By Briggs Seekins
Distant historians will likely look back upon our present era as an age of popular uprising. In recent decades, corrupt dictators and ruthless empires have been brought down, not through armed struggle, but by acts of collective consciousness, by the sheer fact of bodies filling the public spaces.
As with all sports and pastimes, boxing has been influenced by these larger cultural trends. The biggest boxing star of the past half century, Muhammad Ali, became an icon for the civil rights movement and the youth rebellion of the 1960s. His biggest fights transformed into allegorical passion plays for larger societal struggles.
The life of WBC heavyweight champion Vitali Klitschko has been shaped by these trends, as well. The son of a high-ranking Soviet officer, he was already an adult when the U.S.S.R. and Soviet Bloc dissolved in the face of mass refusal to keep participating across Eastern Europe and the Caucasus region. Vitali and his brother Wladimir have been national heroes in the Ukraine at a time when the country was returning to autonomous rule. As he has matured as a man, Vitali has played an increasingly active role in shaping his nation’s future. In 2012 he was elected to the Ukrainian Parliament and this past October he announced plans to run for President of the country in 2015.
All of this is happening as the Ukraine enters an extremely turbulent epoch. In recent weeks, dissatisfaction with the administration of current Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych has brought hundreds of thousands of protestors into the streets. In a scene that has been repeated again and again across the globe in recent years, from Bangkok to Oakland to lower Manhattan to Cairo, an aggressive police response has led to rioting and public violence.
Klitschko has been an active participant in the protests, calling for Yanukovych’s resignation and the release of all political protesters. At the same time, he has been a voice of restraint when addressing the loud, angry crowds. Despite a lack of significant political experience, Klitschko has the educational background and public standing to serve as an effective elected official, particularly during a divisive time for the nation.
Klitschko may have an opportunity to do something for his nation far bigger than what he’s accomplished in boxing. But meanwhile, elsewhere, life does go on. It’s now been 15 months since Vitali has defended his belt. It’s long past time for the WBC to take action.
Bermane Stiverne’s impressive unanimous-decision victory over Chris Arreola last April was supposed to earn him a title shot. Instead Stiverne has wasted the last half of 2013 sitting on the shelf, waiting for Klitschko.
The WBC’s reluctance to strip a long-standing champion of Klitschko’s stature is understandable. But there is no rational justification for not sanctioning an interim champion in the meantime. This is boxing, after all. The various alphabet soup sanctioning bodies are always naming various interim champions—sometimes more than one in a single division. Often the naming of interim champions makes absolutely no sense at all. There are cases when interim championships have been fought for within a month of the regular belt being defended.
But this is a case when sanctioning an interim champion would not only be justified, but when logic and decency demand it. This is a situation when the active champion has been unable to defend his belt within a reasonable period of time. And given the situation on the ground in the Ukraine, as well as Vitali’s age and stated long-term goals, it is time for this young man’s sport to keep moving forward.
Bermane Stiverne deserved a title shot last fall. He should get one in the first month or two of 2014, if not against Vitali Klitschko, than against either Deontay Wilder or Bryant Jennings, the WBC’s undefeated No. 3 and 4 contenders (Stiverne already beat No. 2, Arreola). If Klitschko wants to return later in 2014 to fight the winner in a unification bout, fair enough. It would be the biggest heavyweight fight in North America in years.
If neither Wilder nor Jennings feels ready yet for this kind of step up than I am sure No. 5 ranked Mike Perez would be happy to step in.
American boxing writers, nostalgic for the golden ages of the 1970s and 1990s have been daydreaming for years about what a post-Klitschko heavyweight division might look like. The time is right for the WBC to start offering a preview. It’s the only right thing to do.