Ranking Wladimir Klitschko

By: Matt O’Brien

With the recent announcement that Wladimir Klitschko is officially retiring, a page was turned to end an era of heavyweight boxing. And while many would have gladly viewed a return of last April’s gripping contest with Anthony Joshua, few would have predicted a different result. At 41 years of age and following such a tremendous effort, now would seem the perfect moment for the Ukrainian to call time on his illustrious career. Which begs the question: where does his legacy rank in the annals of heavyweight history?

The stats alone are enough to ensure that the former champ will be inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame at the first opportunity. An Olympic gold medalist and two-time world champion, “Dr. Steelhammer” won the second highest number of heavyweight title fights in history (25), had the second longest title reign ever (9 years, 7 months and 7 days) and made the third highest number of consecutive defenses (18). Even considering the proliferation of modern “world” title belts, any conversation about heavyweight championship history that doesn’t mention Wladimir’s achievements is therefore incomplete.

That said, greatness is predicated on more than statistics. If it weren’t, historical behemoths like Sonny Liston (with a single successful title defense to his name) would barely merit a mention. In other words, Klitschko’s career-record entitles him to a fair hearing in the discussion of boxing’s greatest big men, but it doesn’t guarantee him a place in the upper echelon of their ranks.

Other, more subjective questions to consider include how Wladimir matches up with previous greats physically, skill-wise and in terms of the opposition he faced. Then there’s the question of what impact he had on the sport and society more generally. Legends, after all, are borne of character as well as conquest.

Head-to-head, Wladimir’s size and stature suggest that he would have been too much to handle for the majority of the pre-1960’s heavyweights. If we were to transport him back to the 1950s in a time machine to face Rocky Marciano, for example, he’d enter the ring over 50lbs heavier, stand 8 inches taller and enjoy a 13-inch reach advantage. On paper, it just doesn’t seem like a fair fight. This argument can be replicated for many of the ancient greats (Dempsey, Tunney, Fitzsimmons, Corbett et al) if it pleases you, though increases in the average build of modern heavyweights, advances in sports science and the corresponding effect on physique, strength and conditioning are only part of the story.

Many would argue that, more importantly, in terms of ring craft and the pool of competition against which their skills are honed, it is the modern giants that fare worse. Klitschko’s so-called “jab and grab” style was effective, though often uneasy on the eye and lacked the punch variety and finesse of his predecessors. It led him to an impressive number of defenses, albeit against a string of mediocre opposition. Indeed, the question of which fighter Wladimir’s single greatest victory came against turns up a relatively poor list of options: David Haye? Samuel Peter? Chris Byrd? Kubrat Pulev? Alexander Povetkin? (Choose any you want, the point is none of them constitute a truly great rival).

Perhaps denigrating Wladimir’s achievements too much based on the quality of his opposition is overly harsh, though. A fighter can only best the competition available to them, and that is something he did consistently – and conclusively – over a period of time rarely witnessed before. So while you won’t find a Frazier or Foreman-esque name on Klitschko’s record, there’s a plethora of challengers who were properly ranked as the best contenders in the world at the time he faced them, and he dominated them all.

Well, almost all of them. Wladimir tasted his share of defeat, and the manner of his earlier career losses in particular puts a serious dent in his résumé. Whether the result of inexperience, exhaustion, fragility or a combination of these factors, knockout defeats to Ross Puritty, Corrie Sanders and Lamon Brewster do not sit well when you are comparing yourself to the toughest men in history.

Of course, no boxer enjoys getting hit in the face, but Klitschko’s palpable aversion to punishment stood out more than most. The Ukrainian giant appeared nervous to the point of being allergic to punches at times in the ring, resulting in what could sometimes be a maddening reluctance to let go with his hands. One can only imagine the intimidation that could be inflicted before the first bell even sounded by a menacing figure such as a prime Mike Tyson or Sonny Liston. It does not take much of a leap from here to argue that the smaller men of past years would not have been at such a disadvantage, after all.

