There was once a time when a dominant heavyweight champion defending his world title was big news. The likes of Muhammad Ali, Mike Tyson and Lennox Lewis all drew huge attention to their fights, and kept boxing at the forefront of the public’s minds.
But in terms of dominance over their competitors in boxing’s premier weight division, the Klitschko brothers have arguably eclipsed their illustrious predecessors. With a total of 31 title fight victories between them, you would expect every one of Wladimir and Vitali’s fights to be a must-see event. Yet, to put it bluntly, they aren’t. One by one, a series of smaller, often clearly overweight opponents have promised to end the brothers’ dominance, but have been beaten into submission by the technically sound Ukrainian duo. The next lamb set to be slaughtered by Wladimir on Saturday is Jean-Marc Mormeck, a 39-year-old whose CV at heavyweight consists of just three unconvincing points victories, and not a single knockout win. To make things worse, he was stopped by David Haye, Wladimir’s last victim, and stands seven inches shorter than the Ukrainian. With opponents of such a poor calibre, it’s no wonder the Klitschkos have been accused of boring boxing fans to tears.
Yet heavyweight boxing appears to be working its way back into the public’s consciousness, but not for the right reasons. At first glance, the violent brawl which marred the post-fight press conference of Vitali Klitschko’s WBC heavyweight title defence against Dereck Chisora in Munich would appear to be a disaster for boxing. As Chisora threatened to “shoot and burn” former WBA champion David Haye, who was present in the audience, calling out 40-year-old Vitali, Haye was seen hitting Chisora while holding a glass bottle and even picking up and swinging round a camera tripod during the brawl, causing a facial injury to Haye’s own trainer, Adam Booth. This came after Chisora had slapped Vitali at the weigh-in and spat in Wladmir’s face in the moments leading up to the fight.
The incident has given fuel to boxing’s detractors, strengthening their argument that boxing encourages mindless violence, rather than teaching self-respect. The boxing community has been quick to recognise this, with Robert Smith of the British Boxing Board of Control noting that Chisora could possibly receive a life ban for his actions. However, with German police electing not to charge Chisora for his role in the incident, a life ban looks highly improbable, with a suspension and fine the more likely outcome.
Yet that wouldn’t even be the first time that Chisora has been suspended. His career has been notable for a bizarre mixture of contrasting incidents since he turned professional in 2007. The first of these came in only his tenth fight, when he was suspended for four months and fined 2,500 pounds for biting the ear of opponent Paul Butlin during a fight, just like Mike Tyson had done against Evander Holyfield in 1997. Chisora later claimed he had done so because he was “bored” and that he would “probably bite it off next time”.
A more amusing Tyson-esque incident followed in 2008, when during a pre-fight staredown with Carl Baker, Chisora repeated Tyson’s famous “I’m gonna make you my girlfriend” line, before entering territory that Tyson never did by planting a kiss on the lips of Baker. Yet this was juxtaposed with more unsavoury incidents, such as Chisora’s criminal conviction in November 2010 for assaulting his girlfriend, which attracted Wladimir’s anger. “Your ex-girlfriend can’t punch back” he said. “I intend to punish you”. Chisora hit back by describing Klitschko’s own girlfriend, actress Hayden Panettiere, as “three feet tall”.
Chisora might be a confrontational, dislikeable character, but his persona is succeeding at bringing the headlines back to heavyweight boxing. The quarrel with Haye was front-page news, in contrast to the drab borefests that have characterised the long Klitschko reign. As well as their dull fighting style inside the ring, the Klitschkos also have a polite, respectful image outside of the ring, always giving credit to their opponents before fights and then inevitably praising their “heart” and “bravery” after being pummelled for twelve rounds. I’m not arguing that Chisora’s behaviour is necessary to attract attention to fights, but it does more to bring interest to the sport than the often sterile atmosphere of a Klitschko fight.
The incident’s aftermath looks set to continue for a while yet, with Haye fleeing to Las Vegas as the German police announce their intention to question Haye over his use of weapons in the incident – unlike Chisora, Haye could still be facing criminal charges – while Chisora has been milking his status as the pantomime villain in Germany by turning up ringside at the Alexander Povetkin versus Marco Huck fight on Saturday, drawing loud jeers from the hostile crowd every time the cameras focused on him. Meanwhile, Britain’s boxing promoters are undoubtedly rubbing their hands with glee at the prospect of a Chisora versus Haye showdown later this year – as both boxers attract media attention in the next few weeks, interest in the proposed fight will grow. Furthermore, Chisora’s credible performance against Vitali in the ring shows that he has the skills as well as the talk, and with both Klitschko brothers entering their twilight years in the sport, we could be seeing Chisora as champion rather than challenger in the not-too-distant future.
At its best, boxing is the noble art, a sport that leads deprived young people out of poverty, instilling confidence and teaching them self-discipline. Yet a sport that, ultimately, focuses on ruthless violence is always going to attract characters that undermine that mantra. Chisora is undoubtedly one of these, yet the enormous surge of attention in the Zimbabwe-born fighter shows that despite the positive influences that the sport can have, it is often its uglier side that draws the crowds.