by Johnny Walker
When world heavyweight champion Wladimir Klitschko enters the ring this Saturday in Hamburg, Germany, he’ll be trying to continue one of the most impressive winning streaks in boxing history.
Klitschko hasn’t lost in over eight years. Yes, you read that correctly: eight years. He last tasted defeat in a strange loss to Lamon Brewster in 2004.
While his critics (most of them based in the United States and Britain) may try to detract from that accomplishment by claiming the heavyweight division has been “weak” during this period, that criticism has to be seen as mostly sour grapes from people who wouldn’t even mention the topic if Wlad were an American or a Brit. Many other champions also boxed in relatively weak eras, from Rocky Marciano to Larry Holmes, and Wladimir can only fight those available and willing to get in the ring with him.
The fact is, Wladimir Klitschko (along with his equally superior older brother Vitali) is now one of the most dominant heavyweight champions in the history of boxing.
This last fact means that many people now routinely discount the chances of Klitschko opponents (most often fighters avoid the Klitschkos, not the other way around). Indeed, Wlad’s last two over-the-hill opponents–Jean Marc Mormeck of France and American Tony Thompson–were easy to dismiss before they ever stepped into the ring (the latter for the second time) with the champion. And they quickly lived down to those reduced expectations.
A perusal of Internet boxing forums thus reveals a deep cynicism toward Klitschko’s next opponent, the undefeated Polish giant Mariusz “The Viking” Wach. The great majority of boxing fans seem to feel that Wach is no different from the Mormecks and the Thompsons, just another body there to make up the numbers on Wlad’s impressive run of wins.
But at the risk of being proven disastrously wrong on Saturday, I beg to differ.
Something feels different this time out. For one thing, Wach is not a spent, burnt-out veteran looking for one last payday like Wlad’s last two opponents. Wach has not yet lost a fight, and has never been put on the canvas. The giant Pole thus comes into this fight with a totally different mentality than the majority of Wladimir’s opponents during his win streak, the Rahmans, Mormecks and Thompsons of the boxing world.
Wach is coming into the ring in Hamburg not to just get paid, but to WIN. And to win not only for himself, but for his country. The patriotic Wach badly wants to deliver the heavyweight title to the always dedicated Polish boxing fans, something that his countryman Tomasz Adamek was unable to do when he was humiliated in Wroclaw against Vitali Klitschko last year.
To this end, Wach–who humorously described his former physique as akin to a “soft dumpling”–has gotten himself into fantastic shape for this fight. His sculpted body is now something more accurately compared to his always in-shape opponent than to a dumpling. And at a towering 6’8″ tall, Wach is the first opponent in the champion’s career that he will be looking up to in the ring.
Physically, then, it is unlikely that Wach is going to be initially intimidated by Wladimir Klitschko.
But boxing is as much mental as it is physical, perhaps more-so. And in that area, Klitschko, whether he wants to admit it or not, enters into this fight with a giant question mark hovering over his head. Namely, how will he handle a moment of extreme adversity in the ring without the man who rescued his career, without the man who believed in him even when his own brother was telling him to quit, in the corner to calm him down?
The absence of the recently deceased boxing icon Emanuel Steward in the Klitschko corner this time in Hamburg definitely changes the equation here, and the Wach camp knows it. Wach will look to try and rattle the champion early to see how he responds. After eight years of wins, it’s easy to forget the mental fragility that Wladimir sometimes displayed before super-trainer Steward carefully reshaped his psyche. Will Steward’s absence spur the champion on, or will it cause him to revert to past behavior and start panicking when Wach lands something of significance?
Wach himself is evincing an attitude of steely determination in the lead-up to this fight: he reacted coolly when the champion uncharacteristically engaged in a lengthy, menacing stare-down in the final presser for the fight. So far, it is Wladimir who seems to be outside of his comfort zone, perhaps acting over-amped because he knows he has something to prove this time without Steward at his side. This extra level of aggression could play out in a negative manner in the ring if it leads to Klitschko abandoning the methodical and controlled style that worked so well for him under Steward.
So let the know-it-all critics label Wach “slow” and “awkward”: they said the same thing about the Klitschko brothers for years, and as it turns out they have done very well for themselves. The current heavyweight division is not about speed as much as it is about power and timing, and if Wach can deliver a hard shot to the champion’s always fragile chin of the quality with which he knocked out Kevin McBride, we could have a new heavyweight champion of the world on Saturday night.
Make no mistake, then, this is not just another routine Klitschko title defense. Mariusz Wach is going to ask questions of the champion that he hasn’t had to answer in a long time.
Will Wach win?
Well, this is boxing: anything can happen and sometimes it does.
But can he win?
Yes, he certainly can.