Part II: The Klitschko Brothers` Path to The Undisputed Championship
By Mikko Salo
The Klitschko Brothers 1996 to 2005: Triumphs, Defeats, Vitali`s Retirement
The Klitschko Brothers arrived at the professional boxing scene fittingly together, starting their professional careers in the same event in November 1996, Wladimir as a 20-year-old super heavyweight olympic champion, Vitali as a 25-year-old former world kickboxing champion and boxing world championship finalist. They quickly put together a string of convincing victories, the only setback being Wladimir`s surprising TKO 11 loss to Ross Puritty in December 1998.
Vitali was the first of the brothers to win a world title of sorts, when he claimed the lightly regarded WBO belt in June 1999 by KOing Herbie Hide in the 2nd round. In Vitali`s third title defense against Chris Byrd in April 2000 came the first defeat for the elder Klitschko, when Vitali had to retire after nine rounds due to a torn rotator cuff despite being comfortably ahead on all cards.
Chris Byrd`s WBO title reign didn`t last long. Wladimir avenged his brother`s defeat by unanimously out-pointing Byrd in October 2000, capturing his first alphabet title. Wladimir then put together a successful string of five title defenses in the following two years, rising in The Ring annual ratings being the #1 rated contender for Lennox Lewis`s Championship in 2001-02. Meanwhile, Vitali rebuilt his career after the Byrd loss with five straight victories of his own and on the way avenged his brother`s lone defeat by beating Ross Puritty in December 2001 (TKO 11).
The brothers entered the year 2003 confident and ready to take the next steps towards the very peak of the heavyweight division. Then disaster struck. Hard punching South African Corrie Sanders completely bullied Wladimir and shockingly knocked him out in the 2nd round in March 2003, taking the WBO belt. Three months later In June 2003 Vitali had his big chance for stardom, when he as the mandatory challenger replaced Kirk Johnson on short notice as the opponent to The Ring Magazine Lineal Champion and WBC titlist Lennox Lewis. The big brother was stopped on cuts after six hard fought rounds, with Vitali ahead on all cards. Due to these two defeats, dreams of achieving The Heavyweight Championship had to be put on hold, and the brothers went back to the drawing board.
The careers of the Klitschko Brothers took opposite turns after the rough first half of 2003. Wladimir started his rebuilding process by hiring Emanuel Steward as trainer and fought his way back to a WBO title bout. But on April 10th 2004 he suffered the most devastating loss of his career by succumbing to Lamon Brewster by TKO in the 5th round. Regaining one of the alphabet titles seemed a very distant thought after a second brutal knockout defeat in a little over a year. Wladimir`s career among the heavyweight elite was in serious jeopardy and he plummeted out of The Ring ratings. He was deemed chinny and mentally fragile, not able to withstand assault from power punching brawlers.
Vitali, on the other hand, was about to achieve heavyweight glory. He beat Kirk Johnson (TKO 2) in a WBC title eliminator in December 2003 becoming the mandatory challenger for Lennox Lewis`s WBC title. This brought about the possibility of a much-anticipated rematch with The Ring Magazine Lineal Champion. Shortly after this Lewis announced his retirement and the megafight never happened.
A bout for the vacant WBC title was set for 24th April 2004 between Vitali and his brother`s conqueror Corrie Sanders. There was also something more meaningful at stake than the WBC title. The Ring Magazine announced that it will recognize the winner of this bout between its top-rated contenders as the new Ring Magazine Champion, starting a new lineage after the one that ended when Lennox Lewis retired as a Champion a couple of months earlier.
Sanders staggered Vitali early in the fight but the older Klitschko steadily started to assert his will with accurate left jabs and hard right crosses. In round eight the referee stopped the bout with Vitali in complete control and Sanders on the verge of going down, unable to defend himself. Two weeks after his brother had suffered a potentially career-destroying defeat, Vitali Klitschko was the new Ring Magazine Heavyweight Champion and WBC titlist, avenging his brother`s loss to Sanders in the process. The first person to embrace Vitali right after the stoppage was Wladimir. Although having been mired in the aftermath of his own defeat and shortcomings, Wladimir`s face reflected pure elation and joy over his big brother`s achievement.
