Unification‘heavy’ stuff

Feb 19, 2008 6:19 AM

A history lesson, so we don’t screw up the future: The last time there was a unification fight in the heavyweight division. Lennox Lewis beat Evander Holyfield nine years ago.

How that could possibly tell us anything about next Saturday partial unification fight at Madison Square Garden between Wladimir Klitschko, the 5-1 favorite, and Sultan Ibragimov shows us that sometimes history means nothing.

Oh, maybe some private history. Klitschko has been called by his American trainer, Emanuel Steward, "one of the best heavyweights in history." Wlad’s history includes stoppages by that murderers’ row of Ross Puritty, Corrie Sanders and Lamon Brewster. His hard-to-reach chin has also been dented by such as DaVarryl Williamson and Samuel Peter.

But there’s no denying that, under Steward’s confidence-building training, the youngest of the Kiev Twin Towers has become the No. 1 man in the heavyweight wasteland. At 6-foot-6½ inches, with his muscular body usually weighing 240 pounds or more, he is a physical specimen, but one who can jab effectively, throw crushing blows with either hand and use the intellect that got him a doctor’s degree to maneuver around a ring.

Ibragimov has a history, too. Klitschko was a gold-medal Olympian; the Russian was a silver medalist. He is undefeated as a pro, but his past performances have been singularly unimpressive. He won his alphabet title (don’t ask which one) last year when Shannon Briggs threw up one of the worst defenses in boxing history. He has defended it once, a boring 12-round decision over someone calling himself Evander Holyfield but otherwise no resemblance to that champion of nine years ago.

The worst part of Ibragimov’s boxing bio is the 12-round draw he had in a 2006 alphabet eliminator against the plodding Ray Austin, who last year was knocked out in the second round by Wladimir Klitschko.

Yet, there is something attractive about the pudgy southpaw with the $3 or $3.50 buy-back price. Even Steward warns not to underestimate him, saying Ibragimov figures to be the best opponent Wladimir has faced as a pro.

"This guy is very intelligent and a very good fighter," the Hall of Fame trainer said. "He’s got very fast hands. He doesn’t look impressive, but he’s very effective."

Ibragimov also has very fast feet and is thus able to move in suddenly against taller opponents (like Briggs, Austin and Lance Whitaker), fire off some combinations and get back to safety.

 "He knows how to win big fights over big guys," said Steward. "He explodes and moves away quickly. He makes most big guys’ size a handicap."

And, also like his opponent, now has an American trainer, the youngest of the Mayweather brothers, Jeff. Unlike big bros Roger and Floyd Sr., Jeff Mayweather has yet to make his real mark as a trainer. It could happen here, at a worth-a-stab price.

No, I am not predicting a major upset over a guy I agree is the best heavyweight in the world, which even with the price of a token might not get him on the New York subway where there are probably a lot tougher opponents around.

But Klitschko, who will be 32 next month and should be at the peak of his physical prowess, doesn’t figure to have improved his chin. True, by getting him to relax and be confident, Steward has made Dr. Steelhammer much less vulnerable. But while Ibragimov is not a big puncher (despite 17 stoppages on his 22-0-1 ledger) it is best to remember what the great boxing philosopher Evander Holyfield said, and I paraphrase, "It’s not who punches harder, but it’s who can take the other guy’s punch better."

Ibragimov is not the most attractive boxer in the world. He looks out-of-shape and hardly his listed 6-2. His weight, usually in the 220’s, doesn’t quite make him a Butterbean Jr., but he’s a far cry from the 60-year-old Rocky Balboa.

 What he does have, I believe, is a sense of history. His manager, Boris Ginsburg, says Ibragimov looks around at all the other pretenders in the division and "asks why are there so many champions." The WBC itself has three — regular champion Oleg Maskaev, interim champion Samuel Peter and champion emeritus Vitali (Big Brother) Klitschko.

Since Lennox Lewis’s retirement, it has been painfully clear that these clowns don’t want to fit in the same Volkswagen, let alone the same ring. But Ibragimov took a fight with the WBA (I think) title-holder, Ruslan Chagaev, only to have it scratched by injury. And here he is facing the No. 1 guy in the division, instead of making another defense against a Tommy Morrison or Joe Mesi. I give points for balls.

And I can’t lay 5-1 on a guy knocked out by a golfer like Corrie Sanders or a one-hit wonder like Lamon Brewster. If I need action while I watch HBO (which will also show the replay of Kelly Pavlik-Jermain Taylor II), it would have to be either past-posting on the middleweights or taking a flyer on the Sultan.