In terms of longevity and dominance WBA/IBF/WBO heavyweight champion Wladimir Klitschko picked up where Lennox Lewis left off -- and then some. Consider:
* His current eight year, six month reign is now second on the all-time list behind Joe Louis' 11 year 8 months. Larry Holmes, at seven years three months, is now third.
* He is now 23-2 (18 KO) in title competition.
* He hasn't lost a fight in nearly 11 years and has gone 20-0 (14 KO) in that time.
* His 16 consecutive defenses thus far ranks only behind Joe Louis (25) and Holmes (20) and if one adds his five WBO defenses between 2000 and 2003 his 21 total defenses ranks him second only behind "The Brown Bomber." Given the current crop it appears that "Dr. Steelhammer" can rule for as long as he pleases.
However, Klitschko is facing a test in undefeated mandatory challenger Kubrat Pulev, who, at 6-foot-4 1/2 inch rates as one of his taller challengers. Additionally, Klitschko won't have the home ring advantage per se because Pulev has fought his last eight fights in Germany and the Bulgarian, like the Ukrainian-born Klitschko, is not a German native.
Klitschko's critics have hungered for the day that he will finally dethroned while his supporters wish just as strongly that he remains on the throne. Which contingent will have its way on Saturday? The statistics tell the following story:
Turning Up the Thermometer: As a young fighter Klitschko was known as an offensive juggernaut but during several fights in his middle to late 30s his volume had dropped considerably. In stopping Tony Thompson for the second time Klitschko averaged just 20.2 punches per round while against Jean Marc Mormeck he averaged 39.7 and 42.4 versus David Haye. In out-pointing Alexander Povetkin in an ugly clinch-fest, Klitschko averaged 34.8. That said, most of his opponents threw even fewer (Povetkin 23.6, Haye 24.2 and Mormeck a microscopic 5.6). As he did in their first meeting, only Thompson managed to out-throw Klitschko (30.5 per round) in the rematch, if not out-land him (51-25 overall, 36-7 power).
But in three of his last four fights Klitschko has returned to his volume-punching ways. Against Mariusz Wach (the only fighter ever to boast height and reach advantages) he averaged 57.8 punches per round while against Francesco Pianeta he fired 45.6. But in his most recent fight against Alex Leapai his pace surged to a stratospheric 84.3, nearly double the 45.6 heavyweight average. Better yet, Klitschko maintained his power by scoring knockdowns in the first and fifth (two times) and above-average accuracy in every phase (37% overall, 30% jabs, 47% power). The connect margins were almost absurd (147-10 overall, 67-6 jabs, 84-10 power) and Leapai could only muster 14% overall accuracy and landed 19% of his jabs as well as 11% of his power shots.
In Klitschko's last 11 fights he out-landed his opponents 1,525-443. His opponents averaged a combined 5.1 connects per round, more than two-thirds less than the 16.5 heavyweight average. No wonder Klitschko remains commanding at age 38; not only does he hit often, he is barely touched in response. In his own way, he is the equal of Floyd Mayweather Jr., Guillermo Rigondeaux and Erislandy Lara in terms of hit and don't get hit. He's not as graceful as they are, but his results are something to behold.
Plusses and Minuses: Pulev has several assets going for him. First, at 33, he is five years younger than Klitschko. Second, he's a pretty good match physically in that he's only one-and-a-half inches shorter and has a one-inch reach deficit. Third, he's a fairly effective jabber, even against taller foes. Against the 6-foot-7 Alexander Dimitrenko he landed 5.4 jabs per round in posting a 59-22 jab connect bulge while against the 6-foot-5 Tony Thompson he averaged 5.2 jab connects but trailed 69-62 in raw connects. Finally, he's precise with his power shots (46% against Thompson, 41% versus Dominick Guinn, 38% versus Travis Walker).
The bad news for Pulev is that he fights at a mild pace (34 punches per round against Walker, 33.8 vs. Thompson, 41.6 vs. Michael Sprott, 44.6 vs. Guinn and 37.1 vs. Dimitrenko -- all below the 45.6 heavyweight average) and that he's accessible to his opponents' hardest punches. He tasted 36% of Dimitrenko's hooks, crosses and uppercuts, 41% of Guinn's and 40% of Thompson's. He fared better against Walker and Sprott (28% in both fights) but Sprott had just turned 37 while Walker, while a dangerous puncher, usually lost whenever he stepped up the competition. And Klitschko is a huge step up.
Finally, Pulev is a calculating, risk-averse fighter -- exactly the kind of fighter Klitschko feasts on because that style gives him the time and the breathing room to work out every angle before striking at his leisure. If Klitschko can command the pace, the fight is over.
Prediction: Pulev is big enough and strong enough but is he ambitious enough to toss aside his usual caution and go for it? In his heart he might be but his training and instincts will probably advise him to do otherwise. Klitschko by wide decision.