(Written December 2014 by MJ Law)
In 2011, a documentary movie was released featuring boxing siblings Vitali and Wladimir Klitschko. The promotional tag line was “Fighters; Legends; Brothers”. It’s quite common for any movie to be inundated with overblown hype regardless of its merits. But in this instance it’s the inclusion of the word ‘legends’ that is intriguing. The production company behind the movie was Broadview TV and naturally they want as many people as possible to watch or buy this movie, and part of their attempt to do that would be to insinuate that it is essential viewing showcasing a pair of boxing immortals. But what did Vitali and Wladimir make of it? Do they consider themselves to be legends?
The careers of the Klitschko brothers have followed a rather odd path, for they certainly have their detractors, yet there is also a faction of the boxing community that appears to think these two hulking Ukrainians really are genuine all-time great heavyweights. But where did this line of thinking come from? Are they worthy of being referred to as legends and if they are then what have they done to achieve such a lofty status?
Before assessing their ring records, it should be first emphasised that winning any alphabet belts should not be considered a history-making achievement. A boxer could boast that he has his name in the record books, but because of the staggering number of titles in circulation any record book would contain thousands of entries! It's a fact that a boxer doesn’t have to beat the best in the world to win a title. As an example, consider Juergen Braehmer of Germany. This is a fighter who can currently call himself the world light-heavyweight champion, at least according to the WBA. But he can’t box and he can’t punch. He’s dreadful to watch and he’s never beaten any of the leading light-heavyweights, not Adonis Stevenson, nor Chad Dawson, nor Bernard Hopkins, nor Sergei Kovalev, nor Jean Pascal. Not a single one of them! It’s ludicrous to think that he could rank himself alongside the likes of Archie Moore or Tommy Loughran as an actual world light-heavyweight champion. The belt he holds exists purely to generate sanctioning fees for the WBA and it’s a disgrace.
Braehmer is a fine example of how a world champion in boxing doesn’t have to be a particularly good practitioner. Is there any other sport that can make such a dismal claim? In Formula One Grand Prix racing, a world champion has to be a fantastic driver, but in boxing a world champion doesn’t have to be a fantastic fighter.
Between them, the Klitschko brothers have held several alphabet belts, but all that is relevant here is their reigns as lineal heavyweight champions. Vitali can be deemed as the lineal champion from 2004 to 2005 and Wladimir can be deemed as the lineal champion from 2008 to the time of this writing.
Holding a lineal championship is important in this era of alphabet belt madness because it allows for a proper world champion to be recognized and provides some integrity to an otherwise terribly confusing sport to follow (in respect of titles). It also continues a rich historical tradition dating back to the earliest days of boxing with gloves. In a recent edition of “Boxing Matters”, a weekly show on the UK’s Box Nation channel, some misguided comments about lineal champions were made by Ron Lewis, a correspondent for “The Times”, a British national daily newspaper. Ron is a regular guest on “Boxing Matters” and he was asked a question about Miguel Cotto, who had defeated Sergio Martinez to become the new lineal world middleweight champion. Ron, who really should know better, said he wasn’t bothered about Cotto’s position as a lineal champion. He went on to mumble something about lineal champions not being forced to defend against the best contenders in a division and cited George Foreman as an illustration. Ron has clearly missed the point and predictably named Foreman, who admittedly is not an ideal advertisement for lineal champions.
Ron was alluding to Foreman’s second reign as the lineal heavyweight champion, which began when he dethroned Michael Moorer on 5th November 1994 and ended when he was outpointed by Shannon Briggs on 22nd November 1997. In between, he made just three successful defences; beating Axel Schultz, Crawford Grimsley and Lou Savarese, none of whom were worthy challengers. It is true that Foreman avoided the best in the division and this was not an appropriate demonstration of a reign of a lineal champion. However, there are other factors that Ron blatantly overlooked.
Wladimir won a gold medal at the 1996 Olympic Games
Firstly, holding an alphabet belt does not guarantee that a fighter will face the best in a division. The aforementioned Sergio Martinez reigned as the lineal middleweight champion from 2010 until his loss to Cotto this year. During his reign, Martinez defended against Paul Williams, Sergei Dzinziruk and Julio Cesar Chavez Jr, all of whom were world class opponents. Compare that to the parallel reign of WBA middleweight champion Gennady Golovkin, who has defended against a badly-faded Kassim Ouma, mediocre no-hoper Nilson Tapia and undistinguished Osumanu Adama. Although, Golovkin has beaten a couple of decent fighters (such as Nobuhiro Ishida and Curtis Stevens), he has not faced the level of opposition that Martinez has faced. Quite simply, the WBA has not mandated that Golovkin face the best in the division, if they had then he would have already been in the ring with Martinez at the WBA’s urging. The alphabet groups plainly do not designate their title-holders to defend against the best in a division, particularly if they hold a title themselves. Alphabet belt-holders are consistently allowed to face ordinary, largely unknown challengers. And besides, the lineal champions generally also hold an alphabet belt anyway, another point that Ron Lewis missed.
