Tuesday March 24th, 2009

If nothing else, you have to give Wladimir and Vitali Klitschko credit for trying.

They fight any and all challengers, and they emerge victorious virtually every time.

They have staggering knockout ratios and rarely need the judges to decide the outcome of their fights. They eschew pay-per-view dollars for the international exposure that comes with fighting on HBO, Showtime and, as was the case last Saturday, ESPN. And they do it all at heavyweight, a division in which the talent level has sunk to new lows and is often ridiculed for housing fighters who began their careers at one size and ate their way to another, such as James Toney.

A glimpse at the various sanctioning bodies' ratings justifies the mockery. Juan Carlos Gomez, a longtime cruiserweight-turned-heavyweight who was annihilated by Vitali Klitschko last weekend, was the WBC's No. 1 contender. Following Gomez, the WBC has Alexander Dimitrenko (3), Ray Austin (6) and Odlanier Solis (9) in its top 10.

In the IBF, Alexander Povetkin, who has all of 16 wins on his resume, sits atop the heavyweight ratings. He's followed on that undistinguished list by Eddie Chambers (3), Toney (6) and Kali Meehan (9).

Not exactly Ali, Foreman and Frazier, are they?

Unfortunately, the stench of the division has attached itself to the Klitschkos. And that doesn't sit well with either of them. "We just want to fight," said Vitali. "We want to make the fights that boxing fans want to see. What else can we do?"

There is one thing, but it's not the answer they're looking for: they can give up their belts.

Heavyweight is the only division in boxing in which the alphabet titles carry any relevance, and both Wladimir (who owns the IBF and WBO belts) and Vitali (the WBC titleholder) spoke extensively about bringing all the heavyweight titles home to the Klitschko family.

But can you name the title Manny Pacquiao won when he defeated Oscar De La Hoya last year? No? That's because none was at stake. And what about Pacquiao's May 2 junior welterweight showdown with Ricky Hatton? If you knew it was for the IBO title, you have earned your reporter's merit badge.

The heavyweights love their belts. WBA champion Nicolay Valuev probably sleeps with his title, and will continue to as long as he keeps pushing for a rematch with Evander Holyfield. And while the Klitschkos are no different, the titles may be their biggest obstacle to overcome. With the belts come mandatory defenses against opponents of the sanctioning bodies' choosing -- opponents of, typically, inferior skill (case in point: Gomez) who make for utterly unappealing matchups to even the most ardent boxing supporter. As non-titleholders, the Klitschkos would be free to make any fight they want while not losing any of their appeal to the American networks.

"[No titles] wouldn't have much impact on us," said HBO Vice President Kerry Davis. "They are still recognized as the best heavyweights in the world. A title doesn't change that."

Said Showtime Senior VP and General Manager of Sports and Event Programming Ken Hershman, "We schedule our fights based on best matchups. We want exciting, compelling fights. The belts are not a factor."

Being able to handpick an opponent is especially important for Vitali. At 37, he doesn't have too many more fights left in him. "I have no desire to break the record as the oldest heavyweight champion," he said. More importantly, the WBC is attempting to force Vitali to make a second mandatory defense against former titlist Oleg Maskaev.

Vitali says he has no interest in that fight, and he plans to make his case in front of the Court of Arbitration for Sport in the hopes of overturning the WBC's ruling.

"Who wants to see that fight?" asked Klitschko. "Nobody in Europe or the U.S. wants to see it. The TV networks don't want it. It's not a fight any boxing fan wants to see."

The fight Vitali really wants is with up-and-coming Chris Arreola of the U.S. "Let's do that fight in L.A.," said Klitschko. "Arreola is a big heavyweight with a good fan base. A lot of people would be interested in that fight."

As a multiple titleholder, Wladimir is subject to the whim of two sanctioning bodies, which have forced fights with Tony Thompson, Austin and (eventually) Povetkin. While Valuev remains Wladimir's top target, the champ's 2009 slate will most likely feature ex-cruiserweight David Haye and Povetkin.

"It's a little frustrating," said Wladimir. "I'm in the prime of my career. I want to stay busy. Fans want to see the best fights. I wish they could."

Ditching the belts won't solve the problems in the division, but it would be a step in the right direction. It would be a bold and difficult decision to make, but for too long, fighters have been at the beck and call of sanctioning bodies just for the right to wear a strap around their waste -- a strap that just doesn't matter much anymore.

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