We have gone eight long, Eddie Chambers- and Hasim Rahman-filled years since the last meaningful heavyweight fight. That was 2003, when Lennox Lewis and Vitali Klitschko squared off in a rock-'em, sock-'em brawl in Los Angeles that abruptly ended when the ringside doctor declared the Ukrainian challenger couldn't continue because of a cut above his left eye so deep you could almost see bone.
Wladimir Klitschko was there that night, a 27-year-old former titleholder support his brother from his corner. Back then, the heavyweight division still had a few names. Then Lewis retired, Evander Holyfield aged and Mike Tyson became a punch line, leaving Wladimir and Vitali standing alone, two preeminent fighters in a division littered with nobodies.
Today, the division is still weak -- neither Klitschko brother has lost since 2004 -- but, finally, there is a heavyweight fight worth watching: On July 2, Wladimir will look to unify the alphabet titles against David Haye in Hamburg, Germany.
"I'm excited," Wladimir said in a telephone interview. "This is going to be a very big fight."
To prepare for the smaller, faster Haye, Klitschko has brought in several top fighters as sparring partners: Steve Cunningham, the IBF cruiserweight champion; Ola Afolabi, a former cruiserweight titleholder; and Michael Hunter, a decorated 22-year-old amateur champion. The fast hands of lighter fighters, Klitschko says, have prepared him for Haye's slick style.
Finding motivation to train hasn't been a problem. Haye has been lobbing verbal grenades at the Klitschkos for years, prompting Wladimir to go to the media and Internet outlets like YouTube to try to goad Haye into the ring. With the fight set, Haye has continued his attacks. Klitschko says he felt disrespected by Haye's refusal to shake his hand at press appearances and even be in the same room with him after the events. In addition, Haye's constant references to how he is going to behead Klitschko -- from T-shirts showing the decapitated heads of the two brothers to a Mike Tyson's Punch Out-like iPhone app the British fighter introduced where users can knock the head off an Eastern European fighter who looks conspicuously like Klitschko -- have not sat well.
"Whose parents would love to see their son's head cut off?" Klitschko said. "There are certain things that you can't do. There are certain lines that you cannot cross. All he does is bark when I'm not around. The dude is not really impressive to me when I see him in person. But he barks when he doesn't see me. He's very creative when he doesn't see me. He doesn't give me any respect whatsoever. He has had a little success and won a title. Now he's flying high. I'm going to put him back on his feet and on the ground. I'm not scaring or threatening him. It's reality."
The younger Klitschko's dislike for Haye has not affected his training. Klitschko, 35, says he and trainer Emmanuel Steward have a "perfect" game plan, with the goal of punishing the 30-year-old Haye for nine or 10 rounds before finishing him with a knockout.
"I do respect [Haye] as a boxer," Klitschko said. "He's talented and he can do certain things. But he's done. I'm glad such a bastard like David Haye exists. He definitely did something stupid with that T-shirt. He knows that it was stupid. He says now he has no regrets. He has regrets. He's not wearing it anymore."
And the game plan?
"He's going to eat my jab," Klitschko said. "Then I am going to put him down."
Last year, promoters Lou DiBella and Gary Shaw embarked on a scouting trip to Puerto Rico. They went to see Jose Pedraza, a flashy lightweight oozing with big-time talent. They were also tipped off to another prospect: welterweight Thomas Dulorme, who was blitzing his way through the competition at local shows.
"[Promoter] Javier Botillo told us, 'You have to see this kid, he's a f---ing animal,' " DiBella said. "He said he was the best fighter on the island. We saw him and said, 'This kid is ridiculous.' We snapped him up right away.'"
DiBella has moved Dulorme along quickly, giving him prominent placement on HBO cards headlined by Sergio Martinez and Victor Ortiz. Dulorme has responded. The 5-foot-10 welterweight dropped Guillermo Valdes in the second round in March and a month later knocked out Harrison Cuello so hard that he needed to be taken from the arena on a stretcher.
Last Friday, Dulorme (11-0) took his toughest fight to date, against former welterweight titleholder DeMarcus "Chop Chop" Corley, a gatekeeper of sorts who has been in the ring with Floyd Mayweather, Miguel Cotto and Zab Judah. Dulorme went 10 rounds for the first time in his career. He struggled to consistently throw his jab against the crafty Corley and at times displayed ragged defense. But Dulorme put the durable Corley down in the third round and won 99-90 on all three scorecards.
DiBella plans to bring Dulorme back quickly against another veteran -- "maybe not someone so long in the tooth," he said -- and believes that the Puerto Rican prospect will be ready to challenge for a title within a year.