Secondly, the market place usually dictates the best fights. If a fighter wants to gain a big payday then he will likely have to tackle a lucrative opponent in a showdown that will attract considerable attention. Let’s take the case of recently-crowned lineal featherweight champion Nonito Donaire. He could make big money by defending against Abner Mares, or Vasyl Lomachenko, or maybe Leo Santa Cruz, each of which would be a worthy challenger for him. But in the current rankings of the WBA (whose title Donaire also holds), he could defend against obscure, so-so opposition such as Claudio Marrero, Ronny Rios or Hisashi Amagasa. Who the hell are these guys? Would anyone care about Donaire against Marrero or Donaire against Amagasa? Wouldn’t boxing fans prefer to see Donaire against Mares or Donaire against Lomachenko? And would the WBA coerce Donaire into fighting Mares or Lomachenko? In the market place, fights with Mares and Lomachenko are the best and they are also the most worthy.
Thirdly, during Foreman’s reign as the lineal champion from 1994 to 1997, the likes of Bruce Seldon, Frank Bruno, Henry Akinwande and Herbie Hide all held alphabet belts at various times and they are poor excuses for a so-called world heavyweight champion. Seldon briefly held the WBA title from 1995 to 1996 and his lone successful defence was against crude Joe Hipp. And Akinwande held the WBO title from 1996 to 1997 and his two successful defences were against the forgettable Alexander Zolkin and the limited, undeserving Scott Welch. Were Hipp, Zolkin and Welch really any better than any of Foreman’s challengers?
As previously mentioned, Ron Lewis should know better and as a writer for one of the UK’s most well known newspapers he could use his role for the betterment of boxing and campaign against the numerous deficiencies and unscrupulous activities of the alphabet groups instead of just going with the flow and accepting their existence. He may make the odd jibe but he is in a position of influence which he fails to wield to its full extent for the good of the sport.
However, back to the Klitschko brothers, whose reigns as lineal champions and not alphabet belt-holders will be taken into account when assessing their accomplishments. Vitali was born on 18th July 1971 in Kiev, Ukraine, and made his professional debut on 16th November 1996, stopping Tony Bradham in two rounds in Hamburg, Germany. Over the next two years he racked up twenty-three straight victories, all of them inside the distance and none of them going beyond six rounds. All but two of them took place in Germany (one was in Austria and one was in the USA). His opponents were a mixture of hapless washouts, faded journeymen and clubfighters. Interestingly, eighteen of them were coming off a loss when they faced Vitali.
On 24th October 1998, Vitali won the vacant European heavyweight title with a victory over the unremarkable Mario Schiesser of Germany. Up until that point, the only notable name on Schiesser’s record was Henry Akinwande, and Akinwande had knocked him out in seven rounds four years previously.
Vitali with his wife (Natalie)
Vitali’s level of opposition increased somewhat with triumphs over Herbie Hide and Obed Sullivan, a pair of reasonable though hardly mesmerizing fringe contenders. Then he suffered his first defeat. On 1st April 2000, he retired after nine rounds against Chris Byrd of the USA, citing a shoulder injury. Byrd had won a silver medal as a middleweight at the 1992 Olympic Games, which had been held in Barcelona, Spain. Byrd was a pretty decent fighter, though he was a light hitter and would struggle to put a dent in a bowl of custard. He also had an ugly blemish on his record; he had been blasted out by Ike Ibeabuchi in five rounds on 20th March 1999.
There was a mixed reaction to Vitali’s defeat to Byrd. Some critics claimed he had lost heart and simply quit, whereas others suggested that he had no choice but to call it a day with a potentially severe injury. Whatever the case, he was soon back in action and scored a quintet of wins over fair-but-not-fabulous opposition (including a deteriorating Orlin Norris and mauler Vaughn Bean). This led to a shot at Lennox Lewis, the lineal world heavyweight champion and a fighter estimated to be standing head and shoulders above the rest of the division. The bout unfolded in Los Angeles on 21st June 2003 and Vitali put forth a spirited effort but was ultimately stopped on cuts after six rounds. This effort was certainly something that Vitali could build on and he rebounded later in the year by blowing out Kirk Johnson of Canada in the second round in Madison Square Garden. Johnson was obviously no Joe Louis, but he was at least a decent top ten contender and it was a good win for Vitali.
