State of the Division: Heavyweight

Photo: Will Hart

Photo: Will Hart

By Eric Raskin

“As the heavyweight division goes, so goes boxing.” It’s an old fight-game bromide that, since Lennox Lewis fought Mike Tyson in 2002 and effectively brought to an end a great heavyweight era (or at least a great American heavyweight era), has been proven partially true. On the one hand, while the heavyweight division was slogging through several of its least interesting years ever, smaller fighters like Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao picked up the slack and set box-office records. On the other hand, with conversation about heavyweight boxing on the decline, the sport has steadily, with each passing year, continued its slide further from mainstream relevance in the United States.

Now, boxing’s most historically glamorous division finds itself at an inflection point. As Wladimir Klitschko — the most dominant figure of the post-Lewis-Tyson era — readies to take on Anthony Joshua — the most promising figure of the new era — on April 29, the stage is set for a new generation to take over and maybe, just maybe, return heavyweight boxing to some semblance of its former glory. This could be a passing of the torch that ushers in a series of fights between big men that we’ll be telling our grandkids about.

But it could also be exactly the opposite. The torch might stay firmly in the grasp of a 41-year-old future Hall of Famer, and fight fans eager for the next big thing would be left to watch their hopes set ablaze.

Here’s a look at who’s who in the only weight class without a weight limit, on the eve of the ultimate crossroads clash:

The Inactive Champion: Tyson Fury

Photo: Hennessy Sports

Photo: Hennessy Sports

Let’s get the elephant in the room (no weight jokes, please) out of the way first. Fury beat Klitschko in November 2015. It was ugly, but it was effective, and it made the 6’9” scrapper from the UK the one, true heavyweight champion of the world. But he hasn’t fought since. Fury has struggled publicly with mental health issues and drug issues. He was going to rematch Klitschko, then he wasn’t. He was retired, and now he isn’t — or so he says. Since he appears to be well over 300 pounds in recent photographs, it might be a while before Fury (25-0, 18 KOs) is ready to box again. He’s only 28 years old; there’s certainly time for him to get his head on straight and return to the title picture. But for the moment, Fury is little more than an asterisk as the division moves forward without him.

The Aging Great: Wladimir Klitschko

The Hall of Fame bonafides of the Ukrainian veteran of more than two decades in the pro game are beyond debate. He encountered one of the weakest heavyweight talent pools ever, yes, but he ruled over it for a ridiculously long time and, after being written off in 2004 following his third TKO defeat, rattled off a 22-fight winning streak that lasted more than 10 years. But he just turned 41 and hasn’t fought in 17 months, and, though Fury’s awkwardness is partially to blame, Klitschko (64-4, 53 KOs) looked truly terrible in dropping the title. He simply couldn’t pull the trigger. If he beats Joshua, a man who won Olympic gold 16 years after Wladimir did, it could go down as the defining win of his career. It could also go down as the fight that puts that career, and the era of the Klitschko brothers, to bed.

The Potential Savior: Anthony Joshua

Photo: Lawrence Lustig

Photo: Lawrence Lustig

If you were designing the next super-duper-star heavyweight boxer in a lab, you might very well come up with a prototype that resembles Joshua. Standing 6’6”, weighing just under 250 pounds, chiseled, handsome, articulate, charismatic … and, oh yeah, he can box a little and punch a lot. Joshua (18-0, 18 KOs) is drawing enormous crowds in England, and while he still has plenty to prove in the ring at age 27, when stepping up slightly against fringe contenders like Kevin Johnson, Charles Martin, Dominic Breazeale, and Eric Molina, he’s taken care of business easily. The Klitschko fight at Wembley Stadium represents a massive leap in pedigree. But it’s indicative of how impressive “AJ” has been so far that he’s more than a 2-1 favorite to win.

