Bragging Rights and Title Belts on the Line as Russia Meets Ukraine

by Kieran Mulvaney

For better or for worse, boxing – and particularly the heavyweight championship of the world – has often featured as a proxy for broader battles, struggles being waged in social, political and even military arenas far outside the ring.

There was, notably, Jack Johnson having to chase Tommy Burns all the way to Australia to become the first black heavyweight champion; former champ James Jeffries coming out of retirement in a failed attempt to reclaim the title for the white race; Joe Louis facing German Max Schmeling one year before the outbreak of war in Europe; and Muhammad Ali colliding with Joe Frazier for the first time in 1971, in a fight that split the country down the middle.

To American viewers, Saturday’s contest between heavyweight champion Wladimir Klitschko and mandatory challenger Alexander Povetkin carries no such extracurricular drama. But far to the east, where the contest will be taking place, there are some definite undercurrents. Klitschko, accustomed to being the hometown favorite on his adopted German soil, will be in hostile territory as he walks to the ring in Moscow to face Russia's Povetkin. Willingly or otherwise, Povetkin and Ukrainian Klitschko will be carrying the hopes and fervor of two nations that have had, and continue to have, a complex and intertwined relationship that reaches back hundreds of years.

Given that history – in which Ukraine has at various times been partitioned and fought over by Russia and other neighboring powers, and was incorporated into the Soviet Union between 1922 and 1991 – Moscow is often seen as the bully in the relationship; but it is Kiev’s standard-bearer who will be heavily favored to throw his weight around on Saturday.

Klitschko's mid-career hiccups have long disappeared into the rear-view mirror; he is closing in on 10 years unbeaten since his shocking loss to Lamon Brewster in Las Vegas. Under the guidance of the late Emanuel Steward, he corrected his defensive flaws and emphasized his strengths: he fights tall, as a 6'6" man should, softening up his opponents with a thudding left jab that blinds as well as hurts and leaves his foes vulnerable to the steel hammer right hand that gives Klitschko his nickname. Meanwhile, he keeps his historically troublesome chin tucked far out of range. The result has been 18 straight wins since the Brewster debacle—15 of which have been a title challenge or defense—of which only four have lasted the distance. Klitschko is a king at the height of his pomp.

There was a time when Povetkin seemed the most serious potential challenge to that reign. An accomplished amateur (and the 2004 Olympic gold medalist), he truly announced himself as a professional in 2007 and 2008, with consecutive victories over American veterans Larry Donald, Chris Byrd and Eddie Chambers. That trio of scalps elevated his record to 15-0 and made him Klitschko's mandatory, but he withdrew from that challenge due to injury, and from a rescheduled appointment because his new trainer, Teddy Atlas, determined that he needed more seasoning. Since then, his outings have been infrequent and his opposition rarely inspiring; still, he remains undefeated and, courtesy of boxing politics, has picked up a title belt in the process.

Atlas, though no longer his trainer, has picked Povetkin to knock Klitschko out; to do so, the Russian will have to work his way under Klitschko's jab, slip inside and fire away with combinations. It is a plan that many have sought to execute, but none have succeeded in doing in almost 10 years. If Povetkin were to be successful, it might not have quite the social and political repercussions as some of history's legendary matchups, but it would send significant shockwaves through the world of heavyweight boxing.