By Eric Raskin
Wladimir Klitschko, Ph.D., is a man of science. He’s deliberate. He makes calculated risk-reward decisions at every turn. And by putting such consideration and reflection into every decision, he always put himself in a position to land on the correct one.
In the wee hours of Thursday morning, the long-reigning former heavyweight champion announced he was ending his career, a verdict reached only after engaging in the same methodical contemplation he employed throughout that career. And it was, in keeping with Klitschko’s track record, the correct decision. Wladimir is retiring at precisely the right moment, with diminishing amounts left to give and absolutely nothing left to prove.
Klitschko last fought on April 29, when he and Anthony Joshua drew 90,000 fans to Wembley Stadium and treated them to the most dramatic heavyweight championship fight in decades. It was undoubtedly Wladimir’s apex as an entertainer and action hero, and by getting off the canvas three times and always punching back, he enhanced his legacy even as he fell to an 11th-round stoppage defeat. As much as he hungered for a shot at revenge, he had to know that 41-year-old fighters rarely improve upon their previous performances. He also had to know that the odds were long that he’d find another chance to leave a final impression like this.
“I deliberately took a few weeks to make my decision, to make sure I had enough distance from the fight at Wembley Stadium,” Klitschko said in his official statement. (In fact, he took more than three months.) “As an amateur and a professional boxer, I have achieved everything I dreamed of, and now I want to start my second career after sports. I would have never imagined that I would have such a long and incredibly successful boxing career.”
Wladimir’s pro career was indeed long (nearly 21 years) and incredibly successful (64 victories in 69 fights, 25 of those wins in “world” title fights, about half of those in fights with the legit lineal title arguably at stake).
But his legacy is complicated.
He’s a no-brainer first-ballot Hall of Famer. But it’s probable that none of the opponents he defeated will ever see their names on the Hall of Fame ballot.
He was a massive attraction in Europe. But he was partially responsible for a huge drop-off in interest in the heavyweight division in America.
He was a dominant champion. But much of his reign was spent in co-dominance with a man he promised his mother he’d never fight.
The period from 2003, when Lennox Lewis fought for the last time, until 2017, when Joshua went through hell to impress upon Wladimir that fighting is a younger man’s game, will be known in the annals of heavyweight history as the Klitschko Era. Had Wladimir ruled for that long all by himself, he’d have a shot at getting chiseled onto the heavyweight Mount Rushmore. Instead, a good chunk of that run has asterisks attached because he couldn’t truly be The Man until his brother retired for good — and, unfortunately for Wlad, popular opinion suggests that the sturdier Vitali would have been favored had they fought.
His brother aside, however, Wladimir fought everyone who mattered from 2004 to now. It was one of the weakest heavyweight classes ever, sure, but the staggering quantity of B-level names adds up to an A-level resume. There was Chris Byrd, Ray Mercer, Jameel McCline, Samuel Peter, Byrd again, Calvin Brock, Sultan Ibragimov, Hasim Rahman, Ruslan Chagaev, Peter again, David Haye, Alexander Povetkin, and Kubrat Pulev. Some wins were stirring, like the knockdown-filled first fight with Peter and the explosive KOs of Brock and Pulev. Some were painful to watch, like the cautious jabbing clinic against Ibragimov and the clinch-at-all-costs slog against Povetkin.
Then there were the defeats. Joshua was a proud one. The loss to Tyson Fury in 2015 can mostly be chalked up to age. But between the ages of 22 and 28, Wladimir got TKO’d by Ross Puritty, Corrie Sanders, and Lamon Brewster, none of whom are remembered for much besides beating Wladimir Klitschko.
As unsightly as those defeats are on Klitschko’s record, they made it possible for him to become quite possibly the most exceptional reclamation project in boxing history. With the help of Emanuel Steward, who taught the 6-foot-6 Ukrainian how to use his height and barely get hit, Klitschko racked up Hall of Fame numbers in the years after many observers had told him this brutal business wasn’t for him and he should retire before he gets hurt. It’s easy to forget now, but after the Brewster collapse in 2004, Klitschko was rotting roadkill, and no fans were slowing down their cars to take a look. All he did after that was win 22 straight over 11 years, including an uninterrupted 9½-year title reign. The magnitude of Wladimir’s rebuild, and the discipline and self-belief it must have required, are remarkable.
It speaks to Klitschko’s extraordinary physical gifts, of course. He had freakish athleticism and skill for a man his size and the slight misfortune to follow Lennox Lewis, the only other heavyweight in history who could stop Wladimir’s particular collection of talents from feeling unprecedented.
But in equal measure, Klitschko’s post-2004 run speaks to his character. There was no more classy champion in this generation. He treated opponents with respect. He treated the sport with respect. When David Haye unveiled a T-shirt depicting Wladimir and Vitali’s severed heads, when Tyson Fury went batty in superhero outfits at press conferences, when Shannon Briggs chased him on land and sea yelling “Let’s go champ!” Klitschko kept his cool and took the high road. Wladimir was an ambassador for boxing, for intelligence, for decency – and you have to assume he’ll continue to be as he focuses on fatherhood and his next career.
The argument will rage on long after Klitschko is gone as to where he ranks among the all-time greats, in large part because we never got to see him against a fellow great in his prime. Had Wladimir come along in the Golden Age of the 1970s, there are those who think he’d have used his size to beat Joe Frazier and even Muhammad Ali, and there are those who think he’d have crumbled against Earnie Shavers or Jerry Quarry. Klitschko retires now at 41, with a record of 64-5, 53 KOs, to become part of that great sports debate that never ends.
There are some fans who miss the Klitschko Era already, and there are others who are thrilled for it to finally be over. The boxing world will move on; all champions have successors. But it figures to be a very long time before we’re treated to a heavyweight champion as dignified and as admirable as this one.