In February 2004, Lewis announced his retirement and looked forward to a well-earned life of putting his feet up and rambling about the good old days. Unfortunately, Lewis left a huge void in the heavyweight division which has never really been filled. Lewis had beaten all the leading contenders and could feasibly have reigned successfully for another two or three years if he had chosen to. Though there was some concern about the lack of quality in the division at the time, Vitali appeared to be the front-runner in attempting to fill that void.
On 8th March 2003, Wladimir had been surprisingly crushed in two rounds by South African journeyman Corrie Sanders and Corrie was subsequently matched with Vitali for the vacant world (and lineal) heavyweight championship on 24th April 2004. This bout was also recognized by “The Ring” magazine and occurred in Los Angeles. Vitali halted Sanders in the eighth round and not only gained revenge for his brother but also became the new lineal champ. At this stage, the future of the heavyweight division rested on his shoulders and he definitely had potential.
His first defence was on 11th December 2004 and was against Danny Williams in Las Vegas. Williams had earned this shot with an unexpected triumph over Mike Tyson, though Tyson was way past his prime and was nowhere near the force he once was (additionally he had experienced a knee injury in the fight). Williams was really only a journeyman and Vitali had little difficulty in wearing him down and knocking him out in the eighth round.
Going into 2005, Vitali was next scheduled to defend against former lineal champion Hasim Rahman, but this bout was persistently postponed because of a series of injuries suffered by Vitali. It became almost comical, with Vitali coming across as an accident-prone Oliver Hardy, stumbling from one physical mishap to another. If a part of the body could be injured, then Vitali seemed to injure it. He finally gave up and announced his retirement in November 2005.
Lennox Lewis inflicted a monstrous cut on Vitali
At this juncture, Vitali was not generally considered to be a great heavyweight. If he had remained retired, he would have been viewed as a good but not outstanding champion. The legendary status that some have applied to Vitali only occurred after he returned to the ring in 2008. And following that return, he engaged in ten fights before retiring again in 2013. So what happened in those ten fights that would qualify Vitali as a genuinely great heavyweight who could be ranked alongside the best of all time? Let’s take a rundown of those ten fights and evaluate them:-
11th October 2008 - Samuel Peter
Peter held the WBC title, which he had won from the utterly dire Oleg Maskaev. Peter had no real game plan to speak of and gave a lifeless, plodding performance before quitting on his stool after eight rounds.
21st March 2009 - Juan Carlos Gomez
Gomez hadn’t really done much since being flattened in the first round by Yanqui Diaz back in 2004. The best name on his recent record was a points win over the aging, erratic Oliver McCall in 2007. Against Vitali, the predictable ending came in the ninth round, with Gomez having been worn down.
26th September 2009 - Chris Arreola
A prime example of the weak state of the heavyweight division was the fact that one of the leading contenders was Arreola. The blubbery Arreola was game but limited and surrendered after ten rounds. Who knows what could have happened if he had been in better condition?
12th December 2009 - Kevin Johnson
Johnson had a passable record and had displayed a decent amount of talent but he gave an appalling effort against Vitali. In a painfully dull fight, Johnson made no attempt to win and should have been ashamed of himself for blowing an opportunity.
29th May 2010 - Albert Sosnowski
This was a pointless mismatch. The mediocre Sosnowski had scored no significant victories and was unheard of prior to facing Vitali. It came as no surprise when he was stopped in the tenth round.
16th October 2010 - Shannon Briggs
Another pointless mismatch. Briggs had actually been the lineal heavyweight champion from 1997 to 1998, ending George Foreman’s second reign before losing to Lennox Lewis on his first defence. By 2010, Briggs was way past his peak and had achieved nothing since being thrashed on points by Sultan Ibragimov in 2007. He could offer no resistance in losing a lopsided decision to Vitali.
