It has been nearly a year since we last witnessed WBC heavyweight titlist Vitali Klitschko entering a boxing ring to wage fistic combat and now of course we learn that we may never see him in the ring again.
His opponent in his last match was Danny Williams, who was coming off a stoppage of the now-defunct franchise named Mike Tyson. Unbeknownst to all those present that night in Las Vegas, it was also the last hurrah for boxing’s first Ukrainian heavyweight titlist.
His truncated title reign has some quirks that are unlikely to be replicated.
Oddly – if we eliminate the thought that his WBO days were real title fights – he did not fight for or defend his title against an American.
He fought and lost in a WBC contest against Englishman Lennox Lewis. He earned a shot at the vacant title with a two round stoppage of Canadian Kirk Johnson. He won the title with an eight round stoppage of South African Corrie Sanders. In his lone defense, he knocked out Englishman Danny Williams.
Many in the boxing world, once having written off the 6’7” big man, were thoroughly impressed by his valiant, though unsuccessful go at Lewis.
Much of the general public was extremely impressed by the victory, but Iron Mike’s subsequent quit-job against club fighter Kevin McBride provided some much needed perspective. Perhaps Williams wasn't all that wonderful after all.
Since that time there have been signings and cancellations to fight former champion Hasim Rahman. Injuries, first a hamstring pull and then surgery for a back problem, forced delays in Dr. Ironfist’s mandatory defense against the Rock. His latest, and apparent most severe, injury also spelled the end of his athletic career.
The previous delays allowed Rahman to gain something called the “interim” WBC title by winning a 12-round decision over fellow contender Monte Barrett. With this title in hand, an announcement will likely come any day that Rahman will be bestowed the belt and will face a mandatory challenge.
The fact that Klitschko’s victories over the now-questionably talented Williams and the delays in his required defense against Rahman raise doubts about him, it would not be anything new.
Klitschko had throughout his career been the brother who was not supposed to be the “one.” His brother Wladimir is faster, smoother, and generally more talented, or so the story goes.
Vitali appeared mechanical and awkward. His tremendous size rings alarm bells for boxing purists who think any man over 6’4” is destined to be a buffoon who tumbles like a Redwood the first time he meets a top fighter, ala Primo Carnera.
Moreover, he’s actually from Europe, not just of European descent. That’s a double whammy.
Add to that, that he was a former kickboxer, and holds a Ph.D., and no one could be expected to have taken this guy seriously.
But, as is so often the case, the “one” who actually wins in the ring supplants the fighter who is supposed to be the next great thing.
One of Klitschko’s predecessors, Larry Holmes, had none of the marquee features considered to necessary to be the next star; he simply proved himself better than everyone else by winning and winning. Likewise, Klitschko has climbed to the top by continuing to win.
He’s certainly had his bumps along the way. After toiling in near-obscurity in Germany, he blasted out Herbie Hide to capture the even more obscure WBO belt.
His subsequent loss to Chris Byrd – a “no mas” affair following an injury – left most hardcore American fans with the distinct impression that he was simply another European heavyweight who had been fed a steady diet of meaningless pushovers only to have him wilt in the face of real adversity.
Back to the drawing boards, Klitschko pounded out wins over European tough guy Timo Hoffmann, one-time prospect Vaughn Bean, and perennial fringe contender Larry Donald (and to this day he is the only man to stop the 49-fight veteran), among others to earn a shot at universally recognized champion Lennox Lewis.
Rarely is it the case that a fighter makes his name as a legitimate force in a losing effort, but that’s just what Klitschko did against fellow giant Lewis.
In four of their six rounds, Klitschko got to Lewis often, hurting him and leading many in the crowd to sense a monumental upset was in the making. Lewis often seemed befuddled and without a response to the bigger, stronger Klitschko.
Of course Klitschko did not win the title that night. A horrendous cut, caused by a punch, made stopping the fight at the end of round six an absolute necessity. The Los Angeles crowd in the Staples Center erupted when Klitschko, the former quitter, complained bitterly about the stoppage. He was now seen as a brave warrior and the heir apparent.
While he pressed hard for a rematch, the wise Lewis retired with his title intact. Never one to worry about his public persona, Lewis left the ring satisfied with his considerable achievements and has not returned.
Klitschko was matched with the hot-and-cold Kirk Johnson in a WBC title eliminator for the vacated title that did little to quell the big man’s detractors. The usually nimble and skilled Johnson entered the ring a blubbery 260, a full 16 pounds heavier than he had weighed in any of his other 36 fights. Klitschko quickly dispatched his almost immobile foe, scoring a second round stoppage.
In an unusual move, the then-WBO titlist Corrie Sanders (a crushing victor over Wladimir) relinquished his belt and petitioned the WBC for a ranking. He was installed not only as a contender for the belt; he was signed to fight Vitali for the title vacated by the retired Lewis.
Sanders was long known for quick hands and solid power and with his blast-out of Wladimir was seen as a threat despite being 38 years old, somewhat thick in the middle, and more than a year out of the ring.
In their 2004 meeting, Klitschko simply would not be denied.Sanders started fast and landed big punches – punches that once put Rahman on the deck – but whatever chin weaknesses that brother Wladimir might have had, he stood solid. He raked the South African and stopped him in round eight. It was, if not brilliant, certainly dominant.
His fights with both Sanders and Williams illustrate one factor in evaluating Klitschko that often goes unnoticed. Unlike many of his contemporaries, he rarely loses rounds in a fight. If his style has led some to mock him as a “Frankenstein,” it certainly is not something any of his opponents have solved.
Of course in amassing 34 knockouts in 35 wins, he has not often needed to prove himself to the judges. His sole decision win was a shutout over Hoffman, a man that has not been stopped in 37 bouts.
Even in his losses to Lewis and Byrd he was clearly ahead. He was winning 58-56 on all cards in his challenge to Lewis. He was dominating Byrd, 88-83, 88-83, and 89-82.
The Ukrainian carved out a place as the lead force in the division.
For Klitschko, the supposedly robotic, one-dimensional giant, winning was the only tonic for a doubting public. With his career cut short, it is impossible to know if he won enough to join the all-time greats of the division.
As an enormously intelligent man, fluent in four languages, and intertwined in the politics of his turbulent but optimistic homeland, his greatness may in fact not be determined by his prowess in the boxing ring.
Just as it occurs for evaluating the general worth of a boxing career, time is the only thing that will tell that tale.
Boxing was fortunate to have him among its ranks.