By Kieran Mulvaney
LONDON - Boxing, as has frequently been observed, is a sport of “what have you done for me lately?” Boxers are feted on their way up, forgotten and all too often callously discarded once the rise stalls or becomes a descent. By that measure, it would not have been surprising had Wladimir Klitschko’s name long ago ended up along so many heavyweights who had shown much promise, only to fizzle out when their limitations were exposed: a Ukrainian Michael Grant, a less-volatile Andrew Golota.
But, driven by immense mental fortitude as much as his notable physical strengths, Klitschko not only persisted but perfected his craft, overcoming a trio of setbacks to launch one of the most dominant heavyweight title reigns of recent times. Now, he must bounce back from a fourth reversal; a place in history already seemingly assured, his ability to do so will go a long way to dictating exactly where on the all-time list that place will be.
It has been, remarkably, nearly 20 years since word first filtered across the Atlantic of a pair of Ukrainian brothers who were rampaging through the lower ranks of the heavyweight division. It was Vitali, the elder of the two, who made his mark first, annihilating mercurial Brit Herbie Hide inside two rounds in London in 1999. But the rumors had it that Vitali’s younger brother Wladimir might be the better of the pair, with smoother movement and silkier skills than his sibling.
And yet, by the time Vitali poleaxed Hide, the first question mark had appeared on Wladimir’s résumé, and it was a significant one. He had been beating American Ross Puritty round after round, seemingly comfortably on his way to the kind of victory that any 24-0 youngster with championship aspirations should be notching up, when he ran out of gas and self-defensive abilities, crumbling to the canvas at the end of the tenth and at the beginning of the eleventh en route to a shocking TKO stoppage.
That aberration was initially cast aside as a learning moment – an unusual and disconcerting one, granted, but perhaps an aberration and a lesson in stamina for a young man who had previously been taken the distance only once and had never been past eight rounds. And the early returns suggested that that was indeed the appropriate interpretation, because after the Puritty hiccup, the Steelhammer’s steamroller flattened all in its path: Axel Schultz and Phil Jackson, Monte Barrett and Chris Byrd. Even iron-chinned Ray Mercer was dispatched inside the distance, as Klitschko returned to the upper echelons of the sport.
Then along came Corrie Sanders – a solid and talented fighter, but not considered of sufficient quality to challenge, let alone completely upend, a potential champion; and yet that’s just what he did, blitzing Klitschko in two rounds. Three fights later Lamon Brewster, who was probably not even on Sanders’ level, endured a thumping for several rounds before, in a combination of the Puritty and Sanders episodes, he turned the ride and scored a stoppage after a helpless Klitschko hit the wall.
The end, it seemed, was near. The Wladimir Klitschko story threatened to be one of promise unfulfilled, of an imposing physique married with fine technique but let down by a china chin and suspect stamina. That was 13 years ago. In the decade and more since, the narrative is altogether different.
Between the Brewster loss and his last ring appearance, against Tyson Fury in November 2015, he fought on 22 occasions. Each of them was a victory, 19 of them in world title fights. Until he came unstuck against Fury, he had looked imperious, compiling one of the all-time heavyweight championship résumés and guaranteeing first-ballot election to the Hall of Fame.
What changed? How did the flawed pretender transform himself into a legitimate champion?
The swift and simple answer comes in the form of the man who watched, somewhat helplessly and with some disbelief, as an exhausted Klitschko attempted to crawl to his corner at the conclusion of the Brewster debacle. That was the first occasion on which Emanuel Steward, who had earlier resuscitated the career of Lennox Lewis and helped develop him into the dominant heavyweight champion of his generation, was in the Ukrainian’s corner; but, rather than cut and run in the face of his charge’s failure that night, he doubled down on his commitment.
It was under Steward’s mentorship that Klitschko morphed from being acutely vulnerable to, over time, appearing all but unbeatable, a change that the fighter ascribed, as much as anything, to intensive homework.
“Emanuel Steward hasn't changed anything in me,” Klitschko told journalists a few years ago. “He said, 'Wladimir, be yourself.' The thing I learned in the amateurs is about technique and balance, strategy that he has been improving.”
"We basically write a script in the preparation, and the script was played out in the fight exactly the way we wrote it. We were analyzing everything: the way the opponent talks, the way the opponent walks, what he has done before, what was the most common thing he repeated on the strong side of the opponent and on the weak side of the opponent. And we used it.”
That thoroughness in preparation allowed Klitschko to anticipate almost everything an opponent might throw at him and to negate it almost before a punch had been thrown. It enabled him to be ruthlessly dominant. It laid the foundations for a lengthy reign. And it also diminished his popularity.
The fights before Steward’s arrival had made clear Klitschko’s strengths – his power, his stiff jab, his distance and range – as well as his glaring weaknesses. Under Steward he maximized the former with a ruthless efficiency, keeping foes at bay whenever possible and tying them up whenever they come in close, pounding his opponents at an almost metronomic pace – anything to avoid the kind of fast-paced, explosive brawls that had been his undoing.
It did not make him the most exciting of champions. A 2015 New York Times profile described Klitschko’s as a style “that can at times make fencing look combative.” But his ability to stick to the script revealed an obsessive attention to detail and an iron-willed refusal to deviate from his path.
“He’s not the kind of guy to lose focus,” Johnathan Banks, who assumed duties as Klitschko’s trainer after Steward died in 2012, said in that same Times article. “You can’t be at the top this long and lose focus.”
But Banks was also keenly aware of the lack of enthusiasm, particularly on the western side of the Atlantic, for all that his fighter had accomplished.
“The thing that bothers me is that the American public will not appreciate what he has done until he’s long retired,” he said. Except that at least some surely did immediately after he surrendered his belts to Fury in an ugly, sloppy bout. For a decade, the sport’s flagship division could boast a champion who was never out of shape, was never out of line or offensive, could speak five languages fluently and in any of them speak with intelligence about subjects such as the political situation in his native Ukraine. The contrast with the foul-mouthed – and admittedly troubled – Fury could not have been more clear.
At least in the classy Anthony Joshua, his opponent on Saturday night, he faces somebody who is cut more from his own cloth. But Klitschko is not yet ready to cede the stage. At 41 years old, and 17 months on from his sluggish outing against Fury, he knows that his career obituaries have been all but filed. But he also knows that the first drafts were penned 13 years ago, only to be crumpled up and thrown into the trash. This proud and confident man will enter the ring at Wembley Arena in search of one more night of glory before the final paragraphs are written.