19th March 2011 - Odlanier Solis
Solis actually possessed a considerable amount of talent and was expected to be a legitimate threat to Vitali. On the positive side, Solis was undefeated and had a terrific amateur background, winning three gold medals at consecutive world amateur championships (in 2001, 2003 and 2005) as well as a gold medal at the 2004 Olympic Games, which were held in Athens, Greece. On the negative side, he was something of an underachiever as a pro and had given several lethargic performances. In addition, there was great concern over his conditioning and at times he had seemed to be prepping for an audition in a remake of B-movie classic “The Blob”. Unfortunately, any threat he posed to Vitali never came to fruition as Solis entered the bout with a knee injury and in the first round his knee gave out when he was backing up. The referee had no choice but to wave it over.
10th September 2011 - Tomasz Adamek
Adamek was on a thirteen-bout winning streak and had gained victories over reasonable foes such as Jason Estrada, Andrew Golota and Chris Arreola. Adamek gave it his all but came up short and lost on points. This was Vitali’s best victory since he launched his comeback.
18th February 2012 - Dereck Chisora
Chisora was a strong heavyweight with a solid punch but he was woefully lacking in world class experience. He had only had seventeen bouts going into his clash with Vitali and he was not really ready. Furthermore, he had undergone a mixed year in 2011. On 23rd July that year he had lost on points to Tyson Fury, having entered the ring grossly overweight and out of shape. Later, on 3rd December, he had been openly robbed against the unrefined, horrible-to-watch Robert Helenius of Finland. It was a disgusting result, with Chisora having won nearly every round yet two incompetent judges gave it to Helenius for a split decision win. However, Chisora gave Vitali all he could handle and pushed him further than any other opponent had since Vitali’s comeback had begun. Vitali deserved the decision but Chisora deserved admiration.
8th September 2012 - Manuel Charr
Yet another pointless mismatch. The inept Charr was hopelessly outclassed and stopped in four rounds. Totally forgettable.
And that was it. In December 2013, Vitali again announced his retirement, opting to venture into the murky world of politics in his home country of Ukraine. So how did Vitali earn the status of an all-time great heavyweight? Sure, he had done exceptionally well to return to the ring in 2008 and emerge victorious in ten subsequent fights, but who exactly had he beaten? During his career, Vitali had defeated some good fighters, but no great fighters. The best name on his record is Lennox Lewis, who beat him. In terms of quality of opposition, the likes of Joe Louis, Muhammad Ali, Larry Holmes and Evander Holyfield would all rank above him. Vitali fans could nod towards Joe Louis’s so-called “Bum-of-the-Month Club”, but remember that Louis also topped Max Schmeling, Tommy Farr, Billy Conn and Jersey Joe Walcott twice, all of whom are significantly superior to anyone that Vitali has triumphed over.
Vitali's win over Sosnowski was a pointless mismatch
What about being involved in a timeless classic? Boxing fans will never tire of discussing Jack Dempsey against Luis Angel Firpo, or Rocky Marciano’s first bout with Walcott, or Ali’s first and third clashes with Joe Frazier. But was Vitali ever involved in a fight that could be viewed as a timeless classic? Quite simply, no.
Which brings us to Vitali’s boxing ability. He was a strong, durable heavyweight who was quite a hard puncher. But he wasn’t a murderous puncher in the mould of Marciano or Tyson. And he did not have the speed or reflexes of a champ like Ali or Jack Johnson. At times, Vitali came across as a rather gangly heavyweight, all arms and legs, and a little uncoordinated. He was a bit flat-footed and mechanical too. However, as a bonus, he stood six feet, seven inches tall and had a reach of seventy-nine inches and he knew how to use those physical attributes to his advantage. But it has to be noted that he did not possess the classy skills of a fighter like Jersey Joe Walcott, who had a bottomless bag of tricks, or Gene Tunney, who could outfox a fox.
Perhaps the most glaring element of Vitali’s career is that the period from 2004 to 2014 must be regarded as the weakest in heavyweight history. Of course, this was not Vitali’s fault. He can only campaign in the era that he grows up in, but how great an achievement is it to be successful in the weakest period in heavyweight history?
To surmise, Vitali should not be regarded as an all-time great heavyweight. He was a good champion, maybe very good, but certainly not great.
Now, how about his brother, Wladimir? The younger brother was born on 25th March 1976 in Kiev, Ukraine. He represented his country at the 1996 Olympic Games, which were held in Atlanta, USA, and came away with a gold medal. He made his professional debut on 16th November 1996 in Hamburg, Germany, on the same bill as Vitali and scored a first round knockout over Fabian Meza. He then put together a winning streak of twenty-four bouts which consisted of one points victory, two disqualification victories and the rest coming by KO or TKO. Those twenty-four victims entailed a variety of has-beens and clubfighters, and fourteen of them were coming off a loss when they stepped into the ring against Wladimir. One of the disqualification victories was interesting. It was against a sacrificial lamb from the Democratic Republic of Congo called Biko Botowamungu and occurred on 23rd August 1997. At the start of the fifth round, Botowamungu’s corner men refused to leave the ring, complaining that Wladimir was fouling. The referee presumably didn’t believe them and disqualified Botowamungu.