The Disgraced Veteran: Alexander Povetkin

Photo: Will Hart

Photo: Will Hart

Maybe the best non-Klitschko heavyweight of the post-Lewis, pre-Joshua years, Russian former beltholder Povetkin’s future is now as murky as Fury’s. The 37-year-old failed not one but two drug tests in the past year, scuttling bouts with both Deontay Wilder and Bermane Stiverne. Povetkin’s record of 31-1, 23 KOs, is impressive; the only loss was to Wladimir Klitschko in 2013, while wins have come over the likes of Chris Byrd, Ruslan Chagaev, Carlos Takam, and Mike Perez. The problem is, nobody knows if Povetkin was clean and how legit those results were. He’s currently barred from fighting for certain sanctioning body titles and, as capable a fighter as he is, it’s conceivable that he won’t ever have another fight of real significance again.

The Lurking Beast: Luis Ortiz

Photo: Golden Boy Promotions

Photo: Golden Boy Promotions

He might be a little old, at 38, for “next big thing” consideration, but Ortiz, who only turned pro seven years ago after escaping his native Cuba, is nevertheless on the short list of fighters with a chance to rule this division in the immediate future. His seventh-round knockout of Bryant Jennings in 2015 was eye-opening, and a sixth-round destruction of Tony Thompson in his next fight offered confirmation. “King Kong” found an unlikely Godzilla, however, in the form of Malik Scott’s stink-‘em-out style, and his stock dropped with each passing round of a dreadful distance fight. Still, Ortiz (27-0, 23 KOs, 2 no-contests) is a heavy-handed southpaw with skill, and the next top heavyweight contender who calls him out will be the first.

The Polarizing Puncher: Deontay Wilder

Depending on where you sit, Wilder is either the most scintillating or the most carefully matched American heavyweight up-and-comer in a couple of decades. The 2008 Olympic bronze medalist is now 31 and presumably about as good as he’s going to get, so hopefully answers are coming soon. Wilder (38-0, 37 KOs) boxed effectively in his step-up fight against Bermane Stiverne a little over two years ago, but ever since, he’s struggled more than expected against middling opponents — before ultimately locating his punch and knocking them down and out. If they can both remain undefeated, Wilder vs. Joshua could be the biggest cross-continental fight the division has seen since the then-record-setting Lewis-Tyson showdown.

The Other Young Gun: Joseph Parker

At only 25 years of age, undefeated, and boasting an 82 percent knockout rate, Parker should theoretically be as a big a deal as Joshua, Wilder, and Ortiz right now. But there’s just something about him that makes him a less sexy choice to get behind. The 6-foot-4 Kiwi’s step-up fights have been a mixed bag: impressive third-round knockouts of Kali Meehan and Alexander Dimitrenko, mildly disappointing narrow decision wins over Carlos Takam and Andy Ruiz. Parker (22-0, 18 KOs) is, for now, the other guy to keep in the back of your mind. But he’s such a well-rounded prospect that it should shock no one if he turns out to be the centerpiece of the next heavyweight era.

Also In The Conversation:

Kubrat Pulev, Carlos Takam, Andy Ruiz, Dillian Whyte, Tony Bellew

HBO Boxing Year End Picks: KO of the Year

Photo: Will Hart

Photo: Will Hart

With the end of the year approaching and Boxing's Best airing, HBO Boxing Insiders are taking a look back at 2014. Here, they make their selections for the best KO on the network this year:

More: HBO Boxing Year End Picks

Kieran Mulvaney: Carl Froch KO 8 George Groves

After their first meeting ended in a controversial stoppage, Froch left no doubt in the rematch, icing Groves in front of a massive Wembley Stadium crowd with a picture-perfect KO. A little stutter-step, a feinted jab and then a massive overhand right that poleaxed the Londoner: it was as sweet and definitive an ending to a prizefight as you'll see. Honorable mention to Andy Lee's one-punch stoppage of John Jackson.

Eric Raskin: Andy Lee KO 5 John Jackson

It was a virtual coin flip between Lee-Jackson and Carl Froch's violent rematch knockout of George Groves, but the deciding factor for me was how comprehensively Lee was losing when he uncorked the miracle counter right hook. Aesthetically, the two best HBO-televised knockouts of the year were a dead heat. So Lee's stiffening of the previously unbeaten Jackson at Madison Square Garden wins on the strength of its shock value.

