Wladimir Klitschko Faces Another Unbeaten Challenger

Photo: Will Hart

By Nat Gottlieb

These days there are three certainties in life: Death. Taxes. And Wladimir Klitschko.

Dr. Steelhammer’s bouts are sort of like bowling. The promoters set up the pins in front of him, he knocks them down. Seventeen straight opponents have stepped into the ring to challenge Klitschko for his title belts, and all of them were sent packing with a nice paycheck and more than a few bruises for their night’s work.

The sheer numbers are daunting: Klitschko (62-3, 52 KOs) has knocked out 80 percent of his opponents. As an amateur, he had a remarkable record of 134-6 and won Olympic gold in 1996. The 38-year-old Ukrainian has won 20 straight fights overall and hasn’t lost in 10 years since being knocked out in 2004 by Lamon Brewster – a loss he avenged three years later.

Worth noting is that eight of Klitschko’s victims came into the fight with undefeated records. Now along comes number nine, Bulgaria’s Kubrat Pulev (20-0, 11 KOs) Will he be the one to pull off the upset? Or will he be just another notch on Klitschko’s championship belts?

One man who thinks Pulev can win is Bulgarian fight manager, Ivaylo Gotzev, who has managed two heavyweight world champions, and has watched his countryman fight since he was an amateur.

“I would say that he has as good a chance in dethroning Klitschko as anyone has had in the last 10 years,” says Gotzev, whose fighter Samuel Peter gave Wladimir the toughest fight in his long winning streak. Back in 2005, the hard-hitting Peter knocked him down three times yet still lost. Klitschko's margin of victory in that fight is closer than in any one since, 114-111 on all three cards.

“Pulev is not intimidated by Klitschko,” Gotzev says. “He will be there all night trying to have a breakthrough against the little bag of tricks that Wladimir uses in his fights so successfully."

So what’s in Pulev’s own bag of tricks?

Well, like the 6'6" Klitschko, Pulev is relatively big and strong at 6'4½". Because of that, Klitschko shouldn’t be able to maul him and toss him around like a WWE wrestler as he’s done on occasion to other challengers. If there’s anything that makes Pulev dangerous to Klitschko, it's that he possesses unusually fast hands for a heavyweight and moves well around the ring.

The last time Klitschko faced an opponent with a skill set similar to Pulev’s was Alexander Povetkin last year. Unbeaten at the time, and an Olympic gold medalist himself, Povetkin used his hand and foot speed to lunge under Klitschko’s long, lethal jab, and connected with several good shots to the champion’s head. But while Povetkin was able to give the heavyweight champ some problems, he still lost every single round. So why might Pulev fare any better?

Law of averages? Klitschko finally gets old in the ring? Luck?

Or will it be Pulev’s fight strategy? He recently said, “I am going to be dangerous, pressing the action early on. Wladimir will have to move a lot inside the ring.” Will all that movement wear Klitschko down? Perhaps. Will Pulev be able to stick and move and connect on his punches? Maybe.

But here’s the rub. Historically, Klitschko’s Achilles heel has been his chin. Of his three losses in a remarkable 18-year-career, all have come by way of knockout. But once the late great trainer, Emanuel Steward took over Klitschko’s training in 2004, the Ukrainian has developed a virtually impenetrable defense and a precision offense that sometimes borders on robotic.

Pulev’s problem is two-fold. One, he must get under that phenomenal jab, and two, if he does, he has to land a punch that can hurt the big man.

Based on Pulev’s record, his ability to do damage to Klitschko is questionable. With only 11 knockouts in 20 fights, a so-so KO rate of 55 percent, it’s hard to see him change the course of this fight by landing one big punch. That being said, if Pulev connects frequently enough -- a big “if” -- the cumulative effect could slow down Klitschko. If everything breaks exactly right for him, there's a chance Pulev could come from nowhere and shock the boxing world.

Make no mistake about it, despite Pulev’s 20-0 record he IS coming out of nowhere. Never mind that no Bulgarian boxer in history has won a professional world title, there are other things that factor in, such as the suspect quality of his opponents.

The 33-year-old Pulev’s “signature” victories have come over former top-tier fighters who were on the downside of their careers or overrated to begin with. The first of those was the 6'7" Alexander Dimitrenko, whom Pulev knocked out in the 11th round two years ago. A much-heralded amateur and ballyhooed pro, Dimitrenko never lived up to the hype. Still, Dimitrenko was an inch taller than Klitschko and has a reach two inches longer than the Ukrainian. If nothing else, Pulev demonstrated he could handle a bigger man.

Four months later, Pulev knocked out another giant, the 6'7½" Alexander Ustinov, whose 27-0 record was vastly padded. Slow-footed, looking unpolished and amateurish in the ring, Ustinov got beaten down and bloodied before finally getting knocked out in the 11th round by a short, not particularly powerful uppercut. Last year Pulev also scored a unanimous decision over former Klitschko challenger, Tony Thompson. But the American was 42, and long removed from his prime. In fact, every single one of Pulev’s opponents has been over the age of 31, and in four instances, were in their 40s. That’s what you call smart matchmaking.

Like Klitschko, Pulev also has a crisp jab which he works behind, but it is not as long as the champion’s and unlikely to reach him. The same can be said for Pulev’s swift and dangerous left hook. What it comes down to is the Bulgarian is going to have to have a game plan similar to Povetkin: lunge in under the jab, do some damage, and get out before he gets caught by a Klitschko bomb.

Lacking top-of-the-line power in his fists, Pulev’s best chance of winning would seem to be by out-boxing the big man and winning on points. But since Klitschko is clearly the superior boxer, that seems unlikely, too.

If there is an X factor – and this may be reaching – Klitschko’s wife, Hayden Panatierre, is due to give birth to their first child roughly two weeks after this fight. Long known for his tough mental focus and ability to shut out distractions in or out of the ring, the pending birth might have some effect on Klitschko.

On paper, Pulev certainly has his work cut out for him in this one. But as the great commentator Larry Merchant is fond of saying, “That’s why they fight the fights.”