The Wladimir express rolled on but was spectacularly derailed on 5th December 1998 when he was knocked out in the eleventh round by ordinary journeyman Ross Puritty in his hometown of Kiev. It remains an ugly loss on his record against a fighter that he really should have beaten with ease.
Wladimir sprung back with a quartet of wins in what were nothing more than unexceptional mismatches. Then he challenged Axel Schulz for the vacant European heavyweight title. It took place on 25th September 1999 and Schulz, who was basically a run-of-the-mill plodder from Germany, was stopped in the eighth round. Wladimir was now the European champion but his first real significant victory came about on 14th October 2000 when he won a unanimous decision over Chris Byrd. At the time, Byrd was coming off a win over Vitali and so it must have been sweet vengeance for Wladimir.
Over the next two years, Wladimir added a further five wins to his record. His opponents were fair but not jaw-dropping and included a completely shot Frans Botha and an over-the-hill Ray Mercer. At this juncture, talk began about Wladimir being a possible future world champion and that he would soon be ready to challenge the reigning kingpin of the division, Lennox Lewis. But unfortunately there was another train wreck.
On 8th March 2003, Wladimir was sensationally blown away in two rounds by Corrie Sanders. Like Puritty, this was a fighter whom Wladimir should not have lost to and it is quite a ghastly setback that he shouldn’t bother mentioning when recalling tales of his boxing career to his grandchildren.
Sanders went on to tackle Vitali for the vacant lineal championship and Vitali kindly gained revenge for his younger brother when he stopped Sanders in eight rounds. Sadly for Wladimir, he had little opportunity to restore his dignity because he was blown away again the following year, this time in five rounds by Lamon Brewster on 10th April 2004. In this bout, Wladimir looked fragile as he was bullied around the ring and his reputation had taken as big a pounding as he had. Curiously, after this bout he made a series of allusions to try to explain his loss, including claiming his drinking water had been poisoned beforehand. Nobody took him seriously and it appeared out of character for him.
However, he dusted himself off and sought out the guidance of Emmanuel Steward, one of the truly great trainers in boxing history. The rebuilding was a rather slow progress but Wladimir has not encountered another defeat up until the time of this writing. He certainly improved under Emmanuel’s guidance but had quite a scare when he took on Samuel Peter of Nigeria on 24th September 2005. Wladimir was dropped three times and had to endure some heavy pressure as he hung on to the final bell and was awarded a unanimous decision. It proved to be quite a test and he survived it.
Wladimir in his humbling loss to Sanders
Wladimir went on to beat Chris Byrd in a rematch (Byrd appeared to forget all about head movement in this bout), undefeated though inexperienced Olympian Calvin Brock and then the utterly hopeless Ray Austin in a meaningless mismatch.
On 7th July 2007, Wladimir gained revenge over Brewster, with Brewster retiring after six rounds. However, Brewster had lost his previous fight and been inactive for over a year.
At this stage, the lineal heavyweight championship was vacant and Wladimir can be deemed to have won it when he outpointed Sultan Ibragimov of Russia on 23rd February 2008 at Madison Square Garden. It should be highlighted that at the time of the Ibragimov fight, Wladimir was not considered a great heavyweight and was not a clear favourite to beat the Russian.
Ibragimov was undefeated, held an alphabet title and had wins over Lance Whitaker, Shannon Briggs and a decrepit Evander Holyfield. Of course, that does not make for a mouth-watering record, but given the weak state of the heavyweight division it was at least adequate. The loss that Brewster had suffered before his rematch with Wladimir had been to Sergei Liakhovich, who in turn had lost to Shannon Briggs, who had then lost to Ibragimov.
If Wladimir and Ibragimov had made a pact to create the most boring fight in heavyweight history then they pretty much succeeded. After playing patty-cake for twelve rounds, the judges decided that Wladimir had been the best at swatting and he got the verdict. There was still no label of greatness being applied to Wladimir and since sending the audience into a slumber against Ibragimov he has prevailed in thirteen outings. Let’s take a look at them:-
12th July 2008 - Tony Thompson
Thompson was nothing more than an ordinary contender with an unspectacular record. In just about any other era he wouldn’t have gotten near the top ten. He was broken down and halted in the eleventh round.
