When WBA/IBF/WBO heavyweight title holder Wladimir Klitschko 62-3 (52) defends his title belts against Bulgarian challenger Kubrat Pulev 20-0 (11) Saturday in Hamburg, Germany, and on HBO, Klitschko will in many ways be looking at himself in the mirror from a style vantage-point.
Pulev is five years younger than Klitschko, age 38, and just under two inches shorter and both weigh in the range of 250. Pulev's size can be seen as a plus because he won't be easy for Klitschko to manhandle and tie up. Then again his size and girth present Klitschko a nice big target. The biggest difference regarding numbers is found in their experience. Klitschko has fought 329 rounds as a pro, compared to 133 for Pulev.
Wladimir won a gold medal as a super heavyweight at the 1996 Olympics and has been all but untouchable in 16 title defenses since 2006, while in the process unifying three of the major sanctioning belts. Some may take issue with Klitschko's opposition circa 2006-2014, but he's fought everybody qualified to fight him without side-stepping anyone.
For those who have issues with the challengers Wladmir has defended his title belts against, don't expect to be blown away by this weekend's opponent, Kubrat Pulev, who is the seventh undefeated challenger Klitschko will defend his titles against. When it comes to boxing styles and fighting concepts, Pulev and Klitschko share many technical traits. Such as, they both paw and stab with their lead hand when they jab, and then look to sneak in their right hand – a tactic Wladimir has mastered. However, Pulev is much more open up top and to the head when he comes with his right.
Tony Thompson often neutralized Pulev's moderate aggression by just feinting his jab — something Wladimir is also terrific at. And like Klitschko, Pulev is most at ease fighting on the outside and avoids in-fighting as much as he can. In other words, both guys like to pick their spots at center ring when they have their own volition. In fact Wladimir Klitschko has owned the division for nine years beating his opponents fighting at arm’s length.
Pulev also does something with his feet that is boxing 101, which is very fundamental and basic, but it's something Klitschko is great at timing and countering. Pulev often matches his opponent’s footwork. In doing that, he takes a step forward whenever his opponent takes a step back – conversely when his opponent takes a step forward, he takes a step back. And that is something Wladimir will quickly pick up and surely look to counter.
They both ignore their opponents body, but for different reasons. Wladimir doesn't go downstairs because it leaves his chin vulnerable and open. As for Pulev, he will jab to the body, but he does it, in my opinion, as a form of deception with the hope of lowering his opponent’s hands so he can finish up top. His offense is pretty vanilla. The most imaginative thing that Pulev does to create openings is, he feints with his left and then cuts loose with big right hands, and he does it over and over. Again, that's something else that Wladimir will no doubt be ready for.
When it comes to punching power, they're not in the same class. Wladimir is a great puncher and capable of turning the fight with anything he lands clean as long as he has both feet on the canvas and isn't reaching. Pulev is a big boned guy and is probably stronger than he looks. He has adequate power, but I think it's more accidental power if he catches you clean – like the shot he knocked out Alexander Dimitrenko with in 2012. His overhand right is his money punch, but Wladimir has been facing guys who have looked to get him out with their right hand for his entire career. If Pulev is to land his, he'll have to set it up good and be very deceptive in doing so.
Once again Wladimir is facing a challenger who is a tweener, and the current heavyweight division is littered with them. If you're looking for something to hang your hat on and give you hope that Pulev can win…all I can say is he'll have to get lucky and hope Wladimir is either bored or just not on his game. The problem is Klitschko does everything you could ask one fighter to do better than Pulev. He's the bigger puncher and more polished boxer. If there was just something in Pulev's arsenal that could possibly make Wladimir fight with more trepidation than he normally does, you would like his chances better. But I can't find it. And if that weren't enough, we have no clue how Pulev is going to react when Wladimir lands something big on him? Will he strike back like a wounded animal and perhaps make Klitschko pull up…or will he go into survival mode and fight just to go the distance and not to win? This is a strategy past challengers of Wladimir have adopted.
Pulev, like Klitschko is a slow starter. And that may be Pulev’s window of opportunity. Everyone knows that Wladimir comes out and surveys his opponents for the opening two minutes of the first round. Then during the last minute he starts to let his jab go and feigns aggression. This is a ploy in order for him to read how they're going to react if he ups the pace. If he senses his opponent is fighting from a defensive mindset and is there only to strike if and when he makes a mistake, then Wladimir will fight just hard enough to keep them concerned with what he's doing and they end up watching him for 12-rounds, or they get suckered and stopped because they grew complacent that he was willing to win every round by throwing a few jabs and one big right hand per round.
In order to win, Pulev has to make Klitschko uncomfortable from the onset. He can't win the battle of jabs, and he can't beat Wladimir by waiting and reacting, because Wladimir will be mindful not to give him anything out of the ordinary to react to. So what Pulev has to do is come out for the first minute and appear to be content to fight in a measured way, and then try to sucker Wladimir with something big. The only way Pulev's power is a factor in the fight is if he delivers it first. He must send the message, and as early as possible, that he's every bit as big and dangerous as Klitschko. If he can convey that to Wladimir early, there is a likely chance that Klitschko will fight more as the prey than the predator. Sure, it's a risky road to go down. But the goal is to win the fight. Why not seize on the only true advantage that you have? Everyone knows Wladimir, as skilled and formidable as he looks in the ring, his first order of business is not getting caught with anything big.
Catching Wladimir with something big, and as early as possible, is, as I see it, the only way in which the underdog can win on Saturday.
Frank Lotierzo can be contacted at GlovedFist@Gmail.com