Saturday will witness the second prominent heavyweight fight in just eight days—and the first heavyweight title unification bout in eight years—as IBF champion Wladimir Klitschko (49-3-0, 44 KOs) faces WBO belt-holder Sultan Ibragimov (22-0-1, 17 KOs) at Madison Square Garden at 9:30pm eastern time. Klitchko is ranked #1 in the SportsRatings Heavyweight ratings while Ibragimov is ranked #7. The fight is being televised on HBO.
The fight is the first step toward a long overdue unification of the heavyweight division. In addition to the IBF belt, Klitschko holds the lesser-known IBO title, while Ibragimov's WBO belt doesn't carry the prestige of the Big Three organizations. So while three belt groups will be consolidated in one fight, the main three organizations will still have different champions. But you have to start somewhere, right?
Ibragimov is a heavy underdog in the bout. Despite being undefeated, he has a distinct size and reach disadvantage against Klitschko, as most do. Though he has defeated big fighters such as Shannon Briggs, none could match the skill and experience of Klitschko. In those categories, Evander Holyfield certainly qualifies as skilled and experienced, but at 31 Klitschko is in his prime unlike the 45 year old Holyfield.
Sultan Ibragimov career overview
Ibragimov, like many Russian boxers, had an impressive amateur career. He won the 2000 Olympic silver medal, losing to Cuban great Felix Savon. He turned pro in 2002 at age 27 and within 2 1/2 years was 13-0-0, beating up on a series of lesser fighters. Ten of these fights were KOs or TKOs.
After knocking out three mediocre but experienced fighters (James Walton, Al Cole, and Zuri Lawrence) in the next six months, Ibragimov debuted in the SportsRatings Top 100 at #83 in April of 2005. Another KO over Andy Sample and a cut win over Friday Ahunanya (which he was leading) made him 18-0-0 and put him just outside the top 50. He then faced #45 Lance Whitaker, and in what would be Whitaker's last fight. Ibragimov scored three knockdowns on the way to a 7th round TKO, bumping him up to #29.
But following his first win over a respected fighter Ibragimov suffered the only blemish on his pro record. In July of 2006, he fought to a draw with 25th-ranked Ray Austin. Austin went down in the 4th round, while Ibragimov, who tired late in the match, fell in the 10th. On the final cards, one judge had Ibragimov ahead by 4, another had Austin by 2, the third even. That fight was supposed to be a qualifier to face Klitschko. Ultimately Austin was selected...and knocked out by Wlad in the second round.
Since the Austin fight, Ibragimov has come in weighing about 10 pounds less (indeed, he weighed in at 218 for Saturday's fight). Whether he felt he wasn't in the best of shape for Austin, the lower weight helped him win three fights in 2007: A first round KO of Javier Mora; a unanimous decision over Shannon Briggs for the WBO belt; and a successful defense against Evander Holyfied last October.
The Briggs fight showed that he could beat a much bigger opponent. Briggs, rated #9 after his last-second win over Sergei Lyakhovich, came in a 273 pounds. Ibragimov moved well and hit Briggs with fast shots while avoiding the big punches. Not that Briggs threw many punches at all; he cited asthma for his poor performance and retired soon after the fight. Ibragimov jumped into the top ten with the win.
Against Holyfield just four months ago, Ibragimov didn't let his second opportunity for a Klitschko fight to pass by. Originally scheduled to battle Ruslan Chagaev in a belt unification, Holyfield jumped in when Chagaev withdrew for unclear health reasons. Though nearly 45, Holyfield was still ranked #32 after winning four minor fights in a row, and he put forth an admirable effort. Ibragimov was too fast and too young for the former champ, however, and the decision was unanimous. Sultan Ibragimov moved up to #8 in the SportsRatings rankings, and has since slid past Wladimir's retired brother Vitali into the #7 position.
Fight analysis and predictions
Wladimir Klitschko is close to reaching a level where most observers consider him invincible. Not that he is unbeatable, but there aren't many challengers that people consider worthy. His improvement over the years, coupled with the heavyweight division's weakness, has elevated him head and shoulders above the rest, even though he's not considered the official champ by Ring Magazine and others. But a win by Klitschko in a given fight is now assumed. And that's where it gets dangerous for him.
Upsets happen when least expected; that's the definition of an upset. While I'm not picking one in this fight, I think Ibragimov will do better than most people expect. The odds have ranged anywhere from 6:1 to 3:1. I believe Sultan is a tough fighter who will do his best to go the distance, meaning he will only be stopped by a TKO. Over the course of the fight he will have his moments, too, that will hurt Wlad Klitschko.
Ibragimov is smaller, but he is quick and has fast hands. He'll use this to get inside and get quick body shots and back out, farther enough away to avoid Klitschko's reach. Inside, and far outside; both ranges avoid Klitschko's main advantage. Shots to the ribs and body will bend the champion forward to protect himself, so he isn't as tall in his fighting stance.
But ultimately this will come at a cost. Ibragimov will not be able to avoid Klitschko's counters all the time; he will be hurt, too, and worse than the champion. In order to attempt to win the fight, he will have to take risks, and with the reward will come punishment. I foresee Ibragimov taking a lot of damage, getting cut, and possibly having the fight stopped. But short of a stoppage, I think Sultan Ibragimov will fight all 12 rounds and gain a lot of respect from this bout.
Klitschko looked a bit gaunt during the weigh-in, as if he had overtrained. He was very defined, but a bit thin, and at his lowest weight for some time. This will mean he isn't at his best; his reaction time may be slower, and may have energy problems from the start, allowing Ibragimov some success at his plan. But he will also be focused, and in good overall shape, perhaps not tiring noticeably after the first few rounds, and he shouldn't be in serious trouble during the fight. Simply put, it will not be the best of days for Wladimir Klitschko, but he doesn't have to be at his absolute best to win a unanimous decision over Sultan Ibragimov.
He will very likely win, and the scorecards will make it appear like an 'easy' win, but it won't be easy by any means. But he will retain his title (for those who consider him a title holder) and gain Ibragimov's belt.
Should Ibragimov prevail, due to whatever relapse Klitschko may have into his worst moments, he would take over the #1 ranking in the SportsRatings heavyweight top 100, but just barely; right behind him would be Ruslan Chagaev. From there, the #1 ranking could change hands based on who wins the most and best fights from that time forward. The ideal, of course, would be a match between the two.
A win would move Klitschko higher on the All-Time list. Already at #27, he would place around #22 after defeating Ibragimov. I'll post about the All-Time list, its mechanisms, its strong points and its shortcomings, at another date.