Bryan Armen Graham
Sunday June 21st, 2009

For the first time in nearly five years, a legitimate heavyweight champion roosts atop the boxing food chain.

With Saturday's overwhelming ninth-round TKO of Ruslan Chagaev at Veltins-Arena in Gelsenkirchen, Wladimir Klitschko added The Ring magazine title to his IBF and WBO belts -- bringing further clarity to the long-muddied championship picture in the sport's flagship division.

Before a sellout crowd of 61,000 fans -- the largest-ever indoor attendance for a fight in Europe -- the bigger and longer Klitschko pressed his physical advantages from the opening bell and stymied Chagaev with a frustrating diet of left jabs and straight rights.

Klitschko (53-3, 47 KOs) sent Chagaev to the canvas for the first time in his career with a flash right midway through the second round and opened a cut above his opponent's left eye in the eighth. Referee Eddie Cotton put a stop to the proceedings before the 10th, handing Chagaev (25-1-1, 17 KOs) his first defeat as a professional.

It was a masterclass performance -- had Klitschko ahead 90-80 at the time of the stoppage -- with the 6-foot-7, 245-pound Ukranian using his 81-inch jab to measure and score with clinical efficiency. Klitschko grew more emboldened as the fight wore on, driving his opponent back onto the ropes with a series more ambitious combinations, eager to punctuate the effort with a knockout.

Chagaev, a former two-time world amateur champion from Uzbekistan known as "White Tyson," bore only a resemblance to the post-millennial Iron Mike with his one-dimensional approach and inability to adjust to his opponent's fight plan. Unable to parry and roughhouse his way inside Klitschko's range to inflict damage, Chagaev seemed content to absorb hundreds of straight punches -- including dozens of clean shots -- before Cotton's intervention.

Sure, the 33-year-old Klitschko, who hasn't lost a fight in five years, already owned a healthy chunk of the fractured heavyweight championship. But not since the 2005 retirement of Vitali Klitschko has The Ring magazine recognized a heavyweight champion.

The Ring title means nothing and it means everything. Seven years ago, the magazine began the practice of earmarking a singular champion in each weight class -- a response to the multitude of alphabet sanctioning bodies, whose often-undeserving titlists compromise the sport's integrity. Each month, The Ring recognizes a champion for each division along with the top 10 contenders. A vacant championship can only be filled when the No. 1 contender fights the No. 2 or, in some cases (like Saturday), the No. 3. There's only three ways a Ring champion can lose his title: when he retires, moves to another division or loses in a championship bout.

With Saturday's triumph, Klitschko has earned -- on merit -- a validation his alphabet titles could never provide.

One of boxing's great allures is the sport's long heritage of champions, a lineage that connects the great modern-day kings like Lewis, Tyson and Holmes to the bare-knucklers of the 19th century. Only three times in the Marquess of Queensbury era has this pedigree been interrupted: When Gene Tunney retired in 1928, when Rocky Marciano retired in 1956 and when Lewis retired in 2003.

In each case, the heavyweight division went through a necessary transitory period when it lacked a definitive champion.

When Tunney vacated the title, it took nearly two years before the next recognized champion emerged from heirs apparent Johnny Risko, Max Schmeling, Jack Sharkey and Young Stribling -- when Schmeling defeated Sharkey at Yankee Stadium and became the first boxer in history to win the heavyweight championship on a foul.

When Marciano retired unbeaten, a half-dozen different fighters took part in an elimination tournament to determine his successor, with 21-year-old Floyd Patterson ultimately stopping Archie Moore to become the youngest heavyweight kingpin until Tyson.

Lewis vacated the title upon his retirement in 2004. It's been five agonizing years since we've seen a definitive heavyweight champion -- with Chris Byrd, Corrie Sanders, John Ruiz, Lamon Brewster, Hasim Rahman, Nikolay Valuev, Sergei Liakhovick, Oleg Maskaev, Shannon Briggs, Sultan Ibragimov, Samuel Peter and Chagaev among those fistic luminaries to claim a piece of his dissolved championship during that span.

Indeed, it's been a sordid, ugly half-decade that's seen the beleaguered division sink to its nadir in prestige.

But Klitschko's emphatic victory Saturday ensures matters will get better before they get any worse.

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