Hamilton Nolan: Andy Lee KO 5 John Jackson

Jackson outboxed him. Jackson was landing at will. Jackson systematically hurt him, and finally moved in for the kill… and caught one crazy Andy Lee punch thrown from off the ropes on a prayer, and it was over. Craziness.

Nat Gottlieb: Nonito Donaire KO 6 Nicholas Walters

Featherweight Nicholas Walters took Nonito Donaire's early fire and then turned it around by pummeling the Filipino into a bloody pulp before he blasted him in round 6 with a thunderous overhand right to the side of the head. Donaire managed to get up, but was so dazed and confused the ref waived it off.  A decisive beat down of a onetime superstar.

Oliver Goldstein: Carl Froch KO 8 George Groves

How to right the wrong of one of the most disappointing early finishes in recent history? Carl Froch insisted before his second meeting with George Groves that their first was heading toward a fairer conclusion when Howard Foster screwed the pooch, and this time around delivered when he crashed Groves into another dimension at Wembley in May.

This bout lacked the excitement of their initial tussle, when Groves had thrashed Froch about the ring for seven or so rounds, but its ending was truly memorable, as Froch feinted a left, let Groves bite, then let rip with a right for the ages.

Tim Smith: Terence Crawford KO 9 Yuriorkis Gamboa

Terence Crawford's stunning 9th round of Gamboa. It was a stepping stone fight for Crawford. It was as Crawford KO'ed Gamboa and stepped right into the spotlight as one of boxing's brightest new stars.

Diego Morilla: Wladimir Klitschko KO 5 Kubrat Pulev

Bulgaria's Pulev was tall, bulky, strong, yet agile and skilled, and had the hunger and the credentials of a young Klitschko: an Olympic medal, an unbeaten record and a defiant attitude. Perhaps that's why it was so impressive to see him go down in such a devastating fashion. Klitschko is known for 1-2-ing his foes into submission, using his pawing jab to set up his ramming straight right to then lay a progressive beating on his opponents. But using his often neglected left hook, he sent Pulev to the canvas a total of four times to score his most devastating KO to date.

Michael Gluckstadt: Andy Lee KO 5 John Jackson

How can you not love Andy Lee? He's not the most skilled middleweight, nor the most powerful, but he may have the most heart (a dubious conceit in other sports, but one that certainly exists in boxing). In front of a packed house at Madison Square Garden on the Cotto-Martinez undercard, it looked like we were seeing Andy's end as an elite boxer. Jackson was outworking him and outclassing him, and just when it looked like he was about to finish the job, Lee reached down and unveiled a storybook right hook that ended Jackson's night before he even hit the canvas. Another, similar miracle punch later, and Andy Lee finished 2014 as a middleweight title holder instead of an afterthought.

The Fear and Trembling: Klitschko Thrashes Pulev in Five

Photo: Michael Sterling Eaton

By Oliver Goldstein

Through five intermittently furious rounds, Wladimir Klitschko ensured it was business as usual tonight as he rocked, socked, and ultimately stopped Kubrat Pulev in Hamburg, Germany. While the Sofia, Bulgaria native seemed determined to mimic the behemoth across from him, Klitschko showed the abyss between imitation and replication to be stark. Pulev might be of similar height, but after four vicious knockdowns, he could no longer claim to be of equal stature.

Before their encounter, this had been advertised as potentially the long-term heavyweight champion’s toughest fight in years. After David Haye slid from contention after twelve numbing rounds back in 2011, the Ukrainian has struggled to command similar intrigue in the intervening fights. Jean Marc Mormeck was an undersized throb; Mariusz Wach, an oversized one. The less said about Francesco Pianeta and Alex Leapai, the better. Even Alexander Povetkin, long a Klitschko antagonist in absentia, never seemed likely to cause a ripple. But the 6'4" Pulev, who boasts an incisive jab and sturdy physique, at least appeared somewhat up to the task. Coming to the ring with his face set in a severe, earnest expression, Pulev looked every inch the severe, earnest fighter he is. 