"He's ferocious, has tremendous punching power and he can box," DiBella said. "He's one of the meanest guys I have ever seen in the ring."
"I am very disappointed in Cotto. He has no balls to face me."-- Lineal middleweight champion Sergio Martinez, to ESPN.com's Dan Rafael. Martinez had been chasing a lucrative showdown with Miguel Cotto, a junior middleweight titleholder. The fighters' relationship has been strained since Cotto refused to shake Martinez's hand at an event in Mexico earlier this year.
"The sad thing is @AmirKingKhan gotta pay for y'all Big mouth's. Sorry Amir thank ya fans 4 this one."-- Zab Judah, who will face Amir Khan in a junior welterweight unification fight on July 23.
Five upcoming under-the-radar fights that interest me.
Deontay Wilder vs. Damon Reed (Saturday): Wilder's raw -- OK, he's really raw -- but with the heavyweight division starving for an American contender, the 6-foot-7 bronze medalist from the 2008 Olympics might be its best shot. Reed, 39, is a former world title challenger who has been in with fringe contenders James Toney and Hasim Rahman. It's a (very) small step up for Wilder, who is being moved along incrementally by Golden Boy.
James Kirkland vs. TBA (June 24): No, Kirkland -- the heavily hyped prospect who was inexplicably drilled in the first round by Nobuhiro Ishida in April -- doesn't have an opponent yet, and odds are whoever it is won't be very good. But Kirkland, 27, is back training with Ann Wolf and at one time was thought to have the style and power to be a big star.
Cornelius Bundrage vs. Sechew Powell (June 25): This junior middleweight title fight is on the undercard of the HBO show headlined by Devon Alexander and Lucas Matthysse -- but won't be televised. Bundrage has done everything he can to avoid, you know, actually defending the title he took from Cory Spinks last August. Powell was a once-promising prospect with solid power. Whoever wins, it would be nice to see him defend the belt against one of the top titleholders (Cotto, Sergei Dzinziruk) in the 154-pound division.
Felix Sturm vs. Matthew Macklin (June 25): Sturm has had a stranglehold on the WBA version of the middleweight belt since 2006, a fact few are aware of because he rarely fights outside of Germany. He has a stiff test in Macklin, a heavy-handed Brit eager for this opportunity. Even better: Sturm-Macklin will be shown on Epix, creating some of the kind of American exposure that Sturm needs to make a fight with Martinez happen.
Tyson Fury vs. Dereck Chisora (July 23): Chisora (14-0) has been penciled into showdowns with Wladimir Klitschko twice, only to have Klitschko pull out with an injury. The 6-9 Fury (14-0) has great size but questionable skills. The winner of this fight could emerge as a reasonable candidate to face either Klitschko or Haye later this year.
10. Nice to see Martinez shun overtures from other promotional companies and re-sign with DiBella. Lou doesn't have the resources of the promotional giants (Top Rank, Golden Boy), but he has done a nice job developing Martinez, who was a complete unknown three years ago.
9. I don't know who has made worse business decisions: Timothy Bradley or Nonito Donaire.
8. If Austin Trout really did test positive for marijuana, as boxingscene.com reported this week, then he is an idiot. Did he not think it would show up in a urine test?
7. I absolutely, positively don't want to see Peter Manfredo-Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. Manfredo has done nothing to earn that kind of fight/payday. I would rather see DiBella face Bob Arum and Carl Moretti in a handicap ladder match.
6. Learn from your mistakes, Bob Arum: Make Yuri Gamboa-Mikey Garcia before one of them gets beat up.
5. I love Epix's commitment to showing European fights. American boxing may be down, but there are some quality shows in Europe. Keep it up, Mark Greenberg.
4. Brandon Rios is a young, exciting fighter. But his mocking of Freddie Roach's Parkinson's disease -- and subsequent weak apology -- hasn't been forgotten by anybody.
3. Manny Pacquiao went from being the most underexposed sports superstar to exposed everywhere. You can't avoid his AT&T commercials. Now, longtime boxing reporter Michael Marley reports that Pacquiao will meet with executives at Nike later this month.
2. On a non-boxing note: Congratulations to Sports Illustrated's Alex Wolff, who will receive the Basketball Hall of Fame's Curt Gowdy Media Award for outstanding journalism. No honoree is more worthy.
1. My only regret about going to Game 6 of the NBA Finals on Sunday was missing the Boxing Hall of Fame's induction ceremony in Canastota, N.Y. What a class: Mike Tyson, Julio Cesar Chavez, Kostya Tszyu. Those are some absolute giants in the sport.