By Tyson Bruce
It’s hard to imagine that just a little over ten years ago Wladimir Klitschko was the laughing stock of heavyweight boxing.
Sixteen title defenses later and nearly a nine-year reign as heavyweight champion, Klitschko has made that all look like ancient history. Yet despite his dominance, Klitschko (63-3-0, 53 KOs) has failed to connect with North American sports fans that know him more as the husband of famous actress Hayden Panettiere than as the baddest man on the planet.
Wlad will attempt to change this Saturday when he fights for the first time in America since a 2008 title defense against Sultan Ibragimov.
The stain of his shocking upset defeats to the late Corrie Sanders and Lamon Brewster followed Klitschko around for a great many years while he rebuilt his style and mental fortitude under the guidance of legendary trainer Emanuel Steward. The results of that bond produced as unbeatable of a style as can be found in the entire sport. After nearly being clubbed to death and dropped three times by brawler Sam Peter in 2005, Klitschko hasn’t been off his feat and one could probably count the number of rounds he’s lost on one hand.
In the process, “Dr. Steelhammer” has produced some legendary statistics. He hasn’t lost a fight in more than 11 years and has gone 21-0 (15 KO) during that time. His current 8 year and 11-month stretch as champion is the second longest in heavyweight history, which is second only to the great Joe Louis. His 17 consecutive defenses so far ranks only behind Joe Louis (25) and Holmes (20). If one adds his five WBO defenses from an earlier reign it brings the total to 22 total defenses and ranks him second only behind Louis.
Yet American fans have never embraced Klitschko for the great fighter he is on paper. Even Lennox Lewis, the fighter with no passport, was eventually accepted into the American sporting lexicon. There could be a variety of reasons for this.
One is that aside from a few brutally destructive displays of power, like his most recent knockout of Kubrat Pulev, Klitschko’s fights vary between slow and downright excruciating to watch. That he is more of a chess player than a destroyer has never jived with American fans. Mike Tyson’s fame and sensational style, much like Ali in the previous generation, has cast a long shadow over his successors.
Klitschko has also reigned over arguably the worst heavyweight division in the history of the sport. With a total void of competent American heavyweights, boxing fans in North America gradually lost interest in the division and sought out the lower weight divisions for their boxing fix.
None of this has prevented Klitschko from becoming one of the most famous sportsmen in all of Europe. For as long as can be remembered the heavyweight championship of the world has been an American possession. Klitschko, however, truly epitomizes the term “world champion”, a point he addressed during the media conference call:
“I am really excited to be back in the States. I’ve been fighting – champion of the world means to fight in different countries, in different cities, which I have accomplished in the past years. I’ve been fighting in Berlin, Switzerland. I’ve been fighting in Moscow, Russia. I’ve been fighting in many German cities.”
In fact, Klitschko’s fights are watched by an estimated 10 million homes in Germany. When you consider that the most recent PBC card shown on free TV drew around the mid-three million range that’s a truly mind blowing figure. It led many to believe that Klitschko would never fight in America again. Who needs ungrateful fans when you are doing those kinds of numbers in Europe, right?
Klitschko’s point of view is different though: “I had stadiums, big pay-per-view fights over there, it’s been exciting times,” Klitschko said of his fights overseas. “But you know what? Here I am standing at Madison Square Garden. And it reminds me of my memories 15 years ago.”
Those memories are not all pleasant. Klitschko’s last fight in America against Sultan Ibragimov was a truly dark evening for boxing. The fight probably ranks among the most unwatchable fights in the history of televised boxing. If you don’t believe this assertion or think it hyperbole, simply check it out on YouTube–for as long as you can last.
Until very recently, that fight was the beginning of the end for Klitschko on American TV. “You’re as good as your last performance,” Klitschko said of that night. “I had some great fights in the past, I’ve had some boring fights in the past, boring for the audience. But to tango, you need two.” His fight this weekend against Bryant Jennings is a chance to show American fans how far he has come. It could also serve as a launching pad toward a potential mega-fight against newly crowned titlist Deontay Wilder.
The man standing in his way is Philadelphian strongman Bryant “By-By” Jennings, 19-0-0-(10 KO’s). Much like his fictional predecessor and fellow brotherly love resident Rocky Balboa, Jennings will be a massive underdog in his first world title shot.
Jennings has the kind of backstory that has become both familiar and skeptical to American sports fans. Jennings was an all around athlete growing up but didn’t discover boxing until he was in his twenties. Sounds a lot like Michael Grant and Seth Mitchell, right? Much like those men, Jennings has progressed at a rapid rate and the fact that he’s fighting for a title shot (that was well earned) within twenty fights is truly remarkable. That aside, history has shown us that this will not end well for Jennings.
Don’t bother telling that to Jennings, who as been a wall of confidence during the entire promotion of the fight. With so many experts outright dismissing his chances of victory, a streak of spite and malice has overtaken his normal amiable disposition. He also seems genuinely confident, “Here I am at this point and the confidence is triple, and that confidence will help me move and work effectively in this fight, and I will be raising my hand at the end of that fight.”
The oddsmakers do not agree, however, with some outlets listing Klitschko as a 16-1 favorite. For Jennings to win, he must bring back the demons of Klitschko’s past and likely walk through hell fire—ala Lamon Brewster—to overcome the massive skill, experience and talent disadvantage he will face.
If he does even a modicum of this, then we could be in for a truly interesting fight.