Vitali defended his Championship successfully against Briton Danny Williams (TKO 8) in December 2004, but mounting injuries and his political ambitions in homeland Ukraine prompted the older Klitschko to retire in November 2005 at the age of 34, vacating his Ring Magazine Championship and WBC title. The Klitschko Brothers were again without a heavyweight title, but that was about to change.
The Klitschko Brothers 2006 to Present: The Unification
Wladimir`s Rise Back to the Top - the IBF and WBO titles
Wladimir Klitschko started yet another rebuilding process after the devastating Brewster loss. Two easy victories later he secured a date in September 2005 for an IBF title eliminator bout against the undefeated Nigerian power puncher Samuel Peter, who was pretty much cut from the same mold as Sanders and Brewster, the men who had previously knocked the little brother out in title bouts. This was a definite make-or-break fight for the younger Klitschko.
The fight against Peter proved to be a turning point in Wladimir Klitschko`s boxing career. Peter knocked Wladimir down three times, but the man who was supposed to have the glass chin and fragile willpower rose from the canvas each time and kept dominating his hard punching opponent. The end result was a unanimous decision for Wladimir Klitschko and a right to challenge IBF titlist and old nemesis Chris Byrd, who was rated #1 by The Ring Magazine in the 2005 annual ratings with Wladimir being #8. The date of the IBF title clash was set for April 2006.
As was the case in the WBO title bout six years earlier, Chris Byrd was no match for Wladimir Klitschko. After a thoroughly dominating performance (TKO 7) Wladimir returned to a titleholder`s status.
The younger Klitschko was now three years removed from losing his WBO belt and had developed significantly under the tutelage of Emanuel Steward. Above all, he had regained his confidence by rising from the canvas against a tough brawler in Samuel Peter and winning a title belt with an awesome display of skill and power against the resilient but overmatched Chris Byrd.
To cap off a triumphant 2006, Wladimir made his second visit to Madison Square Garden in November (the first had been a TKO 2 win over David Bostice in April 2000 on the undercard of Lennox Lewis vs Michael Grant), defending his IBF title with a 7th round TKO over previously undefeated Calvin Brock.
At the time of Wladimir winning the IBF belt, the heavyweight division was a total mess. Vitali`s retirement had left The Ring Magazine Championship vacant. The Championship could only be won in a box-off between The Ring Magazine`s #1 and #2 rated (in certain circumstances also #1 and #3) contenders. In the end of 2006 Wladimir was back at #1 in The Ring ratings, #2 spot was held by WBC titlist Oleg Maskaev and #3 by Samuel Peter. The WBA title was in the giant hands of Nikolai Valuev (#8).
In 2007 the younger Klitschko kept his #1 rating by defending his IBF title twice, against Ray Austin (KO 2) and Lamon Brewster (RTD 6). By giving a one-sided beating to Brewster, Wladimir avenged his KO defeat from three years earlier.
The unification picked up steam in 2008. Wladimir started the belt collecting in February with the lowest-rent WBO title by unanimously out-pointing the previously undefeated beltholder Sultan Ibragimov in Madison Square Garden. The match-up was marketed as the first unification bout since Lewis vs Holyfield II in 1999. The fight received crushing reviews from the booing MSG crowd and the boxing media. This was mainly due to Wladimir`s cautiousness and reluctance to go for the knockout despite completely dominating his overmatched opponent.
Vitali`s Return - the WBC title
While Wladimir fought his way back to the heavyweight elite, Vitali had campaigned to be mayor of Kiev but failed to win the election in 2006. While still active in Ukrainian politics he started having thoughts about returning to the squared circle. In January 2007, Vitali publicly stated that he was ready to make a comeback. But it didn`t happen in 2007. The aging body of the big brother didn`t co-operate and Vitali had to withdraw several times from scheduled comeback fights.