Nonetheless, after these five rounds, it seems yet clearer that it will take a fighter of special gifts to beat this incarnation of Klitschko. While steadfastness and courage are often enough against most fighters in the thin heavyweight crowd, against Klitschko, they are the barest pre-requisites to basic survival. If the first minute and a half of the first round suggested Pulev might actually be an organized challenger, the gorgeous left hook which flashed through his guard and crashed him to the canvas soon suggested otherwise. After this, the Bulgarian’s best hope seemed to lie in lulling Klitschko into a temporary torpor.

But perhaps the champion’s finest quality is his focus. Often maligned as dull and unadventurous, Klitschko is a fighter of quite beguiling conscientiousness, if such a thing in boxing can be said to exist. At some point, after all, to watch this supremely gifted athlete shuffle into contact and grab his opponent time after time becomes strangely endearing. On this occasion, even after sending Pulev to the floor again in the third round, the Ukrainian followed up with three successive bear hugs. Far from making him robotic, this sheer commitment to routine is rather a sign of Klitschko’s abundant normality. Like all those people in sleepy suburbs with complex alarm systems, Klitschko’s conservatism is part the consequence of the scars of youth, part the result of quiet scaremongering—with little basis in reality. For what, in the world of Klitschko, is there to be scared of? Taller, stronger, faster, and better than all other heavyweights, simply to face the Ukrainian, in the true meaning of the verb, is a challenge in itself: his handsome features are protected by prodigious height and a ramrod jab. And what to do once that challenge is surpassed? To leave the outside is to reach a less hospitable place than before: the inside, with Klitschko, is a smaller fighter’s nightmare. But even with dynamite in one hand, and Semtex in the next, the Ukrainian nevertheless remains one for fear and trembling. Doubtless he is not the type to leave home without double-checking the locks.

As a result, there is no aberglaube about Klitschko: where other fighters of similar power seem to become hyper-physical in their manner, to exude more physicality than they actually possess, the Ukrainian is never more than he simply is. Fittingly, Klitschko might be the only boxer in history with a KO ratio above 80 percent whose most appreciable characteristic is his steadiness. But while the hyper-physical often end up broken and fragmented, that steadiness has guaranteed "Dr Steelhammer" a reign of superabundant dominance. He is both ersatz excitement and superior class, capable of cooling the passions through thudding knockouts. 

Nevertheless a Klitschko fight is always full of pareses, and those small, unavoidable, unintentional gestures hint often at why he remains at heart so cautious. Wladimir is a flincher, a flickerer, a fidget: he trembles his fear on the surface of his body. Why else those strange moments when he is suddenly becalmed, when his awesome fists elect to jerk about furiously instead of hammering home shots? Even in this five round bout with four knockdowns, lulls were not rare. Klitschko is always prepared to tarry.

Pulev, on the other hand, was fearless—but it is often the fearless in boxing who end the night trembling. So it was in Hamburg, as Klitschko converted his own private neuroses into moments of intense exposure, each suitably violent to render Pulev unequal. When the final left hook swept through the Bulgarian’s guard and crashed him once more to the ground, "The Cobra" was bleeding below one eye and swelling by the other. This was a smashing. 

With this win, Klitschko keeps rolling towards Joe Louis’s record of twenty-five straight defenses. Shannon Briggs, ever keen to loudmouth himself into another title shot, seems a likely future victim (if only to shut him up). After Briggs, Bermane Stiverne, Deontay Wilder, Bryant Jennings, Tyson Fury, and, dare it be said, David Haye, loom as possible opponents. While the weight class has seen far stronger days, it is nevertheless reasonably well-stocked with plausible contenders. Should Fury beat Dereck Chisora in their Manchester rematch later this month, a mandatory title shot looks likely. Fury is no special fighter, but watching Klitschko attempt to stop him should be fun, as watching a man trying to fell a moving tree trunk might be. Now 63-3 (53 KOs), the Ukrainian’s grip on the heavyweight division appears iron as ever.

