The Fear and Trembling: Klitschko Thrashes Pulev in Five

Photo: Michael Sterling Eaton

By Oliver Goldstein

Through five intermittently furious rounds, Wladimir Klitschko ensured it was business as usual tonight as he rocked, socked, and ultimately stopped Kubrat Pulev in Hamburg, Germany. While the Sofia, Bulgaria native seemed determined to mimic the behemoth across from him, Klitschko showed the abyss between imitation and replication to be stark. Pulev might be of similar height, but after four vicious knockdowns, he could no longer claim to be of equal stature.

Before their encounter, this had been advertised as potentially the long-term heavyweight champion’s toughest fight in years. After David Haye slid from contention after twelve numbing rounds back in 2011, the Ukrainian has struggled to command similar intrigue in the intervening fights. Jean Marc Mormeck was an undersized throb; Mariusz Wach, an oversized one. The less said about Francesco Pianeta and Alex Leapai, the better. Even Alexander Povetkin, long a Klitschko antagonist in absentia, never seemed likely to cause a ripple. But the 6'4" Pulev, who boasts an incisive jab and sturdy physique, at least appeared somewhat up to the task. Coming to the ring with his face set in a severe, earnest expression, Pulev looked every inch the severe, earnest fighter he is. 

Nonetheless, after these five rounds, it seems yet clearer that it will take a fighter of special gifts to beat this incarnation of Klitschko. While steadfastness and courage are often enough against most fighters in the thin heavyweight crowd, against Klitschko, they are the barest pre-requisites to basic survival. If the first minute and a half of the first round suggested Pulev might actually be an organized challenger, the gorgeous left hook which flashed through his guard and crashed him to the canvas soon suggested otherwise. After this, the Bulgarian’s best hope seemed to lie in lulling Klitschko into a temporary torpor.

But perhaps the champion’s finest quality is his focus. Often maligned as dull and unadventurous, Klitschko is a fighter of quite beguiling conscientiousness, if such a thing in boxing can be said to exist. At some point, after all, to watch this supremely gifted athlete shuffle into contact and grab his opponent time after time becomes strangely endearing. On this occasion, even after sending Pulev to the floor again in the third round, the Ukrainian followed up with three successive bear hugs. Far from making him robotic, this sheer commitment to routine is rather a sign of Klitschko’s abundant normality. Like all those people in sleepy suburbs with complex alarm systems, Klitschko’s conservatism is part the consequence of the scars of youth, part the result of quiet scaremongering—with little basis in reality. For what, in the world of Klitschko, is there to be scared of? Taller, stronger, faster, and better than all other heavyweights, simply to face the Ukrainian, in the true meaning of the verb, is a challenge in itself: his handsome features are protected by prodigious height and a ramrod jab. And what to do once that challenge is surpassed? To leave the outside is to reach a less hospitable place than before: the inside, with Klitschko, is a smaller fighter’s nightmare. But even with dynamite in one hand, and Semtex in the next, the Ukrainian nevertheless remains one for fear and trembling. Doubtless he is not the type to leave home without double-checking the locks.

As a result, there is no aberglaube about Klitschko: where other fighters of similar power seem to become hyper-physical in their manner, to exude more physicality than they actually possess, the Ukrainian is never more than he simply is. Fittingly, Klitschko might be the only boxer in history with a KO ratio above 80 percent whose most appreciable characteristic is his steadiness. But while the hyper-physical often end up broken and fragmented, that steadiness has guaranteed "Dr Steelhammer" a reign of superabundant dominance. He is both ersatz excitement and superior class, capable of cooling the passions through thudding knockouts. 

Nevertheless a Klitschko fight is always full of pareses, and those small, unavoidable, unintentional gestures hint often at why he remains at heart so cautious. Wladimir is a flincher, a flickerer, a fidget: he trembles his fear on the surface of his body. Why else those strange moments when he is suddenly becalmed, when his awesome fists elect to jerk about furiously instead of hammering home shots? Even in this five round bout with four knockdowns, lulls were not rare. Klitschko is always prepared to tarry.

Pulev, on the other hand, was fearless—but it is often the fearless in boxing who end the night trembling. So it was in Hamburg, as Klitschko converted his own private neuroses into moments of intense exposure, each suitably violent to render Pulev unequal. When the final left hook swept through the Bulgarian’s guard and crashed him once more to the ground, "The Cobra" was bleeding below one eye and swelling by the other. This was a smashing. 

With this win, Klitschko keeps rolling towards Joe Louis’s record of twenty-five straight defenses. Shannon Briggs, ever keen to loudmouth himself into another title shot, seems a likely future victim (if only to shut him up). After Briggs, Bermane Stiverne, Deontay Wilder, Bryant Jennings, Tyson Fury, and, dare it be said, David Haye, loom as possible opponents. While the weight class has seen far stronger days, it is nevertheless reasonably well-stocked with plausible contenders. Should Fury beat Dereck Chisora in their Manchester rematch later this month, a mandatory title shot looks likely. Fury is no special fighter, but watching Klitschko attempt to stop him should be fun, as watching a man trying to fell a moving tree trunk might be. Now 63-3 (53 KOs), the Ukrainian’s grip on the heavyweight division appears iron as ever.