A couple of months into year 2008 Vitali Klitschko was finally healthy enough for a comeback fight. After his retirement, WBC had conferred the elder Klitschko the status of “champion emeritus”, which in the alphabet politics meant that Vitali was entitled to challenge the reigning WBC titlist if he decided to return.
Holding the WBC title at the time was Samuel Peter. At first, there were talks about a unification bout between Wladimir and Peter, but then the focus shifted to comeback-making Vitali. On the grounds of his champion emeritus status Vitali secured a date for the WBC title against Sam Peter. The big brother`s return to the ring was scheduled for 11th October 2008.
Vitali was 37 years old and hadn`t fought in almost four years. Samuel Peter had lost only once – to Wladimir – and had never been stopped. There were many who believed that the older Klitschko was taking perhaps too big of a risk returning straight to a title bout and against such a dangerous opponent.
Vitali proved the doubters wrong. Despite the four-year absence he was in extremely accurate shape and in great condition. Peter, on the other hand, weighed in at 253½ sluggish pounds and simply didn`t stand a chance against the 247-pound lean and mean Ukrainian. Vitali took complete control from the opening bell and pummeled Peter with his left jab and right cross for eight rounds.
After the eighth round Peter slumped in his stool and asked his corner to stop the fight, losing by stoppage for the first time in his career. In the end of 2008, The Klitschko Brothers were at the top of the heavyweight division together, being rated #1 (Wladimir) and #2 (Vitali) and holding the IBF, WBC and WBO belts.
The Ring Magazine Championship
On 20th June 2009 in Gelsenkirchen, Germany, Wladimir Klitschko was crowned as the new Ring Magazine Heavyweight Champion. After almost four years of total disorganization in the heavyweight division, a new championship lineage was finally started.
For The Ring Magazine Championship Wladimir fought a man who he wasn`t supposed to fight that night, who had won the WBA title and had never lost it in the ring and was still technically WBA “champion in recess”. Nevertheless, the fight was not considered to be an alphabet unification bout that would have made The Klitschko Brothers The Undisputed Heavyweight Champions. The events leading up to the Ring Magazine Championship Fight between Wladimir Klitschko and Ruslan Chagaev were so bizarre that they deserve a recollection of their own.
The events that lead to Klitschko vs Chagaev started with the 27-year-old Briton David Haye becoming The Ring Magazine Cruiserweight Champion and WBA & WBC titlist by defeating Jean-Marc Mormeck (TKO 7) in November 2007. He added the WBO cruiserweight belt to his collection by KOing Enzo Maccarinelli in the 2nd round in March 2008, two weeks after Wladimir Klitschko had taken the WBO heavyweight belt from Sultan Ibragimov.
Immediately after the Maccarinelli fight Haye began an aggressive trash-talking campaign calling out the younger Klitschko brother, claiming that his power and speed would be too much for the #1 rated heavyweight or any other heavyweight for that matter. Before this, Haye had made one appearance as a heavyweight, TKOing Tomasz Bonin in the 1st round in April 2007.
Wladimir had two mandatory defenses lined up for the latter part of 2008, but the Klitschko vs Haye showdown was a very marketable proposition. Negotiations began with a target of staging the fight in 2009.
The mandatory defenses went as expected. In July 2008 Wladimir beat Tony Thompson (KO 11) and in December it was former Lineal Champion Hasim Rahman`s turn to get knocked out (TKO 7). Meanwhile, David Haye started his heavyweight campaign by beating 37-year-old former title challenger Monte Barrett in November 2008 by a 5th round TKO (Barrett had also been KOd by Wladimir Klitschko (TKO 7) back in July 2000).