13th December 2008 - Hasim Rahman
Rahman had briefly been the lineal champion back in 2001 but by 2008 he was totally diminished as a fighter and should have already retired. Predictably, he was stopped in the seventh round of a painful mismatch.
20th June 2009 - Ruslan Chagaev
Chageav actually had some potential. He was undefeated, appeared to have a modicum of talent and had already beaten the gigantic Nicolay Valuev, which at least demonstrated that Chagaev could handle a bigger foe (Wladimir had height, weight and reach advantages over Chagaev). Disappointingly, Chagaev appeared to have no game plan to speak of and gave a lethargic effort before quitting after the ninth round.
20th March 2010 - Eddie Chambers
Chambers was quite quick with his hands and he also had some potential to present a difficult challenge for Wladimir. Unfortunately, at the opening bell Chambers morphed into a submissive pacifist and made no effort to win. Between rounds, when one of the camera operators zoomed into the Chambers corner, his trainers could be heard imploring him to at least try, but he ignored them. Wladimir landed a crushing blow to end this dreary fight in the final round but it was a mystery as to why Wladimir had taken so long to go for a KO against such a meek opponent. In his corner, Emmanuel Steward had been pleading with him to be more aggressive but Wladimir remained cautious until the end.
11th September 2010 - Samuel Peter
There was no demand for a rematch with Peter. He had done nothing noteworthy since losing to Vitali two years previously. In this bout, Peter was abysmal and gave a lackadaisical performance before being stopped in the tenth round.
2nd July 2011 - David Haye
This was another painful fight to watch. Haye was another challenger who could potentially be a genuine threat to topple Wladimir. In the build-up for the fight, he came across as an arrogant blabbermouth, never missing an opportunity to boast about how he was going to destroy the Ukrainian champion. But like Chagaev and Chambers before him, Haye made no effort to win and the fight rapidly deteriorated into a mind-numbing snooze-a-thon. Haye’s performance must be among the worst in heavyweight history. In a post-fight interview, he claimed his meagre showing was caused by a toe injury, but this lame excuse met with general mockery and derision.
3rd March 2012 - Jean-Marc Mormeck
Yet another bout to add to the list of pointless mismatches. Mormeck was past his peak and had done nothing to earn a shot at the world heavyweight championship. In a nauseating, one-sided encounter, Mormeck was knocked out in the fourth round.
7th July 2012 - Tony Thompson
Wladimir had already beaten Thompson decisively in their first meeting so why waste everybody’s time by having them face each other again? Thompson was clearly not going to win and it was inevitably lights out for him in the sixth round. The fact that this bout even took place is more evidence of the weak state of the heavyweight division.
10th November 2012 - Mariusz Wach
How many more pointless mismatches was Wladimir willing to engage in? How motivated could he be to take on someone like Wach? With the exception of Wach’s relatives, did anyone care about this fight? He was undefeated but had scored no remarkable victories and had done nothing to earn this chance. The only surprise was that it lasted the distance.
4th May 2013 - Francesco Pianeta
Here we go again. Another pointless mismatch. Pianeta was an unknown, undeserving prospect who had beaten no one of note. In a bout that was about as exciting as reading a book about the history of concrete, the referee came to Pianeta’s rescue in the sixth round.
5th October 2013 - Alexander Povetkin
Is it Wladimir himself or is he just cursed with bad luck in having a potentially intriguing fight turn into something as odious as the contents of a baby’s diaper? It’s true that Povetkin was a boring plodder but he had a degree of talent along with a record that was sufficient enough to give him a reasonable chance of winning. Discouragingly, Povetkin’s ludicrous strategy was to lunge in wildly with telegraphed haymakers. Was that really the best strategy Povetkin could come up with for the biggest fight of his career? The mind boggles. Wladimir basically spent twelve rounds leaning on him, a hideous tactic that the referee was happy to let him get away with. Interestingly, Wladimir’s relentless leaning was carried out so fluidly that it was quite obvious he had trained to do it. Povetkin was dropped in the second round and three times in the sixth round, though two of the knockdowns in the sixth round actually resulted from shoves rather than punches, not that this concerned the amenable referee.
26th April 2014 - Alex Leapai
Time for another pointless mismatch. An apparent search for an obliging punch bag to pound on produced the limited, inexperienced Leapai. It was a sorry spectacle as he was battered into submission in five rounds.
