Klitschko can put heavies back on map

STUTTGART, Germany -- A heavyweight title fight on ESPN Classic, not premium cable or pay-per-view: It could almost be the 1980s again. But Vitali Klitschko's first defense of his second reign as a heavyweight titleholder against Cuban exile Juan Carlos Gomez will have to deliver if boxing is to reap the benefits.

Just as fans of football, baseball, basketball and hockey can enjoy their regular fix of elite action throughout their sport's respective calendars, boxing fans ought to experience the same. Unfortunately, the big fights usually come at a price -- heavyweight title bouts especially.

The sport, then, is taken away from the masses and becomes the preserve of its niche audience, to its ultimate detriment.

"Boxing has almost gotten to the point where it's a cult sport and that's not how I've always seen it, my whole life," ESPN boxing analyst Teddy Atlas recently told fanhouse.com. "It's gotten put on the sidelines and it's become an event-driven sport.

"When it's a big fight, when it's [Oscar] De La Hoya -- and, hopefully, he's finished -- but if it's De La Hoya versus [Manny] Pacquiao or [Floyd] Mayweather, it gets its proper attention. But other than that, you go through the year and there aren't many fights that get the attention of the public the way the sport used to on a regular basis."

When the heavyweights returned to terrestrial TV in Britain in the early part of this decade, it was of no help at all. The BBC invested heavily in 2000 Olympic gold medalist Audley Harrison and general sports fans, many of whom had not watched a fight for years, were persuaded that boxing had become a farce.

So Klitschko and Gomez have a responsibility not only to themselves but to supporters who would love to be indulged by greater exposure of their sport.

Primarily, however, they will be focused on winning. Klitschko, the overwhelming favorite, anticipates that he will get the job done inside the distance and why not?

The 37-year-old Ukrainian's stoppage of Samuel Peter in October completed an unprecedented return by a former world heavyweight champion. No heavyweight in history who tried to reclaim a title in his first fight back -- Jim Jeffries, Joe Louis, Muhammad Ali or Larry Holmes -- had ever been successful before Klitschko.

If you did not know, you would have guessed that Peter was the one coming off a four-year sabbatical, for his performance was pitiful. But Klitschko, demonstrating power and a hard, accurate, consistent jab, was exemplary.

Furthermore, former cruiserweight titleholder Gomez, who was once Klitschko's sparring partner, has the kind of record at heavyweight that the Democratic Party had in the 1980s -- he hasn't beaten anyone.

Sinan Samil Sam, David Defiagbon, George Arias, Daniel Frank, Adenilson Lima dos Santos, Vladimir Virchis and Oliver McCall -- twice -- all appear on his résumé but this is a little like saying that, having conquered the bunny slopes, some novice skier might be a suitable challenger for Lindsey Vonn.

Klitschko, of course, does not do disparagement.

"I think he is a very good boxer with technical skill, and he showed it all in the cruiserweight division," Klitschko said of Gomez at Monday's final news conference. "But heavyweight is something else."

Dr. Ironfist did add that the lesson he intends to teach Gomez would not last long.

It is significant perhaps that, within three months, both Klitschko brothers are likely to have defended their titles against former cruiserweight titleholders.

Wladimir Klitschko revealed to ESPN.com that he remains close to tying up a deal to face Britain's David Haye in June.

"The contract is not signed yet but I hope it will happen next week," Klitschko said.

So why are ex-cruiserweights all the rage in heavyweight boxing?

"I bring speed, technical ability and a proven track record as a champion to the table," said Gomez. "I have more experience than Klitschko and I will show him up for what he is, a robot with a punch.

"Haye can speak for himself but I know that my assets, which I brought up from the cruiserweight division many years ago, will win me the title. Klitschko won't hit me."

Alas, if Yanqui Diaz, a fellow Cuban exile based in Las Vegas, was able to hit Gomez often enough to stop him in the first round in 2004, the chances are that Klitschko can do the same, though he may take longer to complete his business.

"I don't think it's gonna be the Thrilla in Manila. I don't think you have too many Thrillas in Manila any more," said Atlas.

"Klitschko's tall, he has the kind of style where he controls range, he controls distance. He tries to control his opponent with his long arms but he's fighting a southpaw, so that brings an interesting dimension into it.

"There's going to be a tactical element but I think the physical dimensions of Klitschko -- size, height, reach -- will lead the way," Atlas said.

If it's a good enough fight, maybe Klitschko-Gomez can lead the way back toward the 1980s.

Brian Doogan is a sports writer for The (London) Sunday Times.