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Saturday Night Knock um Sock um robots, Klitschko defends title

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Yankee Stadium, the Polo Grounds, Chicago’s Soldier Field were once all vibrant boxing venues. But it’s been decades since a boxing match filled a stadium in the U.S. Boxing is in better shape in Europe. On Saturday, Ukrainian Wladimir Klitschko (52-3, 46 by knockout) will defend his World Boxing Organization (WBO), International Boxing Federation (IBF) and International Boxing Organization (IBO) world heavyweight championship belts against Ruslan Chagaev (25-0-1,17 by knockout) before a sellout crowd of 60,000 at Veltins-Arena in Gelsenkirchen, Germany. The bout will be televised live on ESPN Classic at 5 p.m. ET.

Mr. Klitschko had been scheduled to meet David Haye (22-1, 21 by knockout), but the British sensation injured his back in training and Mr. Chagaev was selected as a replacement. Mr. Chagaev actually boasts a better résumé than Mr. Haye. More important, Mr. Chagaev holds claim to half of a heavyweight title belt. Gone are the days, since Lennox Lewis’s retirement in 2004, when there was one heavyweight world champion. Mr. Klitschko’s older brother, Vitali, wears the World Boxing Council (WBC) crown.

To Mr. Chagaev belongs the bizarre honor of World Boxing Association (WBA) heavyweight champion “in recess.” The seven-foot, 310-pound Nikolay Valuev is officially listed as the WBA king even though he lost the top spot to Mr. Chagaev in 2007. Mr. Chagaev’s injuries twice caused him to cancel mandatory rematches, and so the Uzbekistan native was demoted to champion “in recess.” To anoint a new king, the WBA then pitted Mr. Valuev against the ancient and lowly ranked Evander Holyfield. Mr. Valuev eked out a majority decision over the 46-year-old former champion and was on course for a rematch with Mr. Chagaev in Finland on May 30, 2009. This meeting was also nixed when Mr. Chagaev tested positive for hepatitis B and Finnish medical authorities refused to allow the bout to go on. Doctors from the German boxing commission came to a different verdict when the Klitschko people sought out Mr. Chagaev as a substitute for Mr. Haye.

As of the writing of this article, the WBA has yet to decide whether its title will be at stake Saturday night. This kind of intrigue is one reason prize fighters can no longer pack stadiums in the U.S. Still, there is another laurel on the line on Saturday—the vacant Ring Magazine World Heavyweight Championship. In a sport in which there is little trust and many shenanigans, Ring Magazine has always held sway among boxing purists.

Although undefeated as a professional, Mr. Chagaev has not faced very stiff opposition. Then again, as Ring editor Nigel Collins observes: “The heavyweight division is sparse. It has always been weak after a dominant champion retires. . . . It takes time for another heavyweight to gain universal recognition.”

Steve Farhood, a boxing commentator and former Ring editor, assures: “Chagaev . . . is a southpaw with an excellent amateur background. He has a good jab and strong left. He moves in and out very well and can take a punch. In beating Valuev, he proved that he knows how to fight much bigger men.” But as Mr. Farhood acknowledges, Wladimir Klitschko is much more adept than Mr. Valuev at rendering his opponents horizontal. Indeed, Freddie Roach, who has trained both Mike Tyson and Mr. Klitschko, told me, “Tyson is faster but Wlad punches harder.”

An Olympic gold medalist, Mr. Klitschko has gradually emerged as the premier heavyweight in the world. At 33, he is already a veteran of 55 professional fights. In the past five years, he has reeled off 10 consecutive victories against ranked opponents (seven by knockout). Still, Mr. Klitschko has not been able to establish a strong following in the U.S. and crack the big-money American pay-per-view market.

While Europeans savor the technical aspects of the sweet science, Americans prefer fighters who take risks and go for the knockout. Mr. Klitschko—a reflective individual with a doctorate and speaks four languages—is not one to cast caution to the wind, especially against a lefty.

In 2003, he was the strong favorite to beat the powerful southpaw Corrie Sanders. But Mr. Sanders possessed a lethal straight left, and the fight was over when Mr. Sanders caught Mr. Klitschko with that punch. Since then, Mr. Klitschko has soundly beaten three southpaws, but with a level of circumspection that irritated American fans. In dominating the left-handed Sultan Ibragimov, for example, Mr. Klitschko barely fired a right for the first five rounds and threw only about a dozen rights during the entire 12-round engagement.

The 6-foot-6½-inch Mr. Klitschko enjoys a considerable advantage when he keeps shorter rivals on the outside; he loses that edge when his opponent is on his chest. Mr. Chagaev stands a mere 6 feet 1 inches tall. To beat the world No. 1 heavyweight, he’ll have to avoid Mr. Klitschko’s head-snapping jab and keep the contest at close quarters.

If Mr. Chagaev is unable to weather Mr. Klitschko’s cannonades, that will surely force Mr. Valuev to meet Mr. Klitschko. Should that bout turn out as expected, the Klitschko brothers will realize their dream of sharing the heavyweight championship. Unfortunately, the prospect of a semipermanently divided title is anything but a dream for boxing

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