NEW YORK – Wladimir Klitschko, it would appear, has found his Seven-Year Niche.
When last the younger of boxing’s two dominant heavyweights fought here, a thoroughly bland unanimous decision over Russia’s Sultan Ibragimov on Feb. 23, 2008, in Madison Square Garden, he was markedly different, both in and out of the ring. The “Dr. Steelhammer” who returns to this side of the pond after 13 title defenses in Europe very well may be a new and improved model for his HBO-televised April 25 title defense against undefeated Philadelphian Bryant “By-By” Jennings, also in the Garden. Maybe it really is possible for an old dog to learn new tricks, or a 39-in-March-year-old fighter to add a few sprinkles and swirls to what many Americans had perceived, rightly or wrongly, to be a plain-vanilla persona.
For one thing – and this is important – there is a strong likelihood that Jennings (19-0, 10 KOs) will provide the sort of determined resistance that Ibragimov, who clearly was in survival mode from the opening bell against the much larger, much harder-hitting Klitschko, did not. As Klitschko (63-3, 54 KOs) noted at Wednesday’s upbeat media gathering, it takes two to tangle. If he occasionally happens to find himself in there with an opponent who refuses to engage, Klitschko is too smart – what else can you say of a man who speaks four languages (Ukrainian, Russian, German and English) and holds a Ph.D. in sports science from the University of Kiev? – to try to force something that doesn’t naturally fit. The wise boxer does whatever is necessary to win and move on to the next bout and next set of variables to figure out.
“I cannot make the fight by myself,” reasoned Klitschko, who holds the IBF, WBO, WBA, The Ring and lineal championships. “I need somebody who wants to fight back. That’s what makes an exciting fight. If somebody just doesn’t want to get knocked out, it’s very difficult because you have to chase him.
“There have been different fights I’ve had in the 25 years of my career. I do have different qualities of boxing and punching and, if it’s needed, of clinching. It doesn’t matter. I know the game and I know how to win, to have lasted this long.”
In Germany, where Klitschko’s popularity is such that he’s sort of a Teutonic amalgamation of American sports icons LeBron James, Tom Brady and Derek Jeter, nobody seems to mind if the strategic options available to him swing from displays of pulverizing power to technical expertise to something akin to Greco-Roman grappling, as was the case in his unanimous-decision victory over Alexander Povetkin on Oct. 5, 2013, in Moscow, a snore-a-thon that featured 160-plus clinches, most of which were initiated by the 6-6½, 245-pound Ukrainian. On these cynical shores, haters are going to hate, but in the Fatherland Wlad the Impaler can do no wrong. Six of the 13 title defenses he’s made since beating Ibragimov had been in sold-out soccer stadiums, and seven in sold-out arenas.
Seldom, however, has Klitschko’s star shone as brightly in the United States as it does in Europe. So why was HBO Sports boss Ken Hershman smiling like the cat that ate the canary during the champ’s turn at the podium? Well, it might be because Klitschko-Jennings might actually turn out to be the entertaining heavyweight slugfest so many seem to think it will be, and maybe it’s because the proposed megafight that tentatively is scheduled to take place on May 2 in Las Vegas, which was to have paired superstar welterweight champions Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Manny Pacquiao, and be jointly televised via pay-per-view by both HBO and Showtime, remains, as always, in perpetual tease mode. With each passing day and no agreement finalized, it appears that Money May and Pac-Man will settle for their own Plans B, which can only serve to further alienate a public that has wearied of their ongoing circle dance. If Mayweather-Pacquiao doesn’t happen – again – Klitschko-Jennings has center stage all to itself.
Klitschko seems much more prepared to seize the moment than he was in previous journeys to America. The robotic, monotone guy whom many depicted as a real-life Ivan Drago prior to his unification bout with Ibragimov has, well, loosened up quite a bit. Perhaps that’s because he’s pumped at becoming a father for the first time (fiancée Hayden Panetierre bore him a daughter, Kayla, on Dec. 8). More likely, it is the natural progression of a man who seems much more comfortable in his own skin and in an American setting that has not always been accommodating to him and to older brother Vitali, the former WBC heavyweight ruler. This Wlad is stand-up-comedian funny and insightful on any number of issues, from parenthood to the armed conflict on the Crimean peninsula, to his dream of representing Ukraine in the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics, which could be an outside possibility if AIBA (the international governing body for Olympic-style boxing), opens the sport without restriction to pros as is now the case in basketball, track and hockey.
On becoming a father: “I’ve been watching how my brother’s life has changed. He has three kids – two boys and a girl. He also said something that is more related to boxing. He said, `As father, I punch harder.’ So I’m, like, OK with that. Let’s see if it is true on April 25.”
