Boxing
Headline: Garden party inspires little more than apathy
Lyle Fitzsimmons

By Lyle Fitzsimmons
Boxing Contributing Editor

Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - What if they threw a heavyweight unification party...and nobody cared?

Based solely on buzz -- or a conspicuous lack thereof -- it's a valid question on the eve of the Wladimir Klitschko-Sultan Ibragimov summit at Madison Square Garden, where the winner will seize the IBF, WBO and IBO title belts and a slightly loftier perch from which to call himself the division?s best.

In spite of the bout's practical significance - it's the seventh "unification" in modern heavyweight history and first in nearly nine years -- the mere fact that it'll be shown on premium cable and not pay-per-view is a distinct indication of second-tier status in the stateside sports world's collective consciousness.

And truth told, when Saturday night rolls around and HBO begins its "World Championship Boxing" broadcast, just as many U.S.-based fight fans are likely to tune in for a free look at a week-old, non-title bout at 166 pounds as for the first tangible step in the rejoining of the heavyweight division.

The actual crowd at the Garden's melting pot is a little harder to figure, factoring in the wildcard ethnic draws of Klitschko -- a Kazakhstan-born Ukrainian who's performed largely in Germany -- and Ibragimov, a Russian native who?s nonetheless fought more times in Florida (9) than his homeland (5).

Sultan Ibragimov
Sultan Ibragimov is a shorter, puffier and generally less menacing foe than Klitschko.
A mid-week search on the Garden's official Web site (thegarden.com) yielded plenty of admission options, with adjoining blocks of two and four seats available in choice locations throughout four of the venue?s six price tiers -- which cover $600, $300, $200 and $150 per ticket.

As of noon Wednesday, only the high and low price brackets -- $1,000 and $100 -- were sold out.

Of course, a logical diagnosis for lack of domestic frenzy is the dubious attraction of two Eastern Europeans -- one largely unknown, despite an Olympic pedigree and an unbeaten pro record -- competing for the sport's most coveted prize before a historically provincial audience.

Add to it the dubious nature of the matchup, which pits the mammoth Klitschko -- in his 13th career championship fight and a winner of four straight in seven rounds or less -- against Ibragimov, a shorter, puffier and generally less menacing foe who went the distance with 44-year-old relic Evander Holyfield in his initial title defense last October in Moscow.

It reads like a recipe for viewer apathy.

But not surprisingly, Klitschko trainer Emanuel Steward advises otherwise.

"I understand what (people) are saying, (but) looking at him closely, I think he will be the best fighter Wladimir (has) fought in his pro career," Steward said, in a recent media conference call.

"He is not a big guy, but he knows how to win big fights over big guys, (he) has hand speed, he explodes and moves away quickly (and) he makes most big guys' size a handicap. I told Wlad, 'this will be the best you have fought.' We are not taking him lightly."

Any perceived stumble would be devastating for the 6-foot-6 Klitschko -- a heavy favorite to end the fight inside 10 rounds -- who's rebounded from three KO losses to claim the "heavyweight destroyer" tag Jim Lampley hung on older brother Vitali during his recent title reign.

And to maintain such breathless praise...the bar is set higher than just winning.

Though a lopsided scorecard verdict or late wear-down stoppage would yield the same three belts, in reality nothing short of a violent first-half blowout keeps Klitschko on target for the undisputed public acclaim most recently earned by Lennox Lewis in the late 1990s.

A subsequent IBF mandatory against another Russian -- unbeaten prospect Alexander Povetkin -- would carry the same sort of "look good" prerequisite for Klitschko later this year, before he'd be able to convincingly secure his legacy in 2009 by winning either a center-stage rematch with slugger Sam Peter or a "towering inferno" showdown with resurgent 7-foot novelty Nikolai Valuev.

"I agree that (Klitschko) would transcend boxing," said Steward, who also worked with Lewis during his later heavyweight years. "It does frustrate me.

"I consider Wladimir one of the best heavyweights in history, (how he) moves on his feet and (has) accurate punching. Lennox didn't have a marquee (opponent). There are no 'names' out there, so he has to try to be the unified champion."

FitzHitz says: Klitschko in 6.

Speaking of the weekend's premier cable replay...I'm really dying to be outraged.

But it's just not happening.

