Some claims his calculated fights will send you to sleep, but Klitschko is the most brilliant of talents who has earned his place at the top
To look at Wladimir Klitschko’s record and physical prowess is to look at one of the greatest heavyweights of all time. Or is it?
Klitschko is a brilliant talent with statistics that rank among the very best, yet those who back him for entry into the pantheon of the greats must counter the argument that the heavyweight division has slumbered during his long reign, that public interest has waned in what was once ‘the richest prize in sport’, that his fights can be a snorefest.
Klitschko has every tool in the box: size, power, athleticsm, and an unrelenting desire to be at the peak of fitness. The huge Ukrainian has been untouchable for almost a decade, nine of those as world champion.
But his fights can be dull. Jab, jab. Hold. Heavyweight boxing, so they say, should be about knockouts.
“Maybe I am boring,” Klitschko admits at his final media open day before taking on Tyson Fury next Saturday night Dusseldorf.
“I was taught how to fight. My brother, Vitali [the former world champion], is a true fighter. He has it in his bones. I learnt to fight,” says Klitschko, who has 50 knockouts in his record of 64 wins, three losses.
The son of a Soviet Air Force major general and military attache with the Ukrainian foreign office, Klitschko travelled the world and was schooled in a soviet-style boarding school sports academy. That austerity, and his physical education, may have influenced his conservative fighting style.
But Wladimir proved to be a formidable amateur boxer, bringing home the super heavyweight gold medal at the 1996 Olympics. He was a hit in Atlanta, but the American public has never taken to him. They want action.
As a professional boxer, the Ukrainian has held a world heavyweight championship since 2006, and statistics place the 39-year-old historicly as a giant of the heavyweight division, equal first with the great Joe Louis for the most heavyweight title fights, on 27. Klitschko will surpass that mark in the showdown with Fury, the 6ft 9in tall, 18st British challenger.
Budd Schulberg, the screenwriter and sports writer, labelled this era ‘the bargain basement’ for heavyweights before his death in 2009, yet look through history and even Louis fought what boxing insiders dismissively refer to as ‘bums’ in some of his record number of defences. Schulberg, though, witnessed the golden era – with Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier, George Foreman and Holmes.
Even the era preceding Klitschko was packed with attacking fighters in Mike Tyson, Evander Holyfield, Lennox Lewis, and Riddick Bowe. There were great fights, and knockouts aplenty. And indeed, great opponents for each other.
One of Klitschko’s difficulties has been the lack of opposition. Mostly ‘bums’, as Schulberg testily put it.
British former world champions Joe Calzaghe and John Conteh are convinced Klitschko will only be appreciated when he has saddled up and left the sport.
“Sometimes it’s not until you retire that people appreciate you,” Calzaghe, who retired undefeated on 46 fights, tells The Sunday Telegraph. “I’ve been retired seven years now and people are starting to respect what I achieved.
I think a similar thing will happen with Klitschko.”
People might take him for granted now, but when he retires people will put him in the top 10 or 15 heavyweights of all time. He’s got longevity on his side, and he’s proved he’s a true champion.”
Conteh, the WBC world light-heavyweight champion from the 1970s, agrees.
“Klitschko is clearly a great boxer, but he gets compared with the great Americans who were natural fighters – the Alis, the Fraziers, the Foremans,” he says.
“I compare him to that era and they were natural fighters whereas he seems to be more robotic and mechanical and scientific. But you can’t question the records, the discipline and the fitness. Retaining the titles over years is admirable.”
Klitschko’s stuttering early career blossomed after the great Emanuel Steward became his trainer in 2003, yet the route was a defensive-minded one. Klitschko had been knocked out in the second round by the late Corrie Sanders in March 2003. Steward had trained Lennox Lewis, and knew the formula.
And although Klitschko lost his first contest under Steward, stopped in the fifth by Lamon Brewster in April, 2004, Steward worked on Klitschko’s footwork, set the base behind a huge, long, power jab, and created a near unbeatable – yet defensive – fighting machine. Klitschko calls Steward a genius and yet the Hall-of-fame Detroit trainer was not always happy with his star pupil.
I recall being at Klitschko’s defence of the world title in Germany against Eddie Chambers in 2010, and although he won by 12th-round KO, Steward screamed incessantly at the Ukrainian between rounds after the mid-way point of the fight to finish Chambers. At Klitschko’s next training camp, Steward told me that he was exasperated at times because there were moments when his charge “lacked the killer instinct”.
“That’s the only difference between Wlad and Lennox Lewis,” Steward had explained. “Lennox recognises that moment to pounce, and he finishes people.” And that is the crux of being an exciting, loved heavyweight.
Safety-first is perceived as boring.
I was ringside for two Klitschko defences at Madison Square Garden in New York against Sultan Ibragimov in 2008 and Calvin Brock in 2006. Both were excruciatingly dull. The great boxing historian Bert Randolph Sugar turned to me in the Brock fight and asked me to wake him up “when a fight broke out”. It was the fifth round. Klitschko had not even thrown a right hand.
Once he did, he finished Brock.Johnathon Banks, once a sparring partner for Klitschko who took over as lead trainer after Steward’s death in 2012, has helped draw more of the aggressiveness out of Klitschko. “We are seeing it more,” Banks tells The Sunday Telegraph.
“But Wlad won’t be appreciated until after he has left the sport. Same as Joe Louis, same as Larry Holmes…once Wlad leaves, and the titles are passed around like turkeys on Thanksgiving Day, nobody will know who is champion.”
Klitschko is unfazed by the criticism. Nor is he willing to compare himself to the greats, either. “Honestly, I get a little nervous. I don’t want to be compared with those guys. They’re icons for me. I still look up to them.
“My goal is just to be and remain successful in the ring. I’ve spent a quarter of a century boxing. Beating up people for a living is one of the most enjoyable things. But it’s so complicated and difficult, trust me, to stay on top for a long time. There is just one slogan I live by: ‘defeat is not an option.”