Originally published in April 2014.
You could almost be forgiven for not knowing that the Heavyweight Championship, boxing’s jewel in the crown, is being contested by an Australian for the first time in over a century this Saturday in Oberhausen, Germany. It seems almost nonsensical to say that little is known around a fight involving the unknown Samoan-Australian, Alex Leapai, and the undisputed champion and Ukrainian boxing stalwart, Wladimir Klitschko, going to war for the title. But that’s the reality.
The gradual decline in boxing’s popularity has been plagued by confusion over the numerous belts, restrictions imposed by television rights, growing public concern towards violence, and of course money; why else are we yet to see Mayweather vs. Pacquiao. But the lacklustre pool of talent and inability to arrange big name fight contracts no longer sees the ring as home to great fighters. Rather, it’s an office where two parties transact business; or so the cynics who have pronounced the death of boxing would have you believe.
There’s no question that boxing’s legion of frustrated fans have been jumping ship over to MMA (I guess boxing isn’t too violent after all), but the artform that invented the idea of professional fighting is hardly going anywhere without, well, a fight.
We can go a few rounds over why interest has waned, but put simply the romance of the sport is a shadow of its former self. Throughout the years there has always been a generational enigma with a story driving them towards to the title. Braddock scraping together enough change in the penury of the docks only to defy the odds and become champion. Ali refusing to go to Vietnam and being barred from boxing, only to return years later to reclaim his title not once, but twice. And then there’s Mike Tyson: a Brownsville ‘hood-rat’ who was willing to kill anyone in the ring for immortality.
These guys just don’t exist anymore.
But don’t be fooled into thinking that there is no substance to this Saturday’s fight, as there is a bit more to each of these fighters than the surface reveals.
The 198cm Ukrainian Klitschko is for the first time in his life fighting for something more than just himself. Defending his WBA, IBF, WBO and IBO belts, a country in despair will be clinging to the man they call ‘Dr. Steelhammer’ as he hopes to instill a little bit of hope into those who have lost theirs by proving that Ukraine still has some fire left in it. A man who has laboured to earn the respect of fans, having been labelled boring for hiding behind his ever-reaching jab, may finally have found the spark needed to remind his detractors why he’s the champ – and why he has been for so long.
But the real story centres around the boy from Slacks Creek, Queensland. The real life Rocky has come from punching away in a weathered bush shed (instead of a meat shed) to being placed on the world stage with a chance to upset the entire boxing fraternity. Though he’ll hardly admit it, at 34 years old the enormity of the situation is not lost on Leapai. Extremely lucky to have been made the mandatory challenger, the man known as ‘Lionheart’ is fully aware that this will be his only chance at the title, and should he lose, he will be thrust back into obscurity just as quickly as he emerged from it.
And though the romantic in me hopes this doesn’t turn out to be, in reality its a scenario almost certain to happen, and happen convincingly. Because though Leapai packs power behind his punch, he hasn’t the reach, the fitness, the skill, nor the speed to back this up and threaten Klitschko. And when Leapai does hit the canvass,the Rocky comparison will be counted out also. But that doesn’t mean fans can’t hope for an underdog victory in a world where underdogs are increasingly left to squander.
Because though Leapai has a record of 30-4-3 compared with Klitchsko’s record of 61-3-0, 51 of which have been by knockout, on April 26 these will be little more than a few numbers scribbled on a page. Few people ever get a sniff of this type of opportunity, let alone a taste – and when the bell rings, Leapai will be sure to have a bite at the belt.
However, cynics may be right in pronouncing boxing as little more than a flicker of a lightbulb that once shone brightly in the past – and the heavyweight division may indeed be splintered by lackluster contenders and bereft of the esteem it once carried. And maybe the Baddest Man on the Planet, former heavyweight champion and animal, Mike Tyson, is right in saying ‘boxers don’t have that passion anymore.’
Well, let’s just see how little passion is in the ring this Saturday when a man carrying a country in tumult on his shoulders comes up against a violent underdog fully aware of his one shot at being somebody