15th November 2014 - Kubrat Pulev
Pulev was from Bulgaria, a country not generally regarded as being a boxing hotbed. He was big (6 feet, 4 inches tall and 247 lbs) and had a nice record (no losses and wins over respectable opposition (only barely - the term good but not great applies again) such as Alexander Dimitrenko and Tony Thompson). Unfortunately, he had no natural ability. His footwork and mobility was terrible; he was rigid and stiff-legged with only so-so balance. His style involved waving his arms about at the sides of his head and it was difficult to ascertain whether he was trying to be awkward or was just shooing flies away. There was no grace or finesse. Overall, it was not an enthralling event and the end thankfully came in the fifth round. It's quite obvious that a division is in a weak state when a guy like Pulev is one of the best contenders.
The Pulev fight was Wladimir’s thirteenth successful defence of the lineal heavyweight crown and if he wasn’t commonly viewed as an all-time great champion after his win over Ibragimov, then what has he done since to deserve such a special distinction? Is it because he has remained unbeaten since 2004? Certainly, he has improved following his loss to Brewster, but does consistently winning warrant a passage to greatness?
Benny Lynch of Scotland reigned as the world flyweight champion from 1935 to 1938 and made three successful defences. Pongsaklek Wonjongkam of Thailand reigned as the world flyweight champion from 2001 to 2007 and again from 2010 to 2012. He made seventeen successful defences on his first reign and four successful defences on his second reign. So Wonjongkam reigned for a much longer period of time and made far more successful defences. However, Lynch is the greater champion because of his superior power, speed and ability as well as the fact that his quality of opposition was higher. Lynch would definitely have to be included in the top ten flyweights of all time, and would probably be in the top three or four. But it’s debatable whether Wonjongkam would deserve a place in the top ten. Therefore, longevity does not automatically go hand-in-hand with greatness.
Wladimir has never been as exciting as Jack Dempsey (depicted here on the left in his vicious victory over Jess Willard)
The quality of Wladimir’s opposition is not awe-inspiring. He has defeated some good opponents, but no truly outstanding opponents. And unfortunately, some of the better names on his record (such as Haye and Povetkin) gave poor performances against him. Furthermore, he has been involved in too many mismatches against lowly challengers. Perhaps this is a product of the weak era in which Wladimir has reigned but he had seemed content to go along with these farces.
Like his older brother, Wladimir has not taken part in any contest that will be considered a timeless classic. When boxing fans thumb through a book on the greatest fights in history, they will surely read about Jack Johnson against Jim Jeffries, Jack Dempsey’s rematch with Gene Tunney, Joe Louis’s first showdown with Billy Conn, Muhammad Ali against George Foreman and the trilogy between Evander Holyfield and Riddick Bowe. There will be no Wladimir Klitschko fights. In all honesty, Wladimir’s fights are generally about as exciting as receiving a pair of grey socks as a Christmas gift. He has a knack of turning most of his bouts into a monotonous bore due to his overly cautious nature. But what is most damning is that he is still overly cautious against weak or uninspired opposition.
Another drawback with Wladimir’s career is his three losses. They did not occur when he was a novice just starting out or when he was old and past his zenith. They occurred during his prime years and they were all to ordinary, beatable opponents. No other all-time great heavyweight, not Joe Louis, not Rocky Marciano, not Muhammad Ali, not Larry Holmes, ever lost to such opponents during their prime years. The only exception is Mike Tyson’s shocking loss to Buster Douglas, who was something of a second-rater, but Tyson’s KO loss was a one-off during his prime; it happened to Klitschko three times. Also, Douglas was a better fighter than Puritty and Sanders, and at least on a par with Brewster. To beat Tyson, Douglas had to execute an astonishing performance that was something to marvel. How astonishing did Puritty, Sanders and Brewster have to be to beat Wladimir?
(There is another probable exception; Lennox Lewis, who was beaten by Oliver McCall and Hasim Rahman during his prime years, and both McCall and Rahman were average contenders at best. However, they were better than Puritty and Sanders. Also, the status of Lewis as a truly great fighter is somewhat ambiguous. Some fans and members of the media rate him very highly but in contrast the renowned boxing historian Bert Sugar didn't even put Lewis in the top fifteen of his own list of heavyweight greats. Anyway, the status of Lewis is another debate for another day, though the losses to McCall and Rahman (both by KO) are cruel blemishes on his record. In addition, there is also the case of Jack Dempsey, who suffered losses (or should that be alleged losses?) to Jim Flynn and Willie Meehan, though it could be argued that Dempsey was not yet quite in his prime when those losses occurred. However, consider those losses - there is a strong suspicion that he threw his fight with Flynn; at the time Dempsey was broke and was working in a bowling alley for much-needed cash - he accidentally trapped his right hand between two bowling balls, which crushed it. His hand was so swollen that he could hardly get it into a boxing glove and after the fight started his brother Bernie, who was working in his corner, leapt into the ring and prompted the referee to stop the action with Dempsey still on his feet and fighting. As for the so-called losses to Meehan, they were really only four round exhibitions (as were all his bouts with Meehan) that somehow found themselves added to his record.)
