will be that Thompson stands nearly as tall as he does at 6-5 to Klitschko's 6-6 1/2 and his arms are even longer than the champion's.
Although Thompson's half inch reach advantage is not the edge it has been in the past, when his long arms made attacking him all but impossible for smaller men like Krasniqi, it remains a problem Klitschko will have to confront and solve. While the public knows little about Thompson and expects even less from him, Klitschko was at ringside when he destroyed Krasniqi and says, "I saw his knockout win in Germany so I definitely won't underestimate him.''
Thompson's size and his own jab will make it more difficult than usual for Klitschko to keep his distance and control the spacing with a jab that can be used both to score points and to avoid getting into harm's way. Thompson will have the size to negate that, although perhaps not the hand speed, and comes with an awkward style that should put some pressure on Klitschko as much from confusion as from the threat of contusions.
"I'm going to be in his face,'' Thompson claims. "I'm going to be pressing him with my non-stop pressure. I'm going to make him fight. I'm not going to lay back like a lot of guys who fought him have done and let him pummel me. I can't beat him running.''
Thompson may not be able to beat Klitschko fighting either but his awkwardness has given many of Klitschko's predecessors fits. He is not a particularly powerful puncher nor does he have the kind of scoring jab that put Larry Holmes in the International Boxing Hall of Fame earlier this year but what he does have is a style (or lack of same) that can be confusing, confounding and dangerous if not handled properly.
So come July 12 Tony Thompson, who calls himself Spare Parts because he says he's so old he could use some, will get his moment. It will be one that comes without him possessing an impressive list of fallen opponents, concussive one-punch knockout power or unusual hand speed.
"I'll be incredibly awkward on offense and defense to the point of frustrating him,'' Thompson has warned. "Once they get frustrated, I take them out.''
Well, not completely. Thompson has only 19 knockouts in 32 professional fights while Klitschko has a more than 90 per cent stoppage rate. The champion is clearly the more heavy handed fighter and the more skilled boxer. His hands are faster, his jab more powerful although not any more accurate and his level of competition far exceeds Thompson's resume. This doesn't mean Thompson can't win though because when you have his kind of awkwardness it can create openings caused by an opponent's momentary confusion or a mounting frustration that can lead a man into the mistakes that can result in deeper problems.
The biggest problem for the challenger is that he is stepping up considerably in class. Thompson has not only faced no one like Klitschko, he's faced no one like Chris Byrd, Lamon Brewster or even Calvin Brock, all of whom Klitschko knocked out (although Brewster also knocked him out in their first meeting), and he certainly has not faced anyone as imposing as Samuel Peter, the WBC champion who knocked Klitschko down three times three years ago and still couldn't do enough to win a decision from him.
It is fair to say Klitschko is the more battle tested but that is not all Thompson's fault. He has had neither the style nor the promotional power behind him to force himself into big-money fights until now and even this opportunity has come only because Thompson simply kept fighting who he could and beating who they put in front of him until the guys ahead of him who had refused to fight him fell by the wayside (or at the hands of Klitschko, Peter or WBA champion Ruslan Chagaev).
So come July 12 Tony Thompson, who calls himself Spare Parts because he says he's so old he could use some, will get his moment. It will be one that comes without him possessing an impressive list of fallen opponents, concussive one-punch knockout power or unusual hand speed. In fact, Thompson has said one of his advantages despite being 36 is that he hasn't lost any speed because "I wasn't fast to begin with.''
What he has been is doggedly determined to keep beating whoever he could find until there was no choice but for someone to give him a chance to fight for boxing's ultimate prize - the heavyweight championship of the world.
He has ignored layoffs that have some times lasted for a year. He has ignored a frustrating inability to force some of the division's big name contenders into the ring with him. He even once had to ignore someone having stolen his boxing shoes at the Playboy Mansion just over a year ago, a turn of events that forced him to box Timor Ibragimov, the cousin of the former WBO champion, in a pair of basketball sneakers borrowed from a television producer.
In personal finance there is nothing more powerful than compound interest. In heavyweight boxing there's nothing more powerful than mulish determination. The exception to that rule is, at times, the straight right hand of Wladimir Klitschko. If he can land it a few times, resilient and long-suffering Tony Thompson may soon come to learn that it is far easier to slog your way to a title shot than it is to awkwardly figure out a way to win it.