Klitschko to Square Off With Ibragimov

ReutersKlitschko, left, and Ibragimov at Tuesday's news conference in New York.
NEW YORK -- Ukraine's Wladimir Klitschko and Russia's Sultan Ibragimov intend to take the first step toward gluing together boxing's heavyweight division.

Klitschko, the IBF champion and widely considered the best of the four current titleholders, will face WBO champ Ibragimov on Feb. 23 in New York's Madison Square Garden, the first unification fight in eight years in boxing's marquee division.

"At this point, in the heavyweight division, we are desperate," Klitschko, 31, said at Tuesday's announcement of the fight. "We need only one champion and to stop all these conversations on when the next unification is going to be. With this press conference, it is over."

Or at least finally starting. Not since Lennox Lewis beat Evander Holyfield in their 1999 rematch has there been a heavyweight unification fight, and the road to this one wasn't easy.

When Ibragimov, 32, won his title by easily out-pointing Shannon Briggs in June, the 2000 Olympic silver medalist quickly made a deal to fight WBA champ Ruslan Chagayev in Moscow. But Chagayev came down with an illness and had to back out, leaving Ibragimov to easily dispatch fill-in Holyfield.

Interim WBC champion Samuel Peter has a number of mandatory challengers waiting in line, which could occupy him for some time, leaving just one alternative for Ibragimov.

"The deal was made with Klitschko, who wanted a fight for a unification from Day 1," said Leon Margules of Seminole Warriors Boxing, one of the handlers for Ibragimov. "That is why this is the heavyweight championship for the true heavyweight champion, because all the other heavyweight champions don't want to play."

While other weight divisions have had notable bouts recently, including Oscar De La Hoya's super-welterweight fight with Floyd Mayweather Jr., the Miguel Cotto-Shane Mosley welterweight encounter last month, or Mayweather vs. Ricky Hatton on Saturday in Las Vegas, the heavyweight division always draws attention.

"If we talk about being the heavyweight champion of the world, I can't even compare it to other sports," Klitschko said. "I don't know other titles that are so important and so valid and so powerful."

Once the fight was made, they decided to stage it at Madison Square Garden over more lucrative offers from Moscow and Germany.

"I told you last time I was here that you would see great things," said Ibragimov, who has fought twice before at the Garden. "Now you will see a great unification fight."

Klitschko (49-3, 44 KOs) has already proven he's a fighting champ. After winning his IBF belt from Chris Byrd with a seventh-round TKO in June 2006, the Olympic champ knocked out Calvin Brock and mandatory challengers Ray Austin and Lamon Brewster.

He figures to have a tremendous advantage in size and experience over Ibragimov (22-0 with one draw and 17 KOs), who almost certainly will rely on his quickness and stamina in an attempt to wear down his opponent over 12 rounds.

It's a tactic that has rarely worked against Klitschko.

"I don't think this is going to go the distance," said Hall of Fame trainer Emanuel Steward, who appeared with Klitschko's camp. "I think most people consider Wladimir as the real heavyweight champion."

Fortunately for fans, come February that won't be entirely speculation.