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Klitschko and the heavyweight mess

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In a sad reminder of the days when heavyweight boxing used to mean something, Joe Frazier will be moved Saturday to a new crypt in the Philadelphia cemetery where he was buried a year ago.

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Floyd Mayweather Jr. helped pay for the new digs, which family members say offers a more fitting resting place for the ferocious fighter who so famously dueled with Muhammad Ali. A statue to the former heavyweight great is also moving forward in Philadelphia, long a bastion for up-and-coming fighters.

If any fighter deserves the belated recognition, it's Frazier. He beat Ali in the ``Fight of the Century,'' handing him his first loss, and nearly fought him to the death in the ``Thrilla in Manila.'' It's only fitting that a city with a statue to a make-believe hero, Rocky Balboa, has one for its real-life boxing hero, too.

On Saturday, we'll also get a sad reminder of what heavyweight boxing is today. Wladimir Klitschko will enter the ring to defend his world heavyweight titles once again, and once again most of the world will barely notice.

The fight will be in Germany, where Klitschko has fought almost exclusively the last four years. The opponent will be a 32-year-old Polish native whose biggest claim to fame is that he beat a fighter (Kevin McBride) who once beat Mike Tyson.

If you're interested in seeing the fight, don't worry about shelling out $49.95 for pay-per-view. There isn't any. Instead, the fight will be televised online on a free trial by EpixHD.com, which lately has been about the only place you can find a Klitschko fight.

That's not entirely Klitschko's fault, though fighting in Germany where he and his brother, Vitali Klitschko, are extremely popular, surely limits his appeal. So does his clinical, almost dispassionate, style, though it would be hard to argue with the success the brothers - who both hold heavyweight titles - have had in the ring.

And, as far as opponents go, Mariusz Wach isn't terrible, though his undefeated record in 27 fights is littered with names of undistinguished fighters.

``I see the spirit of a young man who wants to be champion,'' Klitschko said of Wach. ``He's very confident.''

That's about all Klitschko had to say about his opponent in a final pre-fight conference call Wednesday. He had other things to talk about, passing along congratulations to President Barack Obama on his re-election and talking about his brother's recent election as leader of the Udar (Punch) opposition party in parliamentary elections in his native Ukraine.

Vitali Klitschko has a tougher fight outside the ring, despite his party winning seats in elections last month that Western observers described as unfair at best.

``His goal is to change the way of Ukrainian politics,'' Wladimir Klitschko said. ``I can't really be proud of Ukrainian politics now. Vitali knows what it means to have the corruption we have in Ukraine. That's his main point, is to fight corruption.''

The Klitschko brothers are fairly unusual for boxing, though by now their novelty has long since worn off. They both hold advanced college degrees, speak four languages, and can discuss topics far removed from the violence of the ring.

But their domination of the heavyweight division for much of the last decade has come at a price. As heavyweights go, boxing goes, and the division has been all but forgotten in the United States since the Klitschkos have beaten contenders who have little chance of matching their size or skills.

The only real story line attached to Saturday's bout at 02 World Arena in Hamburg is about who isn't there. Klitschko will be without his longtime trainer, Emanuel Steward, who died last month while Klitschko was preparing for the fight.

``He wasn't just a coach,'' Klitschko said. ``Emanuel Steward was a genius, a genius in the ring.''

Steward was in Klitschko's corner for nine years, taking a powerful but largely mechanical fighter with a suspect chin and helping transform him into a largely unbeatable force. Klitschko, who hasn't lost in eight years will be trained by fellow heavyweight fighter Johnathon Banks, though he believes he won't have to reach far for inspiration.

``I really feel the spirit of Emanuel Steward is still with us,'' Klitschko said.

Steward liked heavyweights and he trained some of the best, including Lennox Lewis and Evander Holyfield. History remembers them as exciting fighters who weren't afraid of a big scrap.

How history will treat the Klitschkos remains to be seen.

They've promised their mother never to fight each other, so the one intriguing bout of their careers will never happen. There aren't many good up-and-coming young heavyweights, either, meaning the Klitschko reign could go on for years.

So while they won't be remembered among the heavyweight greats, like Ali and Frazier, they may be recalled for sucking all the air out of a division that used to mean something.

----

Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at tdahlberg(at)ap.org or http://twitter.com/timdahlberg

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The Associated Press News Service

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The Associated Press
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