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The Klitschko brothers have been a strange one-two punch in the heavyweight division for some years now, their potential defined more in the novelty of their brotherhood than in their capacity for championship. That is to say, they have lingered as newsmaking contenders mostly because they're...interesting. If you're going to lose fights to Chris Byrd (that would be Vitali, who quit on his stool with a shoulder injury) and Corrie Sanders (Wladimir, the "talented" one, destroyed in two) it helps to have a storyline to float your career—huge, robotic siblings with Ph.D.'s, from Kiev, ever eager, if reliably inept at crunch time.
But now Vitali, the taller (6'7�") and older (32) of the two, is filling a niche that we forgot even existed: the red-hot heavyweight contender. Nearly 11,000 in his evergrowing fan base came to Madison Square Garden last Saturday night chanting his name as he dismantled Kirk Johnson inside of two rounds. He wounded Johnson with powerful shots to the body, dropped him with a right to the head. This comes on top of his loss to WBC champion Lennox Lewis in June, a brawl Klitschko was improbably winning on all scorecards until it was stopped on a cut. (That fight, on HBO, reached 4.6 million homes, the highest rated heavyweight fight since 1997.) Could one of these brothers be for real, after all?
It is a lot to hope for, but given the state of the game, it's hard not to rush and anoint Vitali as the chosen one, again. Who else is there? Lewis, whose reign has been impressive at times, has been strangely silent since the Klitschko fight, not at all anxious to be granting rematches. We may have seen the last of him. Mike Tyson? Also MIA. Roy Jones? He's only interested in cherry-picking heavyweight also-rans, and the smaller the better. Everyone else in the heavyweight division is of the recycled variety, fighters who had their chance and didn't acquit themselves well enough to deserve a second.
Of course, that would seem to define the Klitschkos as well. Each stumbled on his way to history, in a fashion sufficient to plunge other fighters out of the game. Vitali's loss to Byrd was especially damaging, inasmuch as it suggested lack of heart. That misstep allowed Wladimir, whose more fluid and athletic style is better suited to American boxing, to blossom. But on his way to a fight with Lewis, he got stopped by a boxer who hadn't been active for nearly two years.
So now it was again up to Vitali, the harder puncher of the two, to keep the story alive. His second chance came when Lewis's opponent, the aforementioned Kirk Johnson, bailed out with an injury. Lewis, feeling cockier than he should have, agreed to Vitali as a show-saving replacement and may have been bombed out of the sport as a result.
Boxing demands an exciting and dangerous heavyweight That's just the way it is, has always been. Oscar de la Hoya, Sugar Shane Mosley, Bernard Hopkins, Roy Jones—they can keep the sport going just so long. Their charisma and skills are great entertainment, and their shows do great box office. But the overall health of boxing depends on firepower from above, the huge destroyers who, in the breadth of their shoulders and wallop in their fists, represent the purity of pay-per-view menace.
Is Vitali that guy? Recent history (as well as Johnson's poor conditioning) reminds us to be cautious. Still, after two fights in which Vitali has shown he has the heart for this game after all, maybe it's different this time. The Klitschkos, and Vitali in particular, may indeed re-energize the sport. Two well-spoken guys (in four languages, on top of it) with size, power, talent and (here's hoping) determination could restore some of that perverse glamour that has buoyed boxing in its best days.