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It's not ideal, but Chagaev-Klitschko could be intriguing

What a muddled mess the heavyweight division has become. Four recognized titles. Five, if you count Ring Magazine. Champions. Champions in Recess. Champions Emeritus. Sanctioning bodies manipulating their rankings (have you seen WBA No. 1 contender John Ruiz recently?) just to squeeze out a few extra dollars. And the only cost is the integrity of the sport.

Promoters battling other promoters. Managers battling networks. It is getting to the point where fans need a scorecard just to keep up with the wars that are being waged outside the ring. The latest example of heavyweight nonsense involves Wladimir Klitschko, the undisputed heavyweight king who was scheduled to defend his IBF and WBO titles against David Haye on June 20. However, a back injury forced Haye out of the fight two weeks ago and, last weekend, Team Klitschko announced that undefeated Russian, Ruslan Chagaev, was selected to replace him.

And that's where the fun begins.

I'll be covering more of this in a future issue of Sports Illustrated, but here are three things to know about the Klitschko-Chagaev fight.

Haye is overrated. Period. He's a 6-foot-3, 215-pound bloated cruiserweight with a glass jaw who scored a multi-million dollar payday because he is a superb self-promoter.

Think about it: Haye has four wins against heavyweights (his most notable being a fifth-round KO of the immortal Monte Barrett), and all of a sudden he has a fight against the No. 1 heavyweight in the world? Please. Klitschko would have demolished him in less than six rounds. Carl Thompson did it in five. The fact that Haye's personality appealed to the American and European television networks is irrelevant. He's an average fighter who manipulated his way to a payday.

Chagaev is legit. In 2007, he won the WBA title when he halted Nikolai Valuev's embarrassing march to Rocky Marciano's unblemished 49-0 record with a resounding decision victory. Unfortunately for Chagaev, a string of injuries forced him to give up that belt and assume the more ambiguous title of WBA "Champion in Recess." He's a technically sound fighter who brings some credibility to the table. He also could potentially bring two belts. Ring Magazine has already decided that Chagaev and Klitschko will vie for its vacant title, and the WBA will announce this week whether its title will be at stake. Chagaev was supposed to clear up the debate over the WBA title against Valuev, who won the title after Chagaev's injury, but the fight was canceled the day before the fight.

Allow me to clarify. Chagaev has Hepatitis B. Or, more specifically, the antigens present in Hepatitis B. It's why the Finnish Boxing Federation pulled the plug on the Valuev fight at the last minute. Now, Klitschko doesn't seem worried about the possibility of infection. His manager, Bernd Boente, said on Tuesday that they were not at all concerned and that the chances of him being infected by the miniscule quantity of antigens are "about the same as the sky falling down on his head." Boente is even planning to have a specialist at a press conference announcing the fight Monday.

But Boente and the German doctors seem to be the only ones unconcerned with Chagaev's condition. The simple fact is that there are very few places in the world that Chagaev could get licensed to fight. Not in Finland. Not in Great Britain. And certainly not in the United States, whose boxing commissions are as cautious with Hepatitis as they are with HIV.

"Absolutely not," said Dr. Osric King, chief medical officer for the New York State Athletic Commission, when asked about licensing Chagaev. "It's too much risk. Not just for the other fighter. But this is a blood-born illness. You have to be concerned with the audience. It creates a risk for them, too. It's not something we would allow."

Added Keith Kizer, executive director of the Nevada Athletic Commission: "If he's not negative, he can't fight. Hepatitis is serious. If you test positive, sorry, you are out of luck here."

Based on my reporting, I think Klitschko is taking a significant and unnecessary risk. But if he is going to take it then ...

It's interesting that we are discussing this because HBO has been "The Klitschko Network" when it comes to boxing, having televised 16 of his fights. I understand the network's reasons for passing. It had its heart set on Haye. It liked his charisma and thought he could be marketed to the American public.

HBO doesn't feel that way about Chagaev. Not with less than two weeks to promote him. They don't think Joe The Plumber and his buddies are going to tune in on a Saturday afternoon to watch Klitschko fight a Russian no one has ever heard of. Not under optimal circumstances and certainly not with the looming possibility of Tiger Woods making one of his electrifying pushes at the U.S. Open on Saturday, right around the time the opening bell sounds.

Money is also a factor. HBO has allocated millions for their fall boxing lineup. It's looking into putting on shows featuring Paul Williams, Miguel Cotto and Andre Berto. The network is keeping dates open for Glen Johnson-Chad Dawson and Cris Arreola-Vitali Klitschko. And it's also holding out hope that Haye-Wladimir Klitschko can be revived later this year. Like the rest of the country, HBO has been hit by the recession so the cash that might have been there in years past just isn't in its coffers today.

But I think HBO is making a mistake. If the WBA -- which makes more questionable decisions than Lindsay Lohan -- decides to sanction this fight and with Ring Magazine already on board, it becomes a compelling contest. If Klitschko wins, he and Vitali will control every piece of the heavyweight crown, an impressive accomplishment even in this diluted era.

Besides, there are no guarantees that Haye will get another shot. After fighting Chagaev, Klitschko is contractually obligated to fight a mandatory challenger for one of his titles, probably IBF No. 1 contender Alexander Povetkin. Klitschko is eager to stay busy, but three fights in the last six months of the year are likely too many. Any money HBO is saving for a Haye fight should go towards this Chagaev bout.

Not for nothing, but the European fans don't seem to be bothered by Chagaev. According to Boente, of the roughly 60,000 tickets that were sold for the fight, only eight were returned after Chagaev was announced as a replacement. Not 800. Not 80. Eight.

I think American boxing fans feel the same. Does Haye's mouth, and the likelihood that Klitschko would dramatically and emphatically shut it, have the possibility of exciting the average fan more than Chagaev's technical skills? Absolutely. But by promoting the fight as a battle of champions and emphasizing what is at stake, HBO would still have drawn a healthy audience. Or at least as many as they did when Klitschko demolished Tony Thompson in two rounds using just his left hand last July.

Fortunately, it's looking like ESPN will be picking up the fight and broadcasting it -- either on the flagship network or ESPN Classic. The Klitschkos are all about exposure and they have no desire to make a quick buck by putting the fight on an obscure Pay-Per-View. But it's unfortunate that HBO, which does a terrific job with its broadcasts, won't be a part of it.

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