Wladimir's Crusoe-like journey leads to important test

In the seminal Daniel Defoe novel "Robinson Crusoe," the title character spends 28 years on an island after being shipwrecked and is forced to survive a number of dicey situations before being rescued. Heavyweight contender Wladimir Klitschko -- who has cited "Crusoe" as one of his favorite books -- hasn't had to face that long an exile from the top of the heavyweight ranks. But sometimes, especially when you've been considered by many to be the savior of a moribund weight class, two years away from the elite can feel like 28 years.

So when Klitschko -- the younger brother of retired former heavyweight king Vitali -- steps into the ring at the SAP Arena in Mannheim, Germany, against Chris Byrd, it could be the boxing equivalent of Crusoe being rescued from the island: Klitschko is older and wiser, but also on his way home.

Home for the Steelhammer would be at the top of the division, where only unproven Nicolay Valuev, erratic Hasim Rahman and recently crowned Sergei Liakhovich currently reside. The final piece of this quartet, Byrd, holds the IBF title that Klitschko will be fighting for Saturday, and to many observers, the Slipmaster from Flint, Mich., is the cream of an admittedly weak crop.

That's where Klitschko comes in.

Expected by practically everyone in the fight game to be the one fighter to ascend to the top and stay there in the waning years of the Lennox Lewis administration, the Kiev native seemingly had it all during his impressive run up the ranks, starting with his 12-round drubbing of Byrd in Germany in October 2000. After that near-shutout of Byrd (the champion still debates the validity of it to this day), Klitschko -- with only one early career loss (to Ross Puritty) marring his record -- had the WBO belt and embarked on a reign of terror that saw him stop Derrick Jefferson, Charles Shufford, Frans Botha, Ray Mercer and Jameel McCline in successive title defenses from March 2001 to December 2002.

And when the television lights were off, Klitschko (45-3, 40 KOs) apparently had all the tools as well, with his story, looks, doctorate and happy-go-lucky attitude in stark contrast to that of his sometimes standoffish older brother, who was seen as more mechanical than Wladimir, both in and out of the ring.

All the while, the specter of the true champion -- Lennox Lewis -- hung over Klitschko's head, and boxing fans prayed for the official coronation, when Klitschko would ascend the throne and bring the fans and mainstream media the coverage the sport craved for its heavyweight champion. It seemed too good to be true.

And it was.

Klitschko's yearlong implosion, which began with a TKO loss to Corrie Sanders in March 2003 and ended with an April 2004 stoppage defeat at the hands of Lamon Brewster, has become the stuff of legend, or at least what passes for legend these days.

From a talented fighter with power, ring savvy and an ease of attack that enabled him to showcase his amazing offensive arsenal, Klitschko turned into the Little Engine that Couldn't, especially when tapped on the chin (Sanders) or forced past his stamina threshold by a fighter who refused to quit (Brewster). It was as precipitous a drop as you will see in sports, a fall made even more prominent by Vitali's subsequent rise during Wladimir's fall.

Suddenly, the older brother (who gave Lewis a tough battle before being stopped on cuts and went on to win the vacant heavyweight title by dispatching Sanders) was acting like an older brother, and Wladimir was forced to the background.

It was odd seeing Wladimir behind the scenes as his brother piled up the accolades, especially since he was always considered to be the most likely to succeed of the two. But when you saw Wladimir celebrating his brother's victories, it appeared that he was the more excited of the two, that he was enjoying the fact that he wasn't the center of attention now, and that he could be just another fighter, with no pressure on his shoulders.

Sometimes, that's what it takes for an athlete to reach his full potential.

Klitschko the younger bounced back from the loss to Brewster -- which was made even worse by his incessant excuse-making and accusations of wrongdoing -- with a lackluster five-round technical decision over Davarryl Williamson and followed that up with a fourth-round stoppage of virtual unknown Eliseo Castillo. It was after that win a year ago that the bandwagon officially emptied. Sure, there were the diehards who would follow both brothers through fire, regardless of what happened in the ring, but to anyone with two eyes, the pattern was crystal clear -- Wladimir Klitschko had lost his killer instinct, he was reluctant to engage if the payback was that he was going to get hit, and he was apparently afraid to unleash his arsenal, knowing that if he did and his opponent remained standing, there was the possibility he would run out of gas and then get stopped again.

So when his fight with Nigerian young gun Samuel Peter for last September was announced, the Ukrainian flags were figuratively set at half-mast. The most physically talented heavyweight in the world was about to get sent into the third row by the latest heir apparent, the concussive-punching Peter, and the final nail was going to be put in Klitschko's coffin.

Then something funny happened that night in Atlantic City. Klitschko engaged, he boxed and he made it through 12 rounds against The Nigerian Nightmare. Sure, he was dropped three times, held on for dear life a half-dozen other times, but when he was upright and in the fight, Klitschko showed glimpses of the fighter we all thought he was going to be. And more important, he appeared to get his confidence back, and if there's one thing a heavyweight champion needs, it's confidence.

Not to say there aren't doubters outside of Team Klitschko.

There are still many questions about how Klitschko will respond when faced with adversity in the ring. He looked downright embarrassing while trying to survive Peter's crude assaults, and what will happen if a fighter like Rahman slams a right hand on his jaw?

Fortunately, Klitschko is unlikely to face any of those issues this Saturday night. Byrd, while certainly able to frustrate anyone he faces in the ring, won't be able to hurt the 6-6 Klitschko. This fact was borne out in their first fight, and while the 35-year-old Byrd rebounded from the first bout by scoring wins over the likes of David Tua and Evander Holyfield, he has been less than impressive in controversial bouts with Fres Oquendo, Andrew Golota and Jameel McCline, bouts some believe he lost. And the less said about his dismal 12-round decision over Williamson last October, the better.

So if Byrd has lost a step from his stellar defensive game and doesn't have the pop to keep Klitschko at bay, what chance does he have, especially since the challenger will have the incentive to finally make it back to the top for perhaps the last time?

Oh yeah, and he's fighting in Germany.

All kidding about hometown decisions aside, this bout could be held in Byrd's adopted home of Las Vegas and still come out with the same result. It's that obvious. The only fighters to get to Klitschko are those who were able to completely exhaust him (Brewster and Puritty) or hurt him (Brewster and Sanders).

Byrd can exhaust any fighter if he pushes the pace enough, but will he take the chance of eating some early-round thunder in order to tire out his foe? He certainly doesn't have the power to hurt Klitschko, and even though the challenger's chin is questionable, he did make it through 12 rounds with Peter -- and even if it was ugly at times, he's obviously learned some survival techniques from trainer Emanuel Steward that weren't in evidence against Corrie Sanders. In other words, Byrd will have to capture lightning in a bottle and fight the perfect fight to keep his title.

Which brings us back to boxing's Robinson Crusoe, who has survived the cannibals of the sport, learned how to survive in an atmosphere no one can prepare for, and is now ready to go back to the home he thought was his years ago. A win over Byrd once again gives him a world championship belt, and more important, the added swagger that every champion gets once the belt is around his waist. And with that swagger, Wladimir Klitschko becomes dangerous once again, because he will most likely be too good for Valuev, too fast and strong for Liakhovich and too offensively varied for Rahman.

But it all comes down to whether he believes he can do it, and whether he can translate that belief into action, beginning with this weekend's bout against Byrd. Crusoe spent years learning simple tasks needed for survival on the island; Klitschko has taken two years in the woodshed to learn what it truly takes to be a champion. If he learned his lessons well, he will reign in the fashion the world always expected him to. If not, his exile from the top of the heavyweight division may very well be permanent.

And that's as far from fiction as you can get.