Postponement latest blow in a rocky year for boxing

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November 08, 2005|By CHILDS WALKER

No sport pulls its fans to and fro quite like boxing.

We learned that again Saturday, when putative heavyweight champion Vitali Klitschko postponed his title fight with Baltimore's Hasim Rahman for the fourth - yes, fourth - time.

Rahman seems convinced that Klitschko, the closest the division has to a king of the mountain, is ducking him. Maybe, maybe not.

Reports out of Las Vegas suggest that Klitschko hurt his knee, but maybe not so badly that he couldn't fight. Perhaps the giant Ukrainian's good sense tells him that at less than his best, he shouldn't take on a big, athletic challenger with power in both fists. And who could really blame him?

The particulars of this postponement aren't so vexing. It's more the overall sense that whenever boxing gets rolling, tragic, unseemly or just strange things happen to knock it off track.

Consider the year to date.

March brought a terrific scrap between 130-pounders Erik Morales and Manny Pacquiao. Two months later, Diego Corrales and Jose Luis Castillo reminded us how viscerally thrilling the sport can be with one of history's great brawls. In June, Britain's Ricky Hatton emerged as a star welterweight and Floyd Mayweather Jr. performed a virtuosic dissection of the gutsy Arturo Gatti.

Maybe the broader sports world, with its unnatural fixation on the shabby heavyweight division, didn't notice. But for diehards, the year was cooking.

Until Sept. 17. That night, lightweight titlist Leavander Johnson took a bad beating from Jesus Chavez and slipped into a coma. He died five days later, reminding us what always lingers behind the curtain when men hit each other for a living.

The uneasiness lingered into a light-heavyweight title fight Oct. 1 between Antonio Tarver and Roy Jones Jr. The once-great Jones had been left quivering on the canvas in his previous fight, so the sense that he could follow Johnson into the darkness cast a pall. Jones seemed to share the fear, so he ran from Tarver for 12 rounds, leaving fans to wonder why he had bothered to show.

The sport seemed set for a rebound the next week with Corrales-Castillo II. Surely, that couldn't disappoint.

But anybody who thought that hasn't been a boxing fan for long.

Castillo showed up several pounds overweight, leading many to question whether he had even tried to make the 135-pound limit. Worse, his trainer was caught trying to slip his foot under the scale to deceive judges about Castillo's true size.

Corrales refused to call off the fight, but his courage got the better of him, as the bigger Castillo pummeled him in four rounds. So the most anticipated fight of the year faded to infamy.

Few fight lovers were looking so forward to Klitschko-Rahman a month later. The heavyweight division (four champions, none fearsome) is enough of a mess that even those who sell the fights question them from the other sides of their mouths.

HBO Sports head Ross Greenburg (whose pay-per-view division was set to broadcast Klitschko-Rahman) said last week that the weight class is facing its worst slump in his memory.

Jay Larkin, his counterpart at Showtime, said he can't understand why American fans think heavyweights first when they think of the sport. "It's an anachronism," he said.

But Klitschko-Rahman at least seemed like the year's best battle of big guys.

Rahman held the heavyweight crown and actually beat a borderline great fighter, Lennox Lewis, to get it. So what if the British fighter nearly tore Rahman's head off in the rematch, and so what if Baltimore's own was then clubbed by an aged Evander Holyfield?

Klitschko, meanwhile, is the guy every other heavyweight wants to fight, mostly because he earned some credibility by looking good in a 2003 loss to Lewis. At 6 feet 7, he may be a little stiff, but he's clever enough to keep his distance and force opponents to wade through javelin-straight rights should they want to rumble.

Problem is, Klitschko hasn't fought in almost a year, and, even then, he beat a guy, Danny Williams, whose claim to fame was destroying an already-wrecked Mike Tyson.

So yeah, the best heavyweight fight of the year had fans searching for relevance. But now, we don't even have that.

We could pin our hopes on the world's two best fighters, Mayweather and Winky Wright. But Mayweather is near-impossible to negotiate with, so he's fighting a faded welterweight in Sharmba Mitchell.

None of the other top guys wants to deal with Wright's brilliant defense, stiff jab and sturdy chin. So he's fighting a second-tier middleweight named Sam Soliman.

The best fight left this year is the middleweight rematch between Bernard Hopkins and Jermain Taylor, but we saw the first time around that those two are unlikely to produce a classic.

Boxing in 2005 has taken us from thrills to gloom to frustration. It continues to torture us like a bad relationship. We tag along, hoping to be there for that moment of purest exhilaration (Round 10 of Corrales-Castillo I) but really, we're more likely to get smacked and told to keep waiting.

Some people think a national boxing commission would help, forcing good fighters to meet and eliminating some of the chicanery around title belts, weigh-ins and the like. But I tend to think chaos is hardwired into the sport's DNA.

Funny thing is, I know I'll be back in 2006.

childs.walker@baltsun.com

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