Photos by Sumio Yamada
WLADIMIR KLITSCHKO vs RUSLAN CHAGAEV
Instead of meeting David Haye on Saturday, Wladimir Klitschko finds himself in the ring with Ruslan Chagaev, which means that he is likely to be involved in a drawn-out, technical boxing match instead of the much more explosive type of fight that had been eagerly anticipated had he been facing the exciting British puncher.
Hayes pullout two weeks before the contest was a huge disappointment to fans worldwide but especially in the U.K., and HBO decided not to televise the replacement bout. However, ESPN has picked up the U.S. rights to the fight, which will be shown live on the networks Classic channel.
Klitschko-Chagaev is not the sort of fight that sets pulses racing but it is nonetheless an interesting and important meeting of heavyweight champions and I am looking forward to seeing it.
Although Chagaev comes in as a substitute he had already been in training to meet Nikolai Valuev in their aborted title bout in Helsinki, so he has had a full training camp.
Also, Chagaev had been in training to meet a fighter much taller than himself, whereas Klitschko, having prepared to face a fast, athletic, tallish and aggressive heavyweight must now make the mental and technical adjustment for a contest against a shorter, more methodical fighter who boxes in the southpaw posture.
Klitschko has such vast experience, however, that I do not think the late change in opponent will make a major difference. After all, he boxed against southpaws for years on the international amateur circuit and two of his last three bouts were against left-handers, Sultan Ibragimov and Tony Thompson.
Chagaev, 30, comes into the bout under a bit of a cloud because he failed to meet Finnish medical requirements for the Valuev bout. It is well known that Chagaev suffered from hepatitis B in the past, but his promoter, Universum, issued a statement this week saying that the boxer has never been sick due to hepatitis B and is "a healthy carrier of hepatitis antigen" whom international medical experts regard as noninfectious.
However, Chagaev has had to withdraw from big fights due to illness (virus infection) and injury (ruptured Achilles tendon) in the last couple of years, and I think it is reasonable to say that there is at least a vague perception that he might not be the fighter he once was.
The German-based Uzbek has boxed only twice in the past two years. He wasnt particularly impressive when outpointing Matt Skelton in January 2008, and I thought he looked highly beatable when he won a technical decision victory over the muscled but unremarkable Carl Davis Drummond last February.
At his best, Chagaev is a sturdy, intelligent boxer-puncher with a solid chin. He boxed a superb tactical bout when outpointing Valuev in April 2007. Since then there have been the health issues and I am wondering if maybe he peaked as a fighter in his upset victory over Valuev.
Meanwhile, Klitschko has been winning steadily and at 33 might be at his peak, or close to it.
I suppose there will always be a suspicion that Klitschko can be made to fold under pressure, but his trainer, Emanuel Steward, feels that the big Ukrainian has matured so much as a fighter that such doubts are no longer valid.
Klitschko is undefeated in the last five years, and the disaster against Corrie Sanders and the strange collapse against Lamon Brewster now seem a long time ago. Klitschko showed determination under duress when surviving three knockdowns to outpoint Sam Peter and lately he has been winning almost every round of every contest while stopping six of his last seven opponents.
It is no surprise that the oddsmakers have made Klitschko a massive favourite, and I have to agree. Klitschko has the huge advantages in height, weight and reach, and he has been dominant in his recent displays, while Chagaev has given a couple of laboured performances.
Strategically, it is difficult to see how Chagaev can win. He was able to move around Valuev, hit him and duck out of danger, but he was meeting a much slower man. Klitschko is a faster fighter than Valuev, in his movements and in the rapidity of his punching. It will not be easy for Chagaev to move in and out in a hit-and-dont get-hit type of fight. He will have to contend with Klitschkos left jab and sharp, straight right hands, plus the occasional quick left hook. It is easy to picture Chagaev getting picked off on the outside and caught by counters when he tries to attack.
Chagaev hits hard enough with the left hand to hurt Klitschko, but every time he tries to step in with a heavy blow he will run the risk of getting drilled by Klitschkos right.
There is always the possibility that this bout will turn into a dull 12-rounder in the manner of Klitschkos win over another southpaw, Sultan Ibragimov. I think, though, that Chagaev, unlike Ibragimov, will eventually take chances to try to win, and this, I think, will lead to him getting caught and hurt.
I cannot dismiss from my mind the image of Chagaev getting hit all too easily by Drummond. If he is as easy to hit on Saturday, he is in for a very rough night indeed.
Chagaev will, I believe, be sharper for this fight and much more motivated than he was for the so-called warm-up bout against Drummond, but I see Klitschko as the superior boxer and more damaging hitter as well as being much the bigger man.
Anything can happen in a clash of top-level heavyweights, and there is always a chance that Chagaev could land a stunning blow that Klitschko simply doesnt see coming. What I am expecting to see, though, is Klitschko slowly but surely breaking his man down with the jab and accurate right hands. Chagaev will most likely make some runs at Klitschko to try to hurt him with the left hand, but I think it is in these moments that the smaller man will find himself getting hit by the hardest shots he has ever had to take in professional career, because Dr. Steelhammer will be waiting to time him for the right hand.
I am expecting a long, quite absorbing fight with moments of excitement before Klitschkos greater firepower settles matters decisively. Chagaev will put up a game, worthy fight but I see Klitschko stopping him late in the proceedings perhaps in the 10th or 11th round.