Heavyweights Weigh-In in Germany

Photo: Sebastian Bentzin/KMG

Photo: Sebastian Bentzin/KMG

HBO Boxing After Dark is live from the O2 Arena in Hamburg Germany at 4:45 PM ET with a special presentation featuring reigning world heavyweight champion Wladimir Klitschko, seeking his 17th consecutive successful heavyweight title defense, against undefeated challenger Kubrat Pulev.

Official Weights from Germany:

Wladimir Klitschko: 245.82 lbs.

Kubrat Pulev: 246.92 lbs.

A History of Wladimir Klitschko on HBO

Photo: Will Hart

Photo: Will Hart

Photo: Will Hart

By Kieran Mulvaney

Wladimir Klitschko has not fought in the United States for six years, but the heavyweight champion has a long history with HBO; this Saturday’s title defense in Germany against Kubrat Pulev will be the big Ukrainian’s 19th appearance on the network over a period of 15 years. Here’s a selection of some of his more memorable performances on HBO:

July 15, 2000: TKO7 Monte Barrett, London, England.

This was Klitschko’s debut appearance, in the co-main event to heavyweight champion Lennox Lewis’ two-round demolition of Frans Botha. Klitschko was already viewed as a possible heir apparent to the big Brit, but although he and Lewis would never meet in the ring outside of a scene in Ocean’s Eleven, he demonstrated why he was so highly touted by bouncing Barrett off the canvas five times.

Photo: Will Hart

Photo: Will Hart

March 8, 2003: TKOby2 Corrie Sanders, Hannover, Germany

Following the Barrett win, Klitschko notched impressive successes against the likes of Chris Byrd, Ray Mercer and Jameel McCline, but the wheels fell off unexpectedly against South African Sanders. Dropped twice in the first and twice more in the second, Klitschko was never in the contest, his growing air of invincibility erased in four minutes of action. The fact that big brother Vitali later secured revenge by defeating Sanders was of little consolation.

Photo: Will Hart

April 10, 2004: TKOby5 Lamon Brewster, Las Vegas.

Photos: Will Hart

Photos: Will Hart

If the Sanders loss had raised questions about the Klitschko chin – and an earlier defeat, when he ran out of gas against Ross Puritty, led to doubts about his stamina – this bizarre defeat seemed to confirm both. After four and a half rounds of pounding Brewster mercilessly (and knocking Brewster down at the end of the fourth), Klitschko rapidly hit the wall. A Brewster flurry had the suddenly exhausted Ukrainian in trouble and when Klitschko collapsed to the canvas at the end of the round and could barely haul his fatigued frame to the corner, referee Robert Byrd stopped the fight. “That could be the end of the Wladimir Klitschko heavyweight contender story,” suggested Jim Lampley, and few ringside would have disagreed with him. But more than 10 years later, Klitschko has yet to lose again.

Photo: Will Hart

Photo: Will Hart

September 24, 2005: W12 Samuel Peter, Atlantic City.

If a cloud of vulnerability continued to hang over Klitschko, this gutsy win over the hard-punching Nigerian was the storm that blew it away. Despite being dropped three times, Klitschko rose to his feet on each occasion, winning virtually every round in which he remained vertical to inflict the first defeat on Peter’s ledger.

April 22, 2006: TKO7 Chris Byrd, Mannheim, Germany

Byrd looms large in the ring records of both Wladimir and Vitali Klitschko: he unexpectedly won Vitali’s heavyweight belt in April 2000 when the elder Klitschko quit on his stool, citing a shoulder injury; five months later, Wladimir regained the title for the family when he dropped Byrd twice en route to a points win. But since then, the Klitschko Express had come off the rails, courtesy of Sanders and Brewster, while Byrd was in the ascendant, with wins over David Tua and Evader Holyfield securing him a belt and catapulting him close to the top of the heavyweight pile. Byrd entered his title defense feeling that Wladimir was vulnerable, but his aggressive approach to the fight worked against him as Klitschko dominated him before scoring a seventh-round stoppage.

