A Tall Order for Klitschko?

Photos: Will Hart/HBO | Hennesey Sports

By Eric Raskin

Nothing lasts forever. This is an accepted fact. But Wladimir Klitschko’s heavyweight title reign is beginning to make our certainty waver just a bit.

Numbers rarely tell the whole story, but with Klitschko, the numbers are getting to be fairly preposterous – nine and a half years without interruption; eighteen successful defenses. Tyson Fury, who becomes challenger number 19 this Saturday in Dusseldorf, Germany (live on HBO at 4:45 PM ET, and replayed at 10:15 PM ET/PT), didn’t even turn pro until Klitschko was two and half years and five defenses into this current reign. That should help put Wladimir’s longevity into perspective.

But it all has to end someday, whether by choice or by force, and as Klitschko now finds himself four months shy of his 40th birthday, the signs pointing toward a possible conclusion to his championship reign are out there. In his most recent fight, against Bryant Jennings, he wasn’t his usual dominant self, dropping a few rounds to an ordinary challenger and clinching so much that referee Michael Griffin took a point away. Klitschko was supposed to face Fury on October 24, but the fight was bumped back by five weeks when the Ukrainian suffered a calf injury in training; as we’ve seen countless times, aging brings with it increased susceptibility to injury.

In Fury, Wladimir is taking on one of the two or three most worthy current contenders (the Transnational Boxing Rankings Board rates the Irish/English fighter behind only Klitschko and Alexander Povetkin in the heavyweight class) and a man a dozen years his junior. And to top it all off, Klitschko will be giving away about three inches of height, four inches of reach, and 20 pounds against the 6’9” behemoth.

Klitschko is the prohibitive favorite, and rightly so. But is there perhaps a hint of a perfect storm brewing to make this night at the ESPIRIT Arena one of upsets and endings?

"Technically speaking, Wladimir is much more sound than Tyson Fury," former undisputed heavyweight champion Lennox Lewis told HBO.com. "But one thing Fury has got is gusto. If Fury has got enough focus and accuracy to hit Wladimir, if he is able to hit him and create a cut or a bruise or a busted lip, it should be an interesting fight.”

“We all get slower with age and can’t do what we did in our twenties, and maybe Wladimir has got nagging injuries that have left a toll on his body. He’s fighting a battle that every professional athlete fights. I think Tyson Fury’s gonna be a big mouthful for him because of the size and because Wladimir hasn’t fought anybody that goes out there and does what he says he will for a while.”

Whereas the more common term to use is “handful,” Lewis’ use of the word “mouthful” is perhaps more appropriate when Fury is involved. The 27-year-old challenger talks as good a game as Klitschko fights. Whether at a press conference or logged into Twitter, Fury comes armed with a stream of profanities, making him the distinguished Klitschko’s polar opposite and, depending upon your perspective, either the best or worst thing that could possibly happen to the heavyweight division.

When Klitschko guested on the HBO Boxing Podcast in September, he addressed Fury’s prodigious verbal output: “I think it’s desperation for recognition, or desperation for promotion, or not being self-confident,” the champion said.

Fury’s personality figures to have little bearing on the outcome of the fight, however. What might is his size. Mariusz Wach, whom Klitschko defeated by unanimous decision in 2012, is the only previous challenger to hold height and weight edges over Wladimir. Interestingly, the 6’5” Lewis always said he preferred fighting men his own size, and Klitschko feels the same way.

“I do perform better with taller guys than with shorter guys,” Wladimir said. “I’m fighting more aggressive with taller guys. There is not much clinching … I didn’t see any clinching [against Wach], which is the main issue and concern that people have. So I think this fight with Tyson Fury, since he’s taller than me, is going to be entertaining.”

Klitschko admitted on the podcast that he struggled to find sparring partners who could replicate a 6’9” opponent capable of switching from orthodox to southpaw. However, any notion that Fury presents challenges Klitschko has never seen pales in comparison to the leap in class that Fury is taking. He’s built his record of 24-0 with 18 KOs against some decent opposition, most notably Dereck Chisora (twice—the first time coming when Chisora was unbeaten) and Steve Cunningham (who dropped Fury in the second round before getting stopped in the seventh), but those guys aren’t exactly Klitschko. Fury is clumsy but quick for his size and he can both box from distance and mix it up inside. Lewis believes Fury’s ability and willingness to tangle in close could prove crucial in this fight, since infighting is the weakest component of Klitschko’s game.

“What I always did against tall opponents was I said to myself that I’m going to fight on the inside,” Lewis explained. “If my opponent is not a good fighter on the inside, then I’m going to beat him up on the inside because I made it a goal of mine to be able to box on the inside and the outside. From the outside, against a big guy, there’s nothing to separate you guys. So you have to use some other part of your arsenal. Wladimir might have trouble adjusting if Fury takes the fight to him inside.”

Lewis makes a compelling case for why Klitschko might find himself in a tough fight. But the case can also be made that Fury is going to be completely outgunned by an all-time great, a man with a magnificent record of 64-3, 53 of those wins by knockout, who is one of the best pure punchers the heavyweight division has ever seen. Never mind the questions of what happens if Fury gets inside or what happens if he busts Wladimir up a little; what happens when Klitschko pumps a few telephone-pole jabs into Fury’s face and then lands his first clean right hand?

The answer to that question has come out in Klitschko’s favor often enough to lead him to an 11-year unbeaten run and the kind of stats heavyweight championship boxing hasn’t seen since Larry Holmes in the early ’80s. On Saturday night, while Fury will be looking to make a name for himself on a global level, Klitschko will be looking to make Fury just another number.