On the continuing hostilities in Ukraine between Ukrainian forces and pro-Russian rebels who support that nation’s attempt to annex Crimea: “I am very aware of the struggle of the Ukrainian people, and the aggression that came from Russia. It is a situation that’s almost impossible to imagine, that during the day a city can be bombarded with rockets and schools are being hit, all because of the geopolitical ambitions of Russia. The world needs to pay attention to what’s going on. It’s not just a local problem. It’s a world problem. Nobody knows what it’s going to lead to. Nobody knows what it’s going to lead to. Who knows, maybe China says Siberia is ours, or Germany says part of Poland is ours, or Russia says Kazakhstan is ours.”
Of his vision of adding an Olympic gold medal in 2016, 20 years after he took gold in the super heavyweight division at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics: “That is my dream, to fight in the Olympics again, 20 years later, and to win the gold medal again. AIBA needs to get along with professional boxers. I know about the rules, that a certain number of pro bouts are allowed. Right now I’m not familiar with that. But, yeah, if there is a chance, I would love to participate. In every other sport, Olympic athletes can play professional and still compete. It’s a shame for boxing that professional boxers cannot perform in the Olympics.”
On the possibility of Vitali, who is 43 and whose last bout was in 2012, coming out of retirement to fight again: “Sometimes before my fights when he gets in, he says, `Man, this is such an exciting time, and I’m missing it.’ But he has responsibility now, as mayor of Kiev, for four million people.”
An interesting individual, this Dr. Steelhammer. But always the question remains as the pages of the calendar inexorably turn: How much gas is left in his tank at almost 39? Promoter Gary Shaw, who works with Jennings, said it is not out of the question that Klitschko will get old in a hurry against the 30-year-old challenger, who vows to throw all that he has at a man who will be appearing in his 27th world title bout.
“When people ask me what the outcome of the fight will be, I say, `It’s going to end in a knockout,’” Jennings said. “It’s either going to be me or him.’ One of us is going down. But guess what? I don’t think it’s going to be me.”
Added Shaw: “Twenty-five years ago, on Feb. 11 (1990), Buster Douglas knocked out Mike Tyson. I believe on April 25, history will once again be made for an American heavyweight to do something spectacular. But this time, instead of being overseas (Tyson-Douglas was in Tokyo), it’ll be here in the United States.”
And here in the United States is the last frontier that Klitschko needs to conquer. It is at least that portion of the globe that he needs to reclaim for his perch upon the most gilded of thrones to be fully legitimized.
“`World champion’ means champion of the entire world,” Klitschko said. “You have to go around the world, like Muhammad Ali did in another time. I remember when my brother and I met Max Schmeling (the former heavyweight titlist who was 99 when he died in 2005). He said, `Guys, if you really want to make it, you have to make it in the States.’
“Fifteen years ago, I was fighting on the undercard of Michael Grant and Lennox Lewis, at Madison Square Garden. Was exciting night. That is the dream of every performer and entertainer, to be in main event at Madison Square Garden. There’s nothing better than this arena, worldwide. If you make it this far, it means you really made it. Frank Sinatra said it right. If you can make it there, you can make it anywhere. Madison Square Garden IS New York. I’m glad to be back.”
If Jennings is correct – and the fight ends in a knockout, preferably of the spectacular variety – boxing can only benefit, regardless of whether Mayweather and Pacquiao continue to play their infuriating game of hide-and-seek. With Deontay Wilder the new holder of the WBC title, by virtue of his unanimous decision over Bermane Stiverne on Jan. 17, the U.S. has its first heavyweight champ of any sort since Shannon Briggs in 2007. A Jennings shocker over Klitschko would again return all the belts to America, and if Klitschko is the man who gets there first with a big bomb, he again will figure prominently in HBO’s plans moving forward. That is quite a reversal for a man who, along with his brother Vitali, was all but shown the door by then-HBO Sports president Ross Greenburg in 2010. Asked about the Klitschkos, Greenburg dismissively said the pay-cable giant has “stopped playing in that sandbox.”
Times change. Attitudes can be adjusted. Wladimir Klitschko has now been repackaged for American consumption, and on April 25 a nation of would-be skeptics can see if the metamorphosis meets with its collective approval.
It’s hardly out of the question. Remember, Klitschko’s late trainer, Emanuel Steward, was unstinting in his appraisal of what Wlad was, and even more of what he could be if only more opponents elected to meet him strength-on-strength.
“For one-punch power, Wladimir tops them all,” Steward said. “If he ever became more aggressive and just went after people, he could be the most devastating puncher ever. I’ve trained many fighters, and Wladimir is one of the few who can turn the lights out without using the dimmer switch first.”