Photo: Will Hart

Photo: Will Hart

July 2, 2011: W12 David Haye, Hamburg, Germany.

The build-up to this battle was sheer intensity, fueled by Haye’s charismatic taunting and Klitschko’s simmering contempt. In perhaps the greatest exchange in Face-Off history, Haye called Klitschko a “dickhead” while Klitschko denounced his foe’s “flashy flash.” With such fireworks, the fight could only be explosive, right? Wrong. After a lively opening couple of rounds, Haye rapidly ran out of ideas and gumption, dropping to the canvas every time his opponent leaned on him and conceding a knockdown in the eleventh, as he meekly surrendered over 12 rounds. Afterward, Haye unwisely blamed his performance on an injured toe; he has fought just once since.

Wladimir Klitschko Faces Another Unbeaten Challenger

Photo: Will Hart

By Nat Gottlieb

These days there are three certainties in life: Death. Taxes. And Wladimir Klitschko.

Dr. Steelhammer’s bouts are sort of like bowling. The promoters set up the pins in front of him, he knocks them down. Seventeen straight opponents have stepped into the ring to challenge Klitschko for his title belts, and all of them were sent packing with a nice paycheck and more than a few bruises for their night’s work.

The sheer numbers are daunting: Klitschko (62-3, 52 KOs) has knocked out 80 percent of his opponents. As an amateur, he had a remarkable record of 134-6 and won Olympic gold in 1996. The 38-year-old Ukrainian has won 20 straight fights overall and hasn’t lost in 10 years since being knocked out in 2004 by Lamon Brewster – a loss he avenged three years later.

Worth noting is that eight of Klitschko’s victims came into the fight with undefeated records. Now along comes number nine, Bulgaria’s Kubrat Pulev (20-0, 11 KOs) Will he be the one to pull off the upset? Or will he be just another notch on Klitschko’s championship belts?

One man who thinks Pulev can win is Bulgarian fight manager, Ivaylo Gotzev, who has managed two heavyweight world champions, and has watched his countryman fight since he was an amateur.

“I would say that he has as good a chance in dethroning Klitschko as anyone has had in the last 10 years,” says Gotzev, whose fighter Samuel Peter gave Wladimir the toughest fight in his long winning streak. Back in 2005, the hard-hitting Peter knocked him down three times yet still lost. Klitschko's margin of victory in that fight is closer than in any one since, 114-111 on all three cards.

“Pulev is not intimidated by Klitschko,” Gotzev says. “He will be there all night trying to have a breakthrough against the little bag of tricks that Wladimir uses in his fights so successfully."

So what’s in Pulev’s own bag of tricks?

Well, like the 6'6" Klitschko, Pulev is relatively big and strong at 6'4½". Because of that, Klitschko shouldn’t be able to maul him and toss him around like a WWE wrestler as he’s done on occasion to other challengers. If there’s anything that makes Pulev dangerous to Klitschko, it's that he possesses unusually fast hands for a heavyweight and moves well around the ring.

The last time Klitschko faced an opponent with a skill set similar to Pulev’s was Alexander Povetkin last year. Unbeaten at the time, and an Olympic gold medalist himself, Povetkin used his hand and foot speed to lunge under Klitschko’s long, lethal jab, and connected with several good shots to the champion’s head. But while Povetkin was able to give the heavyweight champ some problems, he still lost every single round. So why might Pulev fare any better?

Law of averages? Klitschko finally gets old in the ring? Luck?

Or will it be Pulev’s fight strategy? He recently said, “I am going to be dangerous, pressing the action early on. Wladimir will have to move a lot inside the ring.” Will all that movement wear Klitschko down? Perhaps. Will Pulev be able to stick and move and connect on his punches? Maybe.

