by Johnny Walker
When ex-world heavyweight champion Corrie Sanders was shot and killed on Sunday in a senseless act of cowardice in South Africa, two of the first people to issue a public statement of condolence were Wladimir and Vitali Klitschko, the Ukrainian brothers who have ruled the heavyweight scene for the best part of a decade now.
“We were shocked to learn of the sudden death of Corrie Sanders and we want to express our sincere condolences to his family,” reads the statement.
“We will remember Corrie as a great person both inside and outside the ring. He was a great fighter with a big heart who always positively represented the sport of boxing.”
No doubt that the news of Sanders’ death hit the champion siblings hard, because whenever the stories of the Klitschko era in heavyweight boxing are written, Corrie Sanders will always be included as a major figure. The brothers’ two fights with Sanders were milestones that helped to define Wladimir and Vitali, in both the negative and positive sense, both as boxers and as men.
WLADIMIR’S HARDEST LESSON
WBO world heavyweight champion Wladimir Klitschko was riding high coming into his fight with Sanders in 2003, having stopped the at the time highly regarded Jameel McCline in his previous bout. Sanders, meanwhile, after coming out on the wrong end of a war with Hasim Rahman, had racked up a couple of quick knockout wins over Michael Sprott and Otis Tisdale. He was seen as a journeyman, someone possessed of great natural talent who had somehow never quite made the most of it.
Wladimir Klitschko was now widely seen as invincible, and by this time he had bought into the hype himself. Under trainer Fritz Sdunek, Wlad was an offensive machine, a pugilistic annihilator, something far different than the more measured, cautious boxer he would later become under Emanuel Steward. And he took Sanders for granted, thinking more about an upcoming vacation he had planned than about his next opponent.
“At that time, HBO doesn’t want to show this fight,” Wlad told Golf Week back in 2009 in one of the few public comments he’s made on the Sanders loss.
“[Sanders] was what people in boxing call a ‘bum.’ I was tired, I’d been busy. I went into the ring thinking I’ll knock this guy out in one round and go home. This is the worst way to think. It’s a psychological disaster. You can’t think about your vacation when you’re about to step in the ring. In my entire career, nobody ever beat me like this.”
Sanders, meanwhile, had lost some weight–a natural puncher, he always struggled with fitness issues and preferred golf to the gym–and had been seeing a sports psychologist to get ready for Wladimir. Tired of being labelled a journeyman (a slightly kinder term than “bum”), Sanders entered the ring in Germany ready to prove something, and Klitschko was caught unawares.
The “psychological disaster” Wlad spoke of soon became very real, physically manifested in brutal punches from the southpaw South African slugger in a German boxing ring.
In less than two rounds, it was over.
Corrie Sanders was the new WBO world heavyweight champion. And Wladimir’s Klitschko’s boxing career began a nosedive which was almost terminal, culminating in his older brother’s advice to think about a new career following another disastrous loss, this time to Lamon Brewster, the following year.
VITALI TO THE RESCUE
Vitali Klitschko was apoplectic when Sanders destroyed his younger brother, and seemed to be attempting to immediately start another match with the perplexed South African as he yelled, “That belt belongs to us, it is family property. You fight me next!” and got aggressive with Sanders following the biggest win of Corrie’s career.
Anyone who has seen the excellent Klitschko documentary knows how seriously Vitali takes a promise he made to his mother to always protect his younger brother. And rightly or wrongly, Vitali took it personally when Sanders delivered a fistic lesson in humility to Wladimir. But Sanders remained unfazed, if a bit disappointed in the usually sportsmanlike Vitali’s reaction.
“I didn’t have a big problem with that — I simply told [Vitali], “I’ve beaten your brother and next time I’ll beat you,” a typically laid-back Sanders said after the fight.
“He should have let me have the moment but he was shouting this and that.
“It was me who deserved the belt that night, no one else. He had no right to get into the ring as it was my time and not his.”
Sanders showed how truly brave he was in 2004 when he agreed to take on the tougher of the two Klitschko brothers–a bad-ass who had recently traded hay-makers toe-to-toe with champion Lennox Lewis and not flinched, a tough guy who had seemingly run Lewis out of boxing–in Los Angeles for the WBC world title belt.
Vitali entered the Sanders fight snarling “This is family business” to the HBO cameras, and indeed, Klitschko fought like a man on a mission that night. Sanders was reportedly suffering from a bad back which had limited his training, and he didn’t look quite like the man who’d beaten Wlad a year earlier. Nevertheless, the South African who could punch like a mule kicks still had enough to make this fight an underrated heavyweight classic, a Pier 6 brawl for the ages.
Sanders, knowing that his conditioning wasn’t the best for the fight, went all out early, and he stunned Vitali near the end of the first round with a bomb landed right on the chin, shoving the Ukrainian to the canvas as the stanza ended. HBO analyst Larry Merchant lauded “the short, hard left hand from Sanders — there’s nothing like it in boxing.”
Vitali gradually established control over the fight, even as Sanders landed another missile that again stunned Klitschko two-thirds of the way through round three. The legend of Vitali’s iron chin may have began when he ate up vicious uppercuts from Lennox Lewis, but it was solidified against Sanders, as the older brother proved himself the more rugged of the Klitschko duo, a man willing and able to trade bombs with a bomb-thrower like the South African. “This is one of the best heavyweight rounds we have seen in years!” enthused Merchant at the end of a brutal round three.
Vitali decimated Sanders in round five, and after that, though Sanders would gamely soldier on, the result was never really in doubt. Vitali avenged the Klitschko family honor with a TKO stoppage in round eight, winning the WBC world heavyweight crown. As would happen to other Klitschko victims through the years, Corrie Sanders–his left ear reduced to a piece of twisted gristle by Klitschko’s punches, he would later say he’d never been hit that hard that often–was for all intents and purposes now done as a heavyweight contender.
But Sanders had put the brotherly tandem who would go on to dominate heavyweight boxing for years afterward to the test, pushed both of them to the limit, and changed the direction of their careers. He is forever a part of the Klitschko story. As Wladimir puts it,
“The bad decisions you make in life can change you into a better person. That fight [with Sanders] did this for me both inside and outside the ring. You have to be prepared. Failure isn’t an option. I don’t even like to talk about it. Everybody who stands in front of me (now) is going to get knocked out.”