NEW YORK: Heavyweight boxing champion Wladimir Klitschko, the dominant star of what was once the sport’s most glamorous division, is struggling to get attention for his New York title defense Saturday.
Seldom is the 1.98m Ukraine giant dwarfed by anything, but the huge interest in next week’s long-awaited welterweight showdown between Filipino icon Manny Pacquiao and unbeaten US star Floyd Mayweather has turned Klitschko’s first US bout since 2008 into an afterthought.
The fight isn’t a sellout at Madison Square Garden, where Britain’s Lennox Lewis and American Evander Holyfield staged a heavyweight showdown for an undisputed crown in 1999 that ended in a controversial draw.
And Klitschko, despite huge success, has not captivated US fight fans.
“Confused is what it’s all about,” says former heavyweight champion George Foreman of Klitschko’s place in boxing history.
“Klitschko has had a good career. He hasn’t been invited into the picture into the United States.
“It doesn’t seem like there is anyone around who can beat him. It’s going to take someone very special to dethrone Klitschko.”
There’s a sense it isn’t heavy underdog Bryant Jennings, who is 19-0 with 10 knockouts.
The American is in his first world title bout and was working as a janitor in 2004, the last time 39-year-old Klitschko lost a fight and two years before he grabbed a world crown.
“I had no clue who he was,” Jennings said, echoing in many ways the decline of boxing interest.
Klitschko, 63-3 with 53 knockouts, has won 21 fights in a row and owns all major titles except the World Boxing Council crown, which belonged to his brother Vitali, who went 45-2 and won his final 13 fights after losing to Lewis in 2003.
Vitali held the crown for eight years while Wladimir collected the other world titles, but with them vowing never to face each other, there was no hope to decide the “baddest man on the planet,” as the undisputed heavyweight throne had been known in Mike Tyson’s heyday.
American interest dimmed as US contenders fell to rivals from around the world. Klitschko’s past 13 fights have been in Europe, 11 of them in Germany.
In addition to the Klitschkos, half a dozen heavyweights from former Soviet states claimed world titles from 2005.
At the same time, Hasim Rahman’s 2006 reign ended and no American held one of the three top-regarded world belts until unbeaten Deontay Wilder beat Canada’s Bermane Stiverne for the WBC crown last January.
“Whoever has the most hungry guys will have the best fighters,” Foreman says. “There seem to be more hungry guys from Russia.”
Did aliens swipe US fighters?
Wilder said a bout with Klitschko for an undisputed crown was unlikely until next year and while Foreman confidently boasts of a future US heavyweight star, none is in sight.
“It’s like a vacuum cleaner from outer space (took them),” Foreman says of US heavyweight fighters.
“We’re looking everywhere for great heavyweights, under rocks and under beds. But there aren’t any great heavyweights out there. Basketball, football, baseball have taken over.
“But you won’t have to worry about it. It will come back around. His name will ring out loud and he will be an American.”
Foreman says more high-profile champions from around the world has been a blessing for boxing, saying, “Everybody will be on the edge of their seat watching (Pacquiao and Mayweather) because of the international growth of the sport. Boxing is in its heyday.”
It isn’t looking that way outside the Mayweather-Pacquiao promotion, Foreman saying that old fighters might revive nostalgia but “we can’t do anything to help the future of boxing. If (Mayweather) can, we have to help him.”