But here’s the rub. Historically, Klitschko’s Achilles heel has been his chin. Of his three losses in a remarkable 18-year-career, all have come by way of knockout. But once the late great trainer, Emanuel Steward took over Klitschko’s training in 2004, the Ukrainian has developed a virtually impenetrable defense and a precision offense that sometimes borders on robotic.

Pulev’s problem is two-fold. One, he must get under that phenomenal jab, and two, if he does, he has to land a punch that can hurt the big man.

Based on Pulev’s record, his ability to do damage to Klitschko is questionable. With only 11 knockouts in 20 fights, a so-so KO rate of 55 percent, it’s hard to see him change the course of this fight by landing one big punch. That being said, if Pulev connects frequently enough -- a big “if” -- the cumulative effect could slow down Klitschko. If everything breaks exactly right for him, there's a chance Pulev could come from nowhere and shock the boxing world.

Make no mistake about it, despite Pulev’s 20-0 record he IS coming out of nowhere. Never mind that no Bulgarian boxer in history has won a professional world title, there are other things that factor in, such as the suspect quality of his opponents.

The 33-year-old Pulev’s “signature” victories have come over former top-tier fighters who were on the downside of their careers or overrated to begin with. The first of those was the 6'7" Alexander Dimitrenko, whom Pulev knocked out in the 11th round two years ago. A much-heralded amateur and ballyhooed pro, Dimitrenko never lived up to the hype. Still, Dimitrenko was an inch taller than Klitschko and has a reach two inches longer than the Ukrainian. If nothing else, Pulev demonstrated he could handle a bigger man.

Four months later, Pulev knocked out another giant, the 6'7½" Alexander Ustinov, whose 27-0 record was vastly padded. Slow-footed, looking unpolished and amateurish in the ring, Ustinov got beaten down and bloodied before finally getting knocked out in the 11th round by a short, not particularly powerful uppercut. Last year Pulev also scored a unanimous decision over former Klitschko challenger, Tony Thompson. But the American was 42, and long removed from his prime. In fact, every single one of Pulev’s opponents has been over the age of 31, and in four instances, were in their 40s. That’s what you call smart matchmaking.

Like Klitschko, Pulev also has a crisp jab which he works behind, but it is not as long as the champion’s and unlikely to reach him. The same can be said for Pulev’s swift and dangerous left hook. What it comes down to is the Bulgarian is going to have to have a game plan similar to Povetkin: lunge in under the jab, do some damage, and get out before he gets caught by a Klitschko bomb.

Lacking top-of-the-line power in his fists, Pulev’s best chance of winning would seem to be by out-boxing the big man and winning on points. But since Klitschko is clearly the superior boxer, that seems unlikely, too.

If there is an X factor – and this may be reaching – Klitschko’s wife, Hayden Panatierre, is due to give birth to their first child roughly two weeks after this fight. Long known for his tough mental focus and ability to shut out distractions in or out of the ring, the pending birth might have some effect on Klitschko.

On paper, Pulev certainly has his work cut out for him in this one. But as the great commentator Larry Merchant is fond of saying, “That’s why they fight the fights.”

CompuBox: Wladimir Klitschko vs. Kubrat Pulev

By CompuBox

In terms of longevity and dominance WBA/IBF/WBO heavyweight champion Wladimir Klitschko picked up where Lennox Lewis left off -- and then some. Consider:

* His current eight year, six month reign is now second on the all-time list behind Joe Louis' 11 year 8 months. Larry Holmes, at seven years three months, is now third.

* He is now 23-2 (18 KO) in title competition.

* He hasn't lost a fight in nearly 11 years and has gone 20-0 (14 KO) in that time.

* His 16 consecutive defenses thus far ranks only behind Joe Louis (25) and Holmes (20) and if one adds his five WBO defenses between 2000 and 2003 his 21 total defenses ranks him second only behind "The Brown Bomber." Given the current crop it appears that "Dr. Steelhammer" can rule for as long as he pleases.