Though I scored last Saturday's Pavlik-Taylor rematch solidly in favor of Jermain -- either 8-4 or 7-5 in rounds, depending on how attached I was feeling to my pre-fight prediction -- I can't seem to find the vehemence needed for a good, solid filibuster against shoddy ringside scoring.

Oh, make no mistake -- and punch-counting totals notwithstanding -- I still say Taylor won the fight.

I had him up, 5-2, through the initial seven rounds and thought he did at least enough down the stretch to warrant a nod in two more, if not three, of the final five.

In fact, as the official tallies of 117-111, 116-112 and 115-113 were read by the perpetually smarmy Michael Buffer, my press credential form for the must- see "three-match" was all but signed, sealed and delivered to the rejoicing Arum and DiBella promotional conglomerates.

Instead, it was Ocala boxing guru Nick Fortuna -- who'd picked Pavlik -- doing the celebrating.

Still, undeterred by the injustice, I dutifully began planning this week's manifesto -- in which I would take perpetrators Dave Moretti, Glenn Trowbridge and Patricia Morse Jarman to task for their roles in costing Taylor his place ahead of Pavlik on pound-for-pound lists, and encourage them to see the error of their ways on the Saturday night rebroadcast.

But the more I reflected on things, the less necessary it all seemed.

Though boos were clearly evident from the exiting post-fight crowd at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, the generally moderate level of dissatisfaction from fans and media members afterward seemed to indicate that Taylor, although wronged, hadn't been outright abused to the extent I'd originally believed.

Tim Smith of the New York Daily News agreed with my 116-112 tally for the Arkansas native, but the ledger was suitably leveled by ESPN's Dan Rafael at 114-114 and the 115-113 vote for Pavlik from Greg Beacham of the Associated Press.

(Amazingly, those views even legitimized the contrarian stance of Mr. Fortuna -- helping him improve to 1-for-2008 after a woeful Kessler-Mosley-Hatton parlay in the final months of 2007.)

And though Taylor, too, believed he'd done enough to warrant a decision, even he conceded the margin was narrow enough to inspire doubt, saying "I thought (Pavlik) was doing a pretty good job. I knew it was a close fight, but I guess he won the last couple of rounds.

"He's a strong fighter, and I give him a lot of credit."

Much as it saddens me...it's all hardly the stuff of civil unrest.

In the coming week's other major title fight, Australian veteran Anthony Mundine makes a third defense of his second WBA super middleweight reign on Wednesday, when he faces countryman and No. 15 contender Nader Hamdan at the Entertainment Centre in Sydney.

Mundine, 32, has 23 knockouts in 30 career victories -- including a ninth- round stoppage of Sam Soliman for the vacant 168-pound belt in Sydney last March.

He went on to defend in June and December, defeating Pablo Daniel Zamora Nievas by unanimous decision and Jose Alberto Clavero by fourth-round KO, respectively.

The Sydney resident held the WBA title for eight months in 2003-04 before falling to Manny Siaca. He then failed to regain the championship in a first return try, dropping a unanimous nod to Mikkel Kessler in June 2005.

Kessler was subsequently elevated to "super" champion status with an October 2006 defeat of WBC belt-holder Markus Beyer, leaving the vacancy Mundine filled with his KO of Soliman five months later.

The WBA now lists Joe Calzaghe as its "unified" or "undisputed" champion by virtue of his win over Kessler last November, and recognizes Mundine as its world champion.

Hamdan, 34, is 40-5 with 18 KOs in a largely regional 11-year pro career, having ventured out of Australia just six times.

He's never fought for a major world championship, but has held a slew of intermediate trinkets including the Australian, IBF Pan-Pacific and OPBF light middleweight titles, the New South Wales middleweight title, and the IBF Pan- Pacific, OPBF and IBO Asia-Pacific super middleweight titles.

In his last bout, on Aug. 18 in Berlin, he dropped a unanimous eight-round decision to Mads Larsen.

Lyle Fitzsimmons is a member of the Boxing Writers Association of America. He is a periodic contributor to the Dave Smith Show on Sporting News Radio (radio.sportingnews.com), provides 'In The Ring' boxing commentary for Speeding Bullet Network (speedingbulletnetwork.com) and is available for freelance print, radio or TV assignments at fitzbitz@msn.com.

Jabs, hooks or knockouts, Lyle Fitzsimmons can be reached at fitzbitz@msn.com.

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