MANNHEIM, Germany -- Wladimir Klitschko was fluid, fearless and utterly dominant in his dismantling of former world heavyweight champion Hasim Rahman at the SAP Arena, but what this proved was difficult to discern.
On the surface, Klitschko boxed aggressively and completed his job without mercy. Rahman was systematically softened up for five rounds by a stiff, steady jab and powerful, overhand rights before a couple of left hooks to the chin floored him in the sixth and referee Tony Weeks intervened 44 seconds into Round 7, which invited no protest from the 36-year-old American.
Not once was Emanuel Steward, Klitschko's trainer, forced to exhort his man to step up the pace and be more clinical, as he repeatedly was made to do when Klitschko delivered a safety-first performance against Russian Sultan Ibragimov in February at Madison Square Garden. Klitschko did the job that he should have, hurting Rahman, punishing him and finishing him off when the opportunity presented itself.
But he was able to attack with impunity, for Rahman never even threatened to fight back, so some of the old questions still linger. Can Klitschko give it when he is also taking it? Would his stamina hold up against an opponent who could hit him hard and often and carry him into the late rounds? Is his latent reluctance for the battle ready to be exposed on another bad night?
Of course, his authoritative display begged another question, too. At 32, is Klitschko maturing mentally and physically into the kind of heavyweight that a 6-foot-6½, 244-pound skilled boxer ought to be?
Lennox Lewis believed that he only approached his peak after he hit 30. Lewis elevated Rahman far above his station when the Brit took Rahman lightly and surrendered the heavyweight championship by fifth-round knockout in 2001. Hubris, not age, was Lewis' undoing in South Africa, as he established beyond doubt in his rematch with Rahman.
Maybe Klitschko, finally, is reaching the top of his game. "As Lennox pointed out, when you get over 30 as a heavyweight, you get better and that's what I feel is happening at this stage of my career," Klitschko said.
Or perhaps, as many critics chorus, the division is in such a dilapidated state that Primo Carnera could reign as champion, if he were still around.
One ringside witness who remained unimpressed was Britain's David Haye, the former world cruiserweight champion who moved up to heavyweight and stopped New York's Monte Barrett in November. As far as Haye is concerned, Klitschko was the same old, same old.
"The fight was way too unspectacular for my liking," he said. "There were way too many jabs and he waited around too long for the guy to crumble. He wanted the guy to fall over before he threw a powerful punch.
"Klitschko got the win -- that's what it's all about -- but he had the perfect opponent to look spectacular against and knock out in spectacular fashion, and he failed abysmally. He did what he always does and that's jab people to sleep. I'm here to talk to him and his people tonight. His brother, Vitali, is also here to talk and I'll fight either one of the Klitschkos, as long as it's Klitschko-Haye next year."
There are question marks surrounding Haye as a heavyweight. Can he take a genuine heavyweight's punch? Could he overcome massive physical disadvantages against either Klitschko? Is he able to stay strong into the late rounds, if necessary, against a bigger man?
His speed, movement and punch output would all be significantly superior to Rahman's.
"You have to remember that he was in the ring tonight with Hasim Rahman, a guy who doesn't bring it, an overweight, out-of-shape guy who was just here to pick up a paycheck," Haye said. "That's not the type of fighter I am. I come to bring the ruckus. I'm going to bring pain to this guy. They know it and I can't wait to get in there. I'm hot on his heels."
Klitschko is looking forward to the challenge. "An exciting time is coming for heavyweight boxing," he said. "We have David Haye, Alexander Povetkin, who I was expecting to fight tonight before he got injured, and Chris Arreola in America, so there is a lot of excitement to come next year."
Although there were few fireworks in Mannheim, Steward was impressed with Klitschko's work.
"Wladimir was not in any way negative," Steward said. "He boxed with patience, intelligence and controlled aggression. Rahman was a dangerous opponent but Wladimir removed the danger by being so effective himself."
Klitschko missed with a couple of lead left hooks in the opening round but he connected with a series of hard left jabs and overhand rights, and his jab proved to be the key punch. Rahman was unable to slip or slide or get inside, where he might have been able to cause Klitschko some discomfort.
Instead Rahman suffered as he continuously ate Klitschko's jab. When he retreated to the ropes, deploying his own version of Muhammad Ali's rope-a-dope tactic, he got beat up some more. In between rounds Buddy McGirt, Rahman's trainer, repeatedly instructed him to "make it a dogfight." But Klitschko's boxing ability and the strength of his long, left jab dictated the terms of engagement.
Rahman was staggered toward the end of the fifth round by another jarring jab and a hard right cross to the chin. Klitschko knocked Rahman down with a couple of left hooks at the start of the sixth. When Weeks called a halt to the action in the seventh, Rahman was utterly submissive.
"Hasim Rahman really got punished and this is what I have to do in the ring," Klitschko said. "I have to show that I am the master each and every time that I fight."
Was this a watershed for Klitschko then? Rahman, alas, was never likely to be a real barometer. Enter Haye, flawed and vulnerable, yes, but young and willing to take the fight to the world's top heavyweight. Ultimately, this is the prism through which we want to see Klitschko prove his worth.
Brian Doogan is a sportswriter for The (London) Sunday Times and is a longtime European correspondent for The Ring magazine.