For if we allow that “Iron” Mike, at 5’10” and with a 10-inch reach disadvantage, could impose himself on the much bigger Wladimir, then why not the smaller heavyweights of yesteryear, too? As the saying goes, sometimes it is not the size of the dog in the fight but the size of the fight in the dog. And for all his impressive physical attributes, if Klitschko lacked one thing it was the size of the dog inside of him.

It is ironic, in this sense, that the mettle he was criticized for lacking throughout his career was the same attribute he seemed to discover in his final outing, at 40 years of age and with 90,000 Englishmen baying for his blood.

Wladimir’s valiant effort against the undefeated and highly favoured Joshua, in which he seemed to shed a lifetime’s worth of doubt about his chin, has led to the kind of adoration in defeat and retirement that he sorely lacked during his long and often dreary title reign. Dramatic and fiercely contested, his stoppage after eleven back-and-forth rounds was everything that his decade-long reign as champion was not. If only he had been able to summon an extra ounce of killer instinct in that sixth round, perhaps he would now be retiring as a three-time world champion. Alas, breaking so many habits in one night was too much to ask.

If Klitschko’s dominance inside of the ring rarely made for compelling viewing, outside of it he always carried himself like a true champion. When he told Tyson Fury to “fuck off” ahead of their planned rematch, the words sounded so unnatural that they were funny rather than profane. Trash talk was rarely needed or utilized, and though he lacked the charisma of a champion like Muhammad Ali, the magnetism of a fighter like Mike Tyson or the prominence in the public consciousness of men like Evander Holyfield and Lennox Lewis, he was a consummate professional and represented the sport of boxing with grace and dignity. In a market where slurs and insults function as the standard currency, Klitschko was a refreshingly polite role model.

“My HEART is at PEACE as I pass the torch to @anthonyjoshua – the next generation. Good luck little bro, I’m proud of you!”

His recently posted retirement message was the kind of gentlemanly and sportsmanlike gesture that defined his character, though sadly it was not entirely accurate. It’s fair to say that the Joshua fight did bear many of the typical hallmarks of a “passing of the torch” type fight, but the elephant in the room was a whacky Englishman by the name of Tyson Fury, whose slide into drugs and depression does not change the fact that Wladimir, for all his honest intentions, no longer held the torch by the time he lost to AJ. The heavyweight lineage had already changed hands in Germany a year and a half earlier, the old champion seemingly psyched-out before being bamboozled over twelve cagey rounds by the unpredictable “Gypsy King”.

Though he never got chance to put things right in a rematch, ultimately Klitschko did earn some redemption in defeat to Joshua. He went out on his shield, proved he was capable of withstanding more punishment than was believed, and gave far more of himself in the ring than he had against Fury. So, now all is said and done, where should Klitschko stand in the all-time heavyweight pantheon?

His final effort certainly does his legacy no harm, though even a glorious victory would not have been enough to elevate him alongside the two greatest heavyweights of all time, Muhammad Ali and Joe Louis. The tier just below these two immortals, typically including Jack Johnson, Larry Holmes and (more debatably) Rocky Marciano, is also well out of reach, I think.

A case could be made for him sitting somewhere within the second half of the top ten, amongst names like George Foreman, Lennox Lewis, Sonny Liston, Joe Frazier, Jack Dempsey – or perhaps Evander Holyfield and Mike Tyson, depending on your preference. This would also be overly generous though, in my opinion. The paucity of impressive names on Wladimir’s record combined with the nature of his defeats and overly cautious style again precludes him from such a high ranking.

Putting him just outside of this field – into territory including fighters such as Gene Tunney, James Jeffries, Riddick Bowe, Jersey Joe Walcott and his brother Vitali – seems a more reasonable placement. If he were to be seated in the higher reaches of this tier, you wouldn’t hear much of an argument from me.

All in all, despite his flaws Wladimir was still a great heavyweight champion. He carried himself with class, carved out a record that will stand the test of time, and earned the right to be called the best of his era. You can’t ask for much more than that.

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