However, Klitschko is facing a test in undefeated mandatory challenger Kubrat Pulev, who, at 6-foot-4 1/2 inch rates as one of his taller challengers. Additionally, Klitschko won't have the home ring advantage per se because Pulev has fought his last eight fights in Germany and the Bulgarian, like the Ukrainian-born Klitschko, is not a German native.

Klitschko's critics have hungered for the day that he will finally dethroned while his supporters wish just as strongly that he remains on the throne. Which contingent will have its way on Saturday? The statistics tell the following story:

image.jpg

Turning Up the Thermometer: As a young fighter Klitschko was known as an offensive juggernaut but during several fights in his middle to late 30s his volume had dropped considerably. In stopping Tony Thompson for the second time Klitschko averaged just 20.2 punches per round while against Jean Marc Mormeck he averaged 39.7 and 42.4 versus David Haye. In out-pointing Alexander Povetkin in an ugly clinch-fest, Klitschko averaged 34.8. That said, most of his opponents threw even fewer (Povetkin 23.6, Haye 24.2 and Mormeck a microscopic 5.6). As he did in their first meeting, only Thompson managed to out-throw Klitschko (30.5 per round) in the rematch, if not out-land him (51-25 overall, 36-7 power).

But in three of his last four fights Klitschko has returned to his volume-punching ways. Against Mariusz Wach (the only fighter ever to boast height and reach advantages) he averaged 57.8 punches per round while against Francesco Pianeta he fired 45.6. But in his most recent fight against Alex Leapai his pace surged to a stratospheric 84.3, nearly double the 45.6 heavyweight average. Better yet, Klitschko maintained his power by scoring knockdowns in the first and fifth (two times) and above-average accuracy in every phase (37% overall, 30% jabs, 47% power). The connect margins were almost absurd (147-10 overall, 67-6 jabs, 84-10 power) and Leapai could only muster 14% overall accuracy and landed 19% of his jabs as well as 11% of his power shots.

In Klitschko's last 11 fights he out-landed his opponents 1,525-443. His opponents averaged a combined 5.1 connects per round, more than two-thirds less than the 16.5 heavyweight average. No wonder Klitschko remains commanding at age 38; not only does he hit often, he is barely touched in response. In his own way, he is the equal of Floyd Mayweather Jr., Guillermo Rigondeaux and Erislandy Lara in terms of hit and don't get hit. He's not as graceful as they are, but his results are something to behold.

Plusses and Minuses: Pulev has several assets going for him. First, at 33, he is five years younger than Klitschko. Second, he's a pretty good match physically in that he's only one-and-a-half inches shorter and has a one-inch reach deficit. Third, he's a fairly effective jabber, even against taller foes. Against the 6-foot-7 Alexander Dimitrenko he landed 5.4 jabs per round in posting a 59-22 jab connect bulge while against the 6-foot-5 Tony Thompson he averaged 5.2 jab connects but trailed 69-62 in raw connects. Finally, he's precise with his power shots (46% against Thompson, 41% versus Dominick Guinn, 38% versus Travis Walker).

The bad news for Pulev is that he fights at a mild pace (34 punches per round against Walker, 33.8 vs. Thompson, 41.6 vs. Michael Sprott, 44.6 vs. Guinn and 37.1 vs. Dimitrenko -- all below the 45.6 heavyweight average) and that he's accessible to his opponents' hardest punches. He tasted 36% of Dimitrenko's hooks, crosses and uppercuts, 41% of Guinn's and 40% of Thompson's. He fared better against Walker and Sprott (28% in both fights) but Sprott had just turned 37 while Walker, while a dangerous puncher, usually lost whenever he stepped up the competition. And Klitschko is a huge step up.

Finally, Pulev is a calculating, risk-averse fighter -- exactly the kind of fighter Klitschko feasts on because that style gives him the time and the breathing room to work out every angle before striking at his leisure. If Klitschko can command the pace, the fight is over.

Prediction: Pulev is big enough and strong enough but is he ambitious enough to toss aside his usual caution and go for it? In his heart he might be but his training and instincts will probably advise him to do otherwise. Klitschko by wide decision.