By Matthew Hurley: The heavyweight championship reign of Wladimir Klitschko continues to roll along. The hulking Ukrainian will defend his belts for the umpteenth time on October 5th against Alexander Povetkin – an accomplishment well worth celebrating. And yet his monotonous style, however brilliantly executed, has left many boxing fans cold.
There is nothing passionate about Wladimir Klitschko. When he’s in the ring he is technical to a fault. Yet it has worked for him after a disastrous period between 2003 and 2004 when he was crushed by Corrie Sanders and Lamon Brewster.
But Wladimir did something after those losses that elevated him to the best big man on a rather dismal, deserted heavyweight plain. Klitschko tossed what was left of his ego aside and began to rebuild his fragile psyche under the tutelage of Emanuel Steward.
The relationship was taxed early on in that loss to Brewster but from then on Dr. Steelhammer absorbed every lesson the Wizard of Kronk put up on the blackboard.
What resulted after several soft touches was a poor man’s Lennox Lewis. The only real difference between the two is passion. While Lennox could be just as boring in the ring as Wladimir when not motivated, he breathed fire when that quiet malevolence bubbled to the surface. It was there in his destructions of Hasim Rahman in their rematch, Andrew Golota, one of the many contenders Lewis dubbed a misfit, and Mike Tyson, who only survived until the eighth round because his underrated chin and fighter’s heart kept him upright.
When danger or uncertainty invades Wladimir’s chessboard his eyes grow wide and he becomes sloppy. Coming forward he looks unbeatable behind that telephone pole-like jab. Moving backwards he loses his authority and becomes vulnerable. But no one has been able to put him back on his heels in the last several years. His discipline must be applauded. After all, any heavyweight can score a knockout blow when an opening presents itself. He’s turned back all challengers to his throne and regardless of their fistic worth that is impressive.
Both Klitschko and Lewis have been on the end of the blackout shot twice. Lewis avenged both losses. Wladimir stopped Lamon Brewster in their return bout and his big brother Vitali took care of Sanders.
So why can’t Wladimir garner the respect of American fans? The astonishing attendances to his bouts in Europe prove that there are plenty of people who appreciate Wladimir and what has become an almost Floyd Mayweather type reign. After the second or third round Klitschko, like Mayweather, slowly sucks any potential drama out of the fight by adjusting to his opponent and establishing his jab. Usually, in the fights of both men, the rounds become mirror images of each other until their exhausted opponent drops or the call goes to the scorecards.
Mayweather usually gets a pass in this case because his speed, athleticism and boxing IQ can be mesmerizing to watch.
Wladimir gets no such pass. The heavyweight champion is supposed to be an animal. Even brilliant, soft-spoken heavyweight champions like Joe Louis, Ezzard Charles, Rocky Marciano and Floyd Patterson had more than a bit of the devil in them when an opening in their prey’s guard was detected. It was often lights out.
Wladimir doesn’t fight that way. He is content fighting like chess legend Bobby Fischer rather than Jack Dempsey. The style suits him and thousands upon thousands of European fans adore him. And yet HBO dropped him, he hasn’t fought in the US since 2008 against Sultan Ibragimov, a bout Lennox Lewis walked out on, and many casual boxing fans confuse him with his brother Vitali.
And there’s the rub – Vitali Klitschko, the brother. This is another part of the Klitschko saga that many fans can’t stand. There they sit, atop the heavyweight rubble, clutching their title belts like teddy bears and refusing to fight each other to unify the championship. It almost feels like the title is being held hostage, as challengers put off taking on one of the Brothers Grim in hopes that they will eventually just go away.
The ironic thing about this rather jingoistic portrayal of Wladimir is that, were he an American heavyweight, even with that style, he would be embraced and commended for the ambition, gentility and sportsmanship he exudes outside the ring. Simply put, Wladimir is a great guy. He’s a man of moral integrity and his ability to put himself back together after he fell apart defines American strength and optimism. He should be an easy guy to root for.
But he’s not a killer. He’s too tentative, too unwilling to take risks in the ring. It’s the smart move but ultimately it has alienated many hardcore fans.
Another oddity regarding Wladimir is his relationship with late trainer Manny Steward. The Kronk Gym impresario loved offensive-minded fighters and molded most of his stable through the years to be action, pressure fighters. Steward’s affinity for punchers started years back with Joe Louis and then fermented as he began training fighters until he helped construct his masterpiece in the lanky Thomas Hearns.
Certainly Steward would have preferred that Klitschko had a bit more of the Kamikaze style Hearns often employed, but Manny understood the fragility of Wladimir’s psyche, even when his between round conferences with his charge became animated. Steward expressed the same desire when he was in the corner of the sometimes passive Lennox Lewis, most famously in his fight with Mike Tyson. Manny nearly lost his mind between rounds when Lewis appeared to be sleepwalking through a bout he had in complete control. He loved warriors – blood and guts fighters with a chip on their shoulder. Who can forget his HBO call of the ninth round of the Micky Ward – Arturo Gatti slugfest. “This should be the round of the century!” Steward would have preferred more performances like Wlad’s knockout of Chris Byrd rather than tedious affairs like his snooze fest against Ibragimov.
The biggest knock on Wladimir is that he is fighting in one of the worst heavyweight eras in recent memory. That’s not his fault. What is his fault is not disposing of these pretenders in dramatic, violent fashion. Like it or not, that’s what the majority of boxing fans want from the heavyweights – knockouts. Mike Tyson ruled over a hodgepodge of contenders but he acted as though he was insulted they were even in the ring with him. And they weren’t there for long.
So where will history remember Wladimir Klitschko? I think when it’s all said and done Wladimir will be forgiven some of the more dismal defenses of his crown. He will be reevaluated much like Larry Holmes and Lennox Lewis before him. He won’t be remembered as fondly as those two but he will get his just due. And if he retires without another loss he’ll be a lock for the hall of fame, if he isn’t already. Sounds like a successful career to me.
And it has been. It just hasn’t transcended the sport as the reign of a heavyweight champion should. It lacked drama and passion, but it was honest and what Wladimir may not have accomplished in the ring he made up for outside the ropes. He conducts himself like a champion should and got the most out of himself that was there to be taken.
None of that makes him great, as compared to champions of the past, but he can stake his claim as the best heavyweight of his time. And even if his era was weak, it takes focus, dedication and talent to turn away countless challengers to his throne. That will be Wladimir’s legacy and it ain’t too bad, all things considered.
Matthew Hurley is a full time member of the Boxing Writers Association of America. His first book on boxing, Ringside Reflections, is available at Amazon.com and Barnes&Noble.com.
July 11, 2013