When the fight was finally stopped at the end of the ninth round, the crowd of more than 60,000 roared its approval. This was what they had come to see and every face was flush with something akin to bliss. It was the cherry atop a Black Forest cake of an event, an evening of gourmet food, top-shelf booze, imported cigars, three live bands and a comedian -- all intertwined with a sad chain of stupefyingly boring boxing matches.
Welcome to boxing, German style, in the Age of Wladimir Klitschko, who methodically took apart Ruslan Chagaev at Veltins Arena in Gelsenkirchen, Germany, on June 20, 2009. Had the fight been in Las Vegas, the promoter would have been lucky to attract 6,000 paying customers, many of who would have left before the anticlimax and headed for the gaming tables, where the action is comparatively stimulating.
Klitschko hasn't fought in the United States since 2008, but his love affair with European fans is still in full flower. By the time a biceps injury forced Klitschko to postpone his Sept. 6 defense against Bulgaria's Kubrat Pulev, all 15,000 tickets at the 02 World Hamburg venue had already been sold.
As far as fans on the western side of the Atlantic are concerned, Klitschko is a boring automaton. Remember how Emanuel Steward used to scream at him between rounds, trying everything he could think of to motivate Klitschko to go for the gusto? It never really took, and now that Steward is dead, it never will. Kitschko is who he is, and isn't going to change.
Contemporary American culture, of course, considers being boring an unforgivable sin, and a fighter saddled with that label, particularly a foreigner, is poison at the box office. Still, even fans that would rather pluck out their eyeballs than watch Klitschko fight would have to admit that there's not a heavyweight alive they'd pick to beat him. After all, nobody has in more than a decade.
Throughout most of the 20th century, the heavyweight championship had been the exclusive property of the United States. That began to change in the late 1990s, when Englishman Lennox Lewis emerged as the best heavyweight in the world. He was respected rather than adored by the American public, but they turned out to watch his fights in large numbers and his bout with Mike Tyson set a new pay-per-view record with 1.95 million buys, which generated $136 million in revenue.
Although neither Wladimir nor his brother Vitali Klitschko ever came close to equaling Lewis' U.S. success, maybe it's time to take a fresh look at Wladimir, examine him from a new -- albeit unorthodox -- perspective and perhaps end up seeing him in a different light.
Let's start with the "boring" label. What constitutes boring is in the eye of the beholder, and in boxing, not all differences of opinion hinge on what takes place inside the ring. Among other factors, geography can have an awful lot to do with it.
Consider this: How much of a difference would it make if Klitschko had been born in the United States? Perhaps he was a product of Pennsylvania's coal country or New York City's East Village, two traditional enclaves of Ukrainian immigrants. Would such a scenario significantly change American fans' perception of "Dr. Steelhammer?"
For the purpose of this hypothetical exercise, Klitschko would still have the same robotic style and the same 63-3 record, including 52 KOs, complied against the same opponents, in the same order. He'd have the same meticulous dedication to his craft and the same personality as a well-educated, socially conscious nice guy.
Besides most of his fights being in the U.S. and an American birth certificate, the only major differences would be the lack of a Schwarzenegger-like accent.
It would be disingenuous to ignore Klitschko's ethnic background. There has not been a Caucasian American lineal heavyweight champion since Rocky Marciano retired in 1956. Race doesn't matter as much as it used to, but it still matters more than it should, and anybody who thinks a white heavyweight champion from the United States wouldn't entice a new and large demographic is kidding themselves.
Marciano had an appealing take-two-to-land-one style, featuring the sort of punch that ripped through flesh and bone and into the very soul of his adversaries. Everybody loved "The Rock."
Klitschko's clinical way of going about his business is the complete opposite. He employs a fight plan calculated to do maximum damage with minimum risk. In other words, the sort of style you should expect from a guy who has a Ph.D. in Sports Science.
But there are issues besides skin pigmentation and nationality that could mitigate Klitschko's seemingly passionless approach to prizefighting. It has been more than a decade since he lost a fight, and people are drawn to success for its own sake. There's no better example of the phenomenon than Floyd Mayweather Jr., who just happens to be boxing's top box-office attraction.
Like Klitschko, Mayweather is a great believer in the hit-and-don't-be-hit school of fisticuffs, but he has found a way around that barrier by the power of his personality. Although he would mainly appeal to an entirely different audience, I see no reason that a U.S.-born Klitschko couldn't do likewise.
One problem Klitschko would not be able to avoid is the lack of viable contenders, but at least it would be a domestic fighter bowling over no-hopers such as Alex Leapai, Francesco Pianeta and Jean Marc Mormeck. That wouldn't make them good fights, of course, but when you think about how many fans supported Roy Jones Jr. when he was fighting the likes of Rick Frazier, Glen Kelly and Merqui Sosa, it becomes clear that Mayweather is not unique in his ability to make a lot of money fighting outclassed opponents.
There's also a reasonable chance that rousing early-career victories over Calvin Brock, Chris Byrd and Samuel Peter (in which Klitschko showed great courage coming off the floor three times to win a decision) would have built an enduring reservoir of goodwill. It certainly worked that way for Mayweather, whose early-career fights against Genaro Hernandez, Angel Manfredy, Emanuel Burton and Diego Corrales were among his most fan-friendly performances.
When pondering the proposition at hand, it's important to look beyond personal taste and consider the larger picture. It's not just about hardcore fight fans. The general public, the mainstream media and Madison Avenue would all be in play.
In the age of antihero, Klitschko is a throwback to the clean-cut Wheaties-box heroes of yesteryear. He has never been incarcerated, never been involved with any sort of serious scandal and, according to all accounts, has not squandered his money on a party-hardy lifestyle. Moreover, he has been involved with UNESCO since 2002 and in 2012 auctioned off his Olympic gold medal to raise money for a charity that helps Ukrainian children.
Best of all, not only is Klitschko a regular Dudley Do-Right, he looks the part as well. With his square jaw, bright eyes and chiseled physique, all that's missing is the red Mountie uniform.
There's a significant segment of the U.S. population that yearns for an old-fashioned role model, and Klitschko would be just the man for the job. Endorsement deals would be inevitable, and with his rugged good looks and urbane persona, the champ could plug darn near any product from chainsaws to cologne.
Fame turned to notoriety when Tyson was convicted of sexual assault, and the endorsements dried up for decades. It has been pretty much the same thing for Mayweather since several domestic violence arrests and a stint in the slammer. It's reasonable to assume, however, that Klitschko would stick to the straight and narrow path he has followed so far and remain a viable pitchman, perhaps even after he retires from the ring. But that's not all.
In a celebrity-obsessed society like ours, his relationship with actress Hayden Panettiere would be ideal fodder for supermarket tabloids. A reality show about their day-to-day life together would be a no-brainer -- Wladimir at home changing the baby's diaper while Hayden is busy maxing out their credit cards on Rodeo Drive. The possibilities are endless.
We're talking about mainstream exposure on a massive scale, the sort no boxer has enjoyed since Tyson slugged his way into the hearts of Americans during the 1980s. Klitschko would no longer be a rejected import. He'd be our own Yankee Doddle Dandy, a flesh-and-blood Captain America in boxing gloves.
So what if his style is more intellectual than intuitive? It's winning that counts, and winning is something Klitschko has learned to do with assembly line consistency.
That's not to say an American-born Klitschko wouldn't have detractors. Those who crave the savagery of Tyson or the charisma of Ali would still have bad taste in their mouths. But never underestimate the power of homegrown success -- it has often been the sugar that helps the medicine go down.
At the very least, nobody would be complaining that there are no good American heavyweights anymore.