Right after Wladimir`s victory over Rahman it was published that Klitschko vs Haye would take place in London on 20th June 2009, but it was the new WBC titlist Vitali Klitschko who would be facing Haye. This plan was short-lived falling through in January and the focus shifted back on Wladimir fighting Haye. The bout between the younger brother and Haye was finally published in April 2009 and the date was set yet again for 20th June, with the venue changing to Germany.
In the end it was all for naught for Wladimir Klitschko, or so it seemed. On 3rd June David Haye pulled out of the fight citing a back injury and asked for a postponement until July 11th. Wladimir was left with a title fight in 17 days at the 60 000-seat Veltins Arena in Gelsenkirchen, Germany, but he didn`t have an opponent. Enter Ruslan Chagaev.
In The Ring Magazine`s 2008 Annual Ratings, the #3 spot behind The Klitschko Brothers was manned by undefeated WBA titlist from Uzbekistan, Ruslan Chagaev. He had won the WBA title in April 2007 by out-pointing Nikolai Valuev (MD 12) in a battle of two undefeated fighters. During the fall of 2008 and spring of 2009 the events surrounding the WBA title turned enormously strange and complicated because of Chagaev`s various health problems and WBA`s bizarre political maneuvering.
Initially Ruslan Chagaev was supposed to take part in an October 2007 unification bout with WBO titlist Sultan ibragimov, but the fight was cancelled due to Chagaev contracting hepatitis B. Chagaev recovered from the illness and defended the WBA title by unanimously out-pointing Matt Skelton in January 2008.
Next up was a mandatory defense and a rematch against Nikolai Valuev in July 2008. This bout in turn had to be cancelled with Chagaev tearing his Achilles tendon in a final sparring session before the match. It was the second postponement of the fight and caused the WBA to lose its patience.
The sanctioning body declared Chagaev their “champion in recess” and mandated that Valuev and John Ruiz fight for the vacant title. Subsequently, in August 2008 Nikolai Valuev also became a WBA titlist. WBA now had two beltholders, Chagaev (“champion in recess”) and Valuev (“champion”). The sanctioning body set a deadline for June 26th 2009 for Chagaev and Valuev to fight each other and determine who the “real” WBA titlist is.
Both Chagaev and Valuev went about their business and defended their WBA “titles” in the coming months, Valuev with a December 2008 majority decision over 46-year-old Evander Holyfield and a recovered Chagaev with a February 2009 5th round technical decision over previously undefeated Carl Davis Drumond of Costa Rica.
WBA`s June 26th deadline loomed and a bout to determine the “real” WBA titlist was set for May 30th 2009 in Helsinki, Finland. Unfortunately, a couple of days before the bout Chagaev failed a Finnish medical test, allegedly due to hepatitis B, and the fight was called off. WBA was not happy and in its official ratings on July 24th 2009 it awarded the title to Nikolai Valuev, with Ruslan Chagaev ranked as the #1 challenger.
A few days after Chagaev`s fight with Valuev fell through, Wladimir Klitschko`s camp was seeking a replacement opponent for 20th June date. Chagaev had trained for a fight on 30th May so he was very happy to come to the rescue and receive a crack at Klitschko`s titles. The Ring Magazine rated Chagaev as the best heavyweight after The Klitschko Brothers and the magazine announced that the bout would be for the vacant Ring Magazine Championship. Also on the line were Wladimir`s IBF & WBO belts. WBA confirmed that Valuev was to be the WBA titlist so even though Chagaev was WBA`s “champion in recess” and had never lost the WBA title in the ring the WBA belt was not at stake.
The fight for The Ring Magazine Championship remains as one of the finest performances by Wladimir Klitschko. He dominated the action from the opening bell and floored Chagaev in the second round. Chagaev couldn`t land anything meaningful with Klitschko controlling with the left jab and hard right crosses. After nine rounds of one-sided action, Chagaev`s corner saved their fighter from further punishment and stopped the bout. Wladimir Klitschko was the new Ring Magazine Heavyweight Champion 3 years and 7 months after his brother had retired and vacated The Championship.
