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Winner Will Have to Earn Fans' Respect

Klitschko-Sanders bout will determine the heavyweight champion, but will people notice?

March 20, 2004|Steve Springer | Times Staff Writer

The city: Los Angeles.

The stakes: The heavyweight championship of the world.

The circumstances: The former champion has retired and none of the contenders seems worthy, in the public's mind, of becoming champion.

The time: A century ago.

When Vitali Klitschko and Corrie Sanders enter the Staples Center ring on April 24, they will battle for the World Boxing Council's heavyweight title, vacated when Lennox Lewis announced his retirement last month.

Most impartial observers -- meaning those not affiliated with the World Boxing Assn., International Boxing Federation or World Boxing Organization, all of whom have their title belts to bestow, at a price -- agree that the winner of Klitschko-Sanders will be the true heavyweight champion.

"There's no lineage, since Lewis beat Klitschko," boxing historian Bert Sugar said. "But at least Klitschko was in the ring with Lewis, which is more than any of these other champions can say. At least Klitschko touched the lineage. Actually, considered how well Vitali fought, he did more than touch the former champion. He clocked him."

If history offers any clue, however, Klitschko should hold off getting his championship belt sized. After Joe Louis had knocked out Jersey Joe Walcott in 1948 and announced his retirement, Walcott fought Ezzard Charles for the National Boxing Assn. heavyweight title and lost. After Rocky Marciano had knocked out Archie Moore in 1955 and announced his retirement, Moore fought Floyd Patterson for the heavyweight championship and lost.

But even if the favored Klitschko beats Sanders, even at 6 feet 8 and nearly 250 pounds, Klitschko will have to grow into the role of heavyweight king in the public's mind. There remains the perception that he may be merely the best of a weak bunch of heavyweights.

It was much the same in 1906. James Jeffries, the heavyweight titleholder, had retired in 1904, telling reporters a year later, "I am no longer the champion of the world. I am James J. Jeffries, citizen."

In 1905, Marvin Hart, saved by the bell at the end of the seventh round, came back to knock out former light-heavyweight champion Jack Root in the 12th round in Reno, winning the vacant heavyweight championship. But the 29-year-old Hart, who hadn't started boxing until six years earlier, had trouble getting the public to accept him as the champion.

Seven months later, Tommy Burns had the same problem when he beat Hart in Los Angeles. A 17-1 underdog, the 5-7 Burns, nearly five inches shorter than Hart, had been so lightly regarded that the odds were 10-7 Burns wouldn't last 10 rounds. Instead, in a 20-round fight, Burns won on a decision. Burns then defended his title 11 times in less than two years, gradually building credibility.

If Klitschko wins, it won't take him 11 title defenses to gain acceptance. A victory over IBF champion Chris Byrd, however, would be important, since Byrd beat him four years ago. Although he was ahead on all the judges' scorecards, Klitschko quit in his corner after nine rounds because of a shoulder injury.

It was a similar story last June at Staples Center. Klitschko was ahead of Lewis on all three judges' scorecards after six rounds, but the fight was stopped at that point because of a deep cut in Klitschko's left eyelid.

So Klitschko still doesn't have a victory over a big-name opponent. He is slow, methodical, perhaps too rigid in his European boxing style. Also, his heart is questioned because he chose to finish the Byrd fight on his stool.

Why doesn't Byrd get more support for his claim that he's the true successor to Lewis? For one thing, Byrd not only was behind Klitschko when their fight was stopped, he also has lost to Wladimir Klitschko, Vitali's brother, who, in turn lost to Sanders.

Without appreciable power, Byrd looks, at best, like the champion of today's smaller heavyweights, among them Roy Jones, when he wants to be a heavyweight, and James Toney.

As for the holder of the third major heavyweight belt, WBA champion John Ruiz, his tendency to hold, deliver low blows and generally act more like a WWE performer than a boxer has left him with few supporters outside his camp.

"When Ruiz fought [Hasim] Rahman last December," said Sugar, "I counted 192 clinches. According to punch stats, there were only 112 punches thrown. If those two guys wanted to hold so much, they should have gotten a hotel room."

Emanuel Steward, Lewis' trainer, has no doubt who will inherit his fighter's position as the recognized champ.

"Klitschko will be generally accepted," Steward said. "The WBC title is the most prestigious. Ask nine out of 10 people, who have no personal or financial interest in today's heavyweights, who the champion is and they would all say Klitschko."

If he wins.

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