Saturday night, at the Imtech Arena in Hamburg, Wladimir Klitschko (56-3-0) won another belt, but fought for his legacy.
In despoiling David Haye of his WBA belt, Klitschko with his brother Vitali have now successfully unified all four major titles of the heavyweight division (WBA, WBC, WBO, and IBF) - perhaps a defining legacy unto itself. However, after out-jabbing the Briton to an unanimous victory (117-109; 118-108; 116-110), the Ukrainian giant finds himself still lacking a signature victory. Klitschko's legacy is now in peril of becoming synonymous with the eventless dominance of his cautious perfection.
As Klitschko himself conceded after the fight, "I'm not really satisfied with my performance because I didn't see an impressive knockout of David Haye."
Little blame can be put on Klitschko in this instance. The 3-1 ratio of Klitschko's belts to Haye's at the outset of the fight seemed to correspond by the end to the ratio of their talents to one another. Dancing around the ropes, Haye (25-2) did not seem to come to land punches, but rather to prove that he could make Klitschko miss them. Rarely, he succeeded, but more often Haye, 30, would eat jabs and then pose a fistic question to which Klitschko's right hand would supply a better answer. After the bout, Haye blamed a broken pinky toe for his inability to throw right hands, an excuse of such absurdity it seems likely to be true.
In addition to problems with feet, Haye had a problem with arms: his reach is a sum total 1/2" shorter than the height of Klitschko, and Haye never figured out how to connect with any consistency. A clean shot landed in the sixth that led to bleeding beneath Klitschko's eye, but that was the extent of the damage he could do.
As rain poured through the Imtech's oculus into the chill of the arena, Klitschko, 35, established his jab in the early rounds. His footwork was close to impeccable, sliding away from Haye's right hands and cutting off the ring at will. After a few rounds of missing his power shots, Haye decided less to throw right hands, so much as charge like a bull toward Klitschko. For six rounds, Klitschko simply pushed down on the bull's head to cause him to collapse to the ground. The bull would then complain to the referee, who found Haye convincing enough in the seventh to deduct a point from Klitschko. At that point, it became clear that Haye was simply lunging in off balance and falling to the ground.
There were rounds a judge could have given to Haye, but the fighter never took any of them. After two and a half years of dithering to get in the ring with either Klitschko, Haye relinquished whatever chance he might have had to defeat the Ukrainian by never daring to take one. After the fight, Haye said of his effort, "It was a subpar performance. It was nowhere as good as I would have liked. He fought the perfect game plan against someone with my style."
Klitschko commented after the fight, "I was trying to celebrate my 50th knockout but it didn't work. But I am celebrating with my brother that we've collected all of the belts in the heavyweight division. However, it wasn't as spectacular as I was expecting."
Indeed, the fight had long been thought to be a battle of chins. Combined over their careers, Klitschko and Haye had been down 14 times (ten for the Ukrainian and four for the Brit) and knocked out in all four of their combined losses (prior to Saturday's fight). The last time either man had been knocked out, however, was in 2004. The only knockdown of this fight happened in the eleventh, and it was achieved not by either participant, but by referee Genaro Rodriguez, who ruled a push of Haye to the canvas as a knockdown in favor of Klitschko, perhaps as a hint to the Ukrainian to close the show so Rodriguez could get out of the rain.
Klitschko still is in need of a knockout performance against a worthy competitor, but the problem remains that such a competitor does not appear to exist. Haye trash-talked himself into fitting the mold of the worthy combative adversary, but he gave up that ghost at the opening bell.
While Klitschko has had highlight-reel knockouts (49 of them), he lacks one against a man considered to have been of Haye's caliber. Even so, the odds were 2-1 in Klitschko's favor. Klitschko is simply that difficult to beat. The victory against Haye was supposed to have been career-defining. There is an ominous chance that it will be.
Of the 1,087 heavyweights fighting today, Wladimir Klitschko has spent the past five years outranking them all. He no longer fights to be known as the best heavyweight of his era, but instead to be among the best heavyweights of all time. There is little doubt that Klitschko has cemented his place as the best heavyweight of recent memory. The question is, amid the sweep of rich heavyweight history, if Klitschko can find the performance that allows his legacy to leave a deep enough imprint on most fans who seem currently to suffer from short term memory loss for the heavyweight division.
Hopefully, the right combatant will emerge who will take the fight to Klitschko and draw the fight from him. It would be regrettable if all Klitschko's august power, agility, and ambition is never fully appreciated because a substantive rival never emerges to wed his ability to the legacy that ought to be awaiting it.