Let's give Klitschko his due

STUTTGART, Germany -- If the circumstances were different, Vitali Klitschko might be approaching the end of a worthy, lengthy and dominant reign as world heavyweight champion and Wladimir would be his heir apparent.

Instead, heavyweight is boxing's derelict division, and somehow the Klitschkos are part of the problem. Simultaneously, they hold rival titles; they will never face each other in the ring; and therefore, we cannot deify a single, universally recognized heavyweight champion. So many followers of the sport bemoan their ample presence.

The truth, however, is that neither Klitschko created this mess -- boxing did -- and if injury had not stolen perhaps his best years, Vitali could have been the man who followed the man (Lennox Lewis). In any other sport, he -- and his brother -- would be embraced.

"For people who play and love sport, boxing is particularly impressive. It examines in a very clear way aspects such as resilience, courage, character and adaptability under pressure, virtues that we look for in every athletic activity," said German tennis legend Boris Becker, who was ringside for Vitali Klitschko's ninth-round stoppage of Juan Carlos Gomez.

"Here in Germany, we recognize the Klitschkos as great ambassadors for their brilliant sport. They are educated, intelligent and dignified, they speak four languages and are involved in important matters in their home country, Ukraine, and in activities which support the Laureus Sport For Good Foundation, which benefits underprivileged children all over the world, and they would be worthy ambassadors for any sport.

"I have been a fan of boxing since the days of Muhammad Ali, and I understand what it means to have a single heavyweight champion, but Vitali Klitschko is cut from the right cloth, and he demonstrated this again tonight in an exciting fight."

Aesthetically, Klitschko will never be the most pleasing fighter to behold, but his awkwardness and paralyzing power were not diminished by almost four years out of the ring after knee and back injuries until his successful comeback last year.

Samuel Peter and Gomez can attest to this.

Peter's performance in October at the O2 World Arena in Berlin was pitiful, but his ambition dissipated discernibly once he had felt the full force of Klitschko, who hit him hard and early.

Gomez's stand was more laudable. Indeed, he demonstrated sufficient speed and aspiration in the opening two rounds to suggest that it might not be such a straightforward night for the 37-year-old Ukrainian titlist.

Klitschko struggled to establish his rhythm and find his range, and Gomez beat him to the punch, throwing a left-right-left combination out of his southpaw stance at the bell and slamming a couple of left hooks into the titleholder's face before the round ended.

The second round was also encouraging for the challenger, though there were ominous signs when Klitschko penetrated his guard with a straight right hand.

Starting in the third round, Klitschko began to land his long, spearing jab, and gaps appeared for the right hand to be dropped on Gomez's face, too, which became a more regular occurrence in each succeeding round.

Gomez's pace slowed, clearly as a consequence of the draining effects of Klitschko's blows and when a powerful straight right landed flush on Gomez's face in the fifth round he poked out his tongue but fooled no one, least of all his assailant.

The crowd chanted "Klitsch-ko, Klitsch-ko," throughout, and the local hero (both brothers have been embraced in Germany from the time that they began their professional careers here in 1996) made an emphatic breakthrough in Round 7.

He floored Gomez with a right hook and followed it with a left as Gomez crumpled to the canvas. Gomez was floored by another overhand right later in the round, but referee Daniel van de Wiele did not see it because Klitschko fell over, too. Gomez barely lasted the round.

He survived another round, barely, but Klitschko knocked him over again in the ninth with a fierce right cross, and although Gomez bravely rose to his feet again, the referee dived in to prevent him from taking further punishment.

With Wladimir set to fight David Haye on June 20 at the O2 World Arena in Berlin, Vitali is looking for his own challenges and the winner of Nikolai Valuev's upcoming title bout with Ruslan Chagaev will become his No. 1 target.

"I want to have significant fights, and a bout with Oleg Maskaev [whom one sanctioning body is threatening to force him to fight next] is not what the public wants to see," Vitali Klitschko said.

"Valuev or Chagaev would be a better fight, particularly if Valuev were to win. I think people would like to see me and the Russian Giant. For once, I would not be the big man in the ring."

That he is not the singular big man atop the heavyweight division is not Vitali's fault. He is an admirable ambassador for the sport and ought to be recognized as such.

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