Friday December 12th, 2008

In the five years I have known Wladimir Klitschko, I have never seen him angry. I have seen him happy, I've seen him sport and ear-to-ear grin after an emphatic knockout, smile slyly while in the company of beautiful women at Hugo Boss parties, and leap up and down ecstatically after his brother, Vitali, won the WBC heavyweight title in October with a ninth-round TKO of Samuel Peter.

But never have I seen him angry. And this is a problem for me. Why? Because as long as he sits back and lets his brother run amok in the division that is rightfully his, and as long as he is ambivalent about WBA champion Nicolay Valuev ducking him like a co-worker the day after having a few too many drinks at the Christmas party, he will never get the respect he craves.

No one really knows just how good Wladimir Klitschko is. We probably never will. Klitschko has been victimized by a lackluster crop of heavyweights, a tomato can-filled group that wouldn't be allowed to fight on television in the '70s and '80s, much less compete for a world title. Calvin Brock, Ray Austin, Sultan Ibragimov: I'm talking to you.

Klitschko's upcoming opponent is a perfect example of how far the division has fallen. After IBF No. 1 contender Alexander Povetkin pulled out of the Dec. 13 fight with Klitschko, the reigning IBF and IBO champion who did not want to give up the date, scoured the globe for an opponent.

Who did he find? Hasim Rahman.

Yes, Rahman. The same Rahman who couldn't continue against James Toney last July after Toney opened a barely noticeable cut above his eye with an accidental head butt (the fight was ruled a no-contest). The same Rahman who has been knocked out twice by Oleg Maskaev -- once out of the ring when a Maskaev right hand sent Rahman through the ropes and onto the HBO announcers table. The same Rahman who has rehabilitated his career with unimpressive wins over Dicky Ryan, Cerrone Fox and Zuri Lawrence. Who, you ask? You're not the only one.

Klitschko's camp will tell you that they chose Rahman, who Klitschko (51-3) will face in Mannheim, Germany, on Saturday (HBO, 4:45 p.m. ET) because, despite his catatonic performances recently, Rahman still has name value. They will tell you that ticket sales stayed strong after Rahman (45-6-2) was named as the opponent, and they were able to keep both American and international TV audiences interested in the fight.

They will tell you whatever you want to hear.

But none of it matters.

This fight will end with Klitschko winning by KO, definitely within eight rounds and probably within four. This isn't one of those bet-on-De-La-Hoya-even-though-Pacquiao-scares-the-crap-out-of-me predictions. This is a mortal lock. Rahman is a joke. He showed up at the pre-fight press conference on Monday looking like he would rather be anywhere but there. Klitschko's trainer, Emmanuel Steward, noted that his prized pupil needed to watch out for Rahman's one-punch power. What one-punch power? You mean the right hand that dropped Lennox Lewis in 2001? He's been milking those 15-minutes for seven years. We haven't seen it since.

This isn't easy for me. I'm a Klitschko fan. Unlike many informed observers, I think Klitschko could have held his own in the '90s, when fighters like Lewis and Evander Holyfield reigned supreme. But Klitschko won't engage out of the ring like he does in it. He says he's happy for his brother's success and wouldn't be disappointed if Vitali got the final title shot. What he should be saying is that his brother's time was five years ago; his is now. He calls Valuev's upcoming fight with the 46-year-old Holyfield "ridiculous" and "horrible," but stops short of disparaging Valuev. What he should be doing is calling out Valuev, Don King and everyone associated with them.

This is how it's done in boxing. Promoters respond to pressure. Networks, too. Do you think if Klitschko truly went on the offensive against Valuev that HBO wouldn't also start pushing for this fight to happen? Maybe Klitschko can get under Valuev's skin as well. David Haye did it with him. For the last year Haye has been filling reporter's notebooks with outrageous quotes about the Klitschkos. When Wladimir was in London promoting a charity event earlier this year, Haye tracked him down and cursed him out in a stairwell. Now Haye, who has fought exactly one time as a heavyweight, is in line for a title shot next year.

Maybe it's not in Klitschko's makeup to verbally spar with other fighters. But it should be. And for the sake of his legacy, it has to be.

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