Thursday April 15th, 2010

In many ways, Wladimir Klitschko's career mirrors that of other great heavyweight champions. At 6-foot-6, 244 pounds he possesses uncanny power (a 84.2 percent knockout percentage) and skill and for the last five years has dominated opponents like few other fighters of his era.

But in many other ways, Klitschko's career has come up short. His right hand is potent but he lacks the savagery of a Mike Tyson. He is intelligent and well spoken -- in four different languages -- but he lacks the charisma of a Muhammad Ali. He has overcome adversity (he got off the mat three times to defeat Samuel Peter in '05) but no one measures his courage next to an Evander Holyfield.

Is Klitschko the undisputed No. 1 heavyweight in the world? Yes. Is he one of the greatest heavyweights in history? That is far less certain.

Recently, it seems, Klitschko has become determined to alter that perception. After years of manhandling mediocre opponents, Klitschko, 34, has set his sights on the one opponent that matters: WBA titleholder David Haye.

The appeal of a fight with Haye is twofold. As the WBA champion , Haye holds the one piece of the heavyweight crown not owned by a member of the Klitschko family. And since Wladimir (the WBO and IBF champ) has no interest in fighting Vitali (the WBC champion), Haye stands as the only realistic chance of unification.

The other reason is more personal. Last June, Haye was slated to challenge Klitschko for his pieces of the title. In the weeks leading up to the fight, Haye went out of his way to insult Klitschko. He dragged the family name through the mud to the media and showed up at a pre-fight press conference wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with an image of him holding up the severed heads of both brothers.

"That shirt," said Klitschko's trainer, Emmanuel Steward, "really pissed him off."

Klitschko never unleashed his frustration, however, because a few weeks before the fight Haye pulled out. Officially, Haye cited a back injury but it was widely believed that the collapse of Setanta -- the UK cable distributor that was responsible for the bulk of Haye's payday against Klitschko -- was the overriding factor.

According to Steward, Klitschko was even more infuriated because he'd suffered a torn bicep in training and was willing to go ahead with the fight despite the injury. Indeed, even after Haye pulled out, Klitschko kept the date and picked up a knockout victory over former champion Ruslan Chagaev.

Now, with both fighters idle after defending their titles -- Klitschko with a knockout win over Eddie Chambers in March and Haye with a one-sided KO of John Ruiz in April -- Klitschko wants Haye in the ring. He says he has talked to Vitali, who has been eyeing Haye himself after Haye walked away from a nearly completed deal to fight him at the 11th hour last summer, and says that his brother understands that "it's my time now, it's my turn to get him in the ring." And the normally mild mannered Ukrainian is ratcheting up the rhetoric to get him.

"David Haye is a piece of garbage," Klitschko told SI.com. "He talks so much [expletive] and I'm just sick of it. What do I have to do to get him to fight me? Maybe I need to give him some confidence. Maybe, David, you're going to knock me out. Maybe I'll lose my balls on the way to the ring. Get your pants on and sign your contract. I'll make sure you will get paid very well."

Klitschko's decision to go public with his frustration -- including making a YouTube video calling Haye out (see below) -- doesn't surprise the people closest to him.

"It's been building a long time," said Steward. "[Haye] is the only fighter I know, that [Wladimir] ever got angry or upset with. He really feels Haye became famous by talking about fighting him and his brother, and then ran away. It really has bothered him and he can't contain himself anymore. None of this is organized. Believe me, he is really upset. You put him in against Haye and you will see more rage and aggressiveness than you ever saw."

Part of the reason Klitschko has gone on the offensive is because he is wary that Haye, a former cruiserweight champion, will look to the winner of this month's fight between Chris Arreola and Tomasz Adamek for a future opponent. And despite Haye's public comments that he was not interested in facing Bernard Hopkins, Klitschko believes that fight -- and other much easier fights -- are still on Haye's mind.

"He wants to fight Hopkins," said Klitschko. "What is that? Arreola? Adamek? I'm afraid he's going to get knocked out by one of those guys. Save your beautiful face from my hands, David. I'm really worried that he's going to get wasted in another fight. That's why I'm putting on so much pressure."

Locking up a fight with Haye, however, can't be made just by Haye accepting a deal. Klitschko is facing a mandatory challenge from IBF No. 1 contender Alexander Povetkin while Nikolai Valuev, whom Haye defeated last year to claim the WBA belt, can invoke a rematch clause in his contract. To that end, Klitschko's manager, Bernd Boente, along with advisor Shelly Finkel, are negotiating with Valuev's promoter, Sauerland Event, to try and strike a deal that would allow Haye to face Klitschko first. Should they reach an agreement, Klitschko would approach the IBF about putting off a fight with Povetkin (who is believed to not be interested facing Klitschko now) until after a Haye fight.

A potential problem could be Peter. His win over Nagy Aguilera last month moved him to No. 2 on the IBF rankings behind Povetkin. Should Povetkin relinquish his No. 1 contender status, Peter's promoter, Bob Arum, told SI.com that they would fight any attempt by Klitschko to defend his titles against Haye before facing Peter.

A rematch with Peter, however, is of little interest to Team Klitschko.

"Who cares about Peter?" asked Boente. "The guy retired in the corner against Vitali and lost to Wladimir. Our TV partner in Germany already told us that they are not interested in the fight, that Peter looked too bad in his last fight over here against Vitali."

Should the pieces fall into place, Klitschko says he is eyeing a September date. He says he is open to the idea of fighting in the U.S. but industry sources say a stadium in Germany is the most likely location. While he admits he felt disrespected by HBO when the network passed on his last fight against Chambers, he hopes either HBO or Showtime will put up the money for a fight against Haye.

"This fight needs to be on television in the U.S.," said Klitschko. "This is my signature fight. I will show people that no matter who stands in front of me, I will totally break their strategy, break their spirit, and then break them with my left hand or right hand."

SHORT JABS

WBC welterweight champion Andre Berto, who tore the bicep muscle in his left arm during his win over Carlos Quintana last week, will be sidelined for 6 to 8 weeks. Berto's promoter, Lou DiBella, says that he would like to get Berto back in the ring in the fall, possibly in a rematch against Luis Collazo or in a unification fight with IBF titleholder Jan Zavek ... Top Rank's Arum told SI.com he had "no interest" in matching Berto with Manny Pacquiao. "Berto does nothing for me on a pay-per-view," said Arum ... Industry sources say the recently postponed junior welterweight unification fight between Marcos Maidana and Timothy Bradley will be rescheduled for July 17. Maidana was forced to pull out of the fight, which was originally scheduled for June 19, after suffering a back injury during training camp.

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