As for Wladimir’s ability as a boxer, it has to be said that he prefers a safe and steady contest fought at long range and is only prepared to take risks when he is sure that his opponent presents no danger whatsoever. His jab is his best weapon and he knows how to use his height (he is six feet, six inches tall) and reach (eighty-one inches) to his advantage. He also possesses considerable power in his right cross but he is incredibly economical in using it. He is not a good inside fighter and prefers to clinch as soon as an opponent moves in close. In addition, given his trio of knockout losses, his chin has remained suspect. In fact, at times he has seemed terrified of being hit. If an opponent lurches forward whilst hurling an overhand right, a look of panic has swept over Wladimir’s face and his eyes almost pop out of their sockets as he reels back in horror. Maybe he is still haunted by those losses and this brings forth the question of how he can cope when under pressure. To his fortitude, his opponents have either been unwilling to apply any kind of pressure of have lacked the ability to do so.
Imagine if Wladimir’s heyday had been in the 1980’s. He would have struggled mightily. Larry Holmes had a superb jab, a powerful right cross, a sound defence and more than enough ring smarts to beat Wladimir without too much difficulty. Throw in Holmes’ durability and desire and it’s clear that Wladimir would be out of his depth against him. And the 1987/88 version of Mike Tyson would destroy Wladimir with frightening precision. Taking into account Wladimir’s cautious approach and his apparent fear of being hit, he would surely have been intimidated by Iron Mike. There is little doubt that Tyson’s amazing hand speed, his bobbing and weaving style, and his murderous power would have resulted in Wladimir being sent into orbit. Tyson may have been smaller than Wladimir but he had little trouble with beating bigger opponents (Tony Tucker, whom Tyson beat on 1st August 1987, was six feet, seven inches tall, making him an inch taller than Wladimir). Even the likes of Tim Witherspoon and Pinklon Thomas on their best nights would have been an uphill tussle for Wladimir and there would be no guarantee that he could beat them.
Both Joe Louis and Gene Tunney possessed skills that neither of the Klitschko brothers have been able to match
And it’s not just the 1980’s. It’s plausible to imagine Wladimir being bowled over by Max Baer’s famous booming right cross, or being bullied and pressured into submission by Sonny Liston (he would never get away with leaning on Liston for twelve rounds), or being bundled around the ring and then demolished by a rampaging Joe Frazier (Smokin’ Joe would have been able to get inside Wladimir’s jab and punish him). In conclusion, Wladimir’s credentials do not justify him being labelled as an all-time great heavyweight. He is a finely-conditioned champion with sufficient stamina and good, basic skills, and he has done well to apply some stability to the division. But his huge size doesn’t mean he would have been able to dominate some of the champions of the past. Remember, two of the weakest heavyweight champions in history were Jess Willard and Primo Carnera and they were also two of the biggest, being comparable to the Klitschko brothers. And both Willard and Carnera were dethroned by smaller challengers who manhandled them. Size isn’t everything, as some wives and girlfriends will testify.
The final verdict here is that neither of the Klitschko brothers would appear in this writer’s all-time top ten heavyweights. And they wouldn’t appear in the top fifteen either. Maybe Vitali, who is less vulnerable than his younger brother, could fit into the top twenty. But there have been champs who have hit harder (Marciano, Foreman, Tyson), who have been faster (Dempsey, Tunney, Ali), and who have displayed more exquisite skills (Johnson, Walcott and even Jim Corbett). And in order to obtain a proper perspective (and it may be repetitive) there’s no getting over the weak era in which the Klitschko brothers have mostly campaigned in.
It goes without saying that Vitali and Wladimir are nice guys. They are well-educated, well-spoken sportsmen who have conducted themselves with dignity and pride. At some point in the future, they will likely be inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame (the induction criteria is somewhat flexible as good-but-not-great champs like Billy Soose have already been inducted). And as previously mentioned, they have at least brought stability to the division over the last decade and that’s something to be thankful for.