Not that anyone in America noticed, but on Saturday night in Germany Wladimir Klitschko made his eighth successful defense of his IBF heavyweight world title. In the last seconds of their 12 round contest, Klitschko scored a knockout victory over top rated challenger Eddie Chambers. As usual, Klitschko took virtually every round. He has won his last 12 fights and has not been defeated since 2004. Over the last three years, he and his older brother, Vitali (WBC heavyweight champion) have thoroughly dominated the super-size division. And yet, they can barely get on television in the US.
The knock against these pulverizing boxer/punchers is that they don't take enough chances, don't go for the knockout. Ironically enough, Vitali has the highest knockout percentage in history amongst heavyweight champs, with 37 KOs out of 39 victories. He has two losses. Wladimir is not too far behind, with 48 KO out of 54 victories and 3 losses. George Foreman once confided to me that Wladimir was the hardest puncher that he has seen in 30 years. But it is true: they both commit the cardinal sin of working to set their opponents up. They both joust with their jabs and then, when there is an opening, they pull the lanyard on their explosive rights. To be sure, they don't fight with the reckless abandon of a Frazier, Foreman, or Tyson. But they certainly get the job done! Why do Americans seem to hold the science against these premier sweet scientists? Why the lack of interest in these heavyweights who seem to be a class above everyone in their weight class?
These two, NBA-sized ethnic Ukrainians, are a remarkably compelling story. Their father was an air force colonel in the Soviet military. They grew up on far-flung military bases and were absorbed into the Soviet athletic system. Wladimir won the gold medal in the super heavyweight division the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. The brainy brothers hit their books as hard as their heavy bags, earning doctorates in exercise science from the University of Kiev. Both speak four languages. Indeed, I have been with them at press conferences when they were bombarded with questions in Russian, German, and Ukrainian and cheerfully translated the queries into English for the rest of the press.
In addition to their accomplishments, they are wise and compassionate individuals. While most celebrity athletes are so narcissistic that they can barely spark a care about anything beyond their next contract, these men have pitched in to help people everywhere. Politically hyperactive, both were at the center of the Orange Revolution in Ukraine. Vitali holds a seat in the Kiev City Parliament and will soon run for mayor. They serve together as ambassadors for UNESCO and umpteen other charitable organizations. But who cares?
Europeans -- that's who. The Klitschkos, who enjoy Jordan-like fame in much of northern Europe, fill stadiums and arenas every time they fight in Germany. In the US, however, the fact that they crush all of their opponents and every boxing stereotype just elicits a yawn. It is hard to figure. After all, we have always had a fascination with the big guys. It is as though we hold their intelligence, education, and measured aggression against them.
While sports fans complain that they wish boxers would get some smarts and slip the thug life, it seems we are actually more comfortable with gladiators who don't have any other options than the bruising arts. We should learn something from our apathy about the Brothers K. First, that apathy casts light on the fact that there is an ocean of difference between the US and Europe in the way that we watch the sport. Most Europeans are not going to moan about a bout as long as effort and skill are displayed. But Americans go by the thinking, there will be blood, and demand nothing less than a slugfest. One Boston boxing fan recently commented, "Boxing is basically a fistfight. Klitschko makes it a match of pawing." Boxing is basically a fistfight?
But more than the way that we assess fights, the indifference towards these two gifted and hardworking heavyweights makes it plain that Europeans and Americans are on a different page when it comes to our cultural understanding and expectations of boxing.