Last Piece of the Puzzle – the WBA title
Vitali defended his WBC title three times in 2009, soundly beating Cuban Juan Carlos Gomez (TKO 9) in March, Chris Arreola (RTD 10) in September and Kevin Johnson (UD 12) in December. Wladimir suffered a hand injury in the fall of 2009 and his mandatory defense against Eddie Chambers was fought in March 2010, Wladimir scoring a 12th round knockout.
The still-trash-talking David Haye had become the WBA titlist in November 2009 by out-pointing Nikolai Valuev (MD 12). In April 2010 Wladimir Klitschko officially called Haye out in YouTube resulting in on-off talks concerning a unification bout between the heated rivals, but once more the fight didn`t materialize.
Since the Haye talks didn`t come to fruition, next up for Wladimir was a mandatory defense against former olympic champion Alexander Povetkin, scheduled for September 2010. After Povetkin backed out, in stepped old foe Samuel Peter. The Nigerian seemed to be in better shape (241lb) than against Vitali, but the result was significantly more one-sided than the previous encounter against the younger Klitschko. Wladimir KOd Peter in the 10th round after pummeling him in dominating fashion. This time Peter didn`t stand a chance of flooring the little brother.
Vitali did his part in 2010-11 with dominating victories of his own, over Poland`s Albert Sosnowski (KO 10) in May 2010, Shannon Briggs (UD 12) in October 2010 and Cuban former olympic champion Odlanier Solis (KO 1) in March 2011.
Another injury, this time a torn abdominal muscle, forced Wladimir to withdraw from his scheduled December 2010 defense against Briton Derek Chisora. Initially, the fight was postponed to April 30th 2011. On 4th March, Wladimir pulled out of the Chisora fight claiming that the abdominal injury hadn`t fully healed.
On the next day it was announced that after long and arduous negotiations Wladimir Klitschko vs David Haye unification megafight would finally happen on 2nd July in Hamburg, Germany. It was also agreed that if Wladimir is not fully healed, Vitali will step in to fight Haye, who had defended his WBA title twice in 2010, in April against John Ruiz (TKO 9) and in November against Audley Harrison (TKO 3).
Finally, over two years after it was initially agreed to take place, Wladimir Klitschko and David Haye stepped in the ring on 2nd July at Hamburg`s 57 000-seat Imtech Arena. The stakes could not have been any higher.
For the Klitschko Brothers, this was the chance to fulfill their dream of becoming Undisputed Heavyweight Champions, holding The Ring Magazine Championship and all the alphabet titles together. For David Haye, a victory would have meant a monumental shake-up of the Klitschko-dominated heavyweight landscape. It would have also meant at least one more Klitschko vs Haye megafight, possibly with Vitali for all the marbles, The Undisputed Heavyweight Championship.
During the last two plus years, David Haye had used every trick in the book to get under the Klitschko Brothers` skin, including appearing in a t-shirt portraying him holding the two brothers` severed heads, which had greatly angered Wladimir. Haye was hoping that all the trash-talking would lead to Wladimir not being his usual controlled self in the ring, but wanting to score a spectacular knockout and become careless in the process.
Things didn`t go David Haye`s way during the rainy night in Hamburg. Wladimir Klitschko`s left jab proved once again to be an impenetrable obstacle for an overmatched opponent. Haye did connect sporadically with right hands over the top, but it wasn`t enough to hurt Wladimir Klitschko or score winning rounds. Meanwhile, Klitschko kept using his jab to collect points and keep Haye at a harmless distance. Haye also had to absorb a few hard rights from Wladimir, but was able to elude further punishment with his excellent defensive skills.
The fight was a masterful display of Wladimir Klitschko`s boxing skills and his ability to use his size, reach and strength as an insurmountable advantage against even the most skilled of smaller heavyweights. After the final bell rang, there was no doubt of the outcome. The judges scored the bout unanimously for Wladimir and The Klitschko Brothers were Undisputed Heavyweight Champions of the World.