When The Champ walks in the room, everything changes. The room seems smaller. The air changes from communal oxygen to single-purpose and the other people in the room suddenly try to draw shorter breaths in hopes no one notices they’re stealing what’s rightfully his.
But The Champ (pictured above, photo by Rachel McCarson) doesn’t care. Or maybe he doesn’t notice. He’s not there to worry about mundane trivialities such as who owns what. He already know what’s his, and he knows he can pretty much take whatever else it is he wants in the room, too, if he so desires.
He’s The Champ.
Our man strolls in and everyone goes quiet. There’s a hush that swells and no one wants to be the one to pierce it with a sound. The tension makes the moment taut like a balloon ready to pop. He towers over every other person at Lucky Street Boxing Gym in Fort Lauderdale, Florida like they’re ants—like we are all tiny little ants.
It’s hot outside but it’s hotter inside where two boxing rings and scores of regular folk mill about in anticipation of seeing him train. Bleachers are set up for people to come in everyday and they do. There are rules, of course, and everyone follows them. No cell phones, no cameras and no pictures while he’s sparring. Don’t bother him while he trains. Be quiet.
Other stuff, too. If you break a rule, you’re asked to leave.
No one breaks a rule.
It’s media day. People from all over the world have come to see him today. They prowl about the gym like leopards. They try to blend in but they stick out here and there because of their spots. They’ve come for pictures and videos and quotes. The Champ notices the interlopers and gives each of them a few minutes of his time. He’s smart, affable and intentional with every word. If life’s a chess match, most people walk around the world trying to anticipate the next move. The Champ isn’t most people. He’s the type who knows the moves that come after the ones everyone else is busy thinking about, and he’s pondering them in four different languages.
After a few more minutes, The Champ heads to the boxing ring closest to the bleachers. The white mat is marred with sweat and grime and blood. More will be added soon. The Champ sits in a gray metal chair just outside of the ring. He pours talcum into each of his size 15 shoes. The white powder looks like diamonds as it falls. When he’s finished, he serenely begins taping his hands, a ritual that lasts what seems like a lifetime to those snapping pictures with their phones in hopes of later showing their loved ones who they saw pour powder in shoes today.
Soon enough, The Champ is in the ring shadowboxing. He’s throwing punches light but they look like they’d break every bone in your body. Even the air seems to wince at them. The Champ isn’t just big and powerful. He’s fast, athletic, agile and skilled. He was born to fight, and while it may have taken fire, brimstone and the genius of the late Emanuel Steward to mold him into the heavyweight champion of the world, it certainly did happen. He is the champion, and The Champ is the most dominant heavyweight titleholder since Larry Holmes. In fact, the only fighters in the history of the storied division who compare to him statistically are the greatest of the greats: Holmes, Muhammad Ali and Joe Louis.
The Champ is sparring today. Two pugs are dressed up nice to take a beating. One looks tough and mean, the way every fighter of Eastern European descent seems to look these days. But he’s not nearly as big as The Champ and even if he was, he doesn’t have the power, speed or skill to compete with him. Nope, this fellow is just target practice.
The kid has guts though. He slaps down hard on The Champ’s guard using his fist as a hammer trying to create an opening. But The Champ stuffs it and returns the favor the only way a man carrying the moniker “Dr. Steelhammer” could possibly do: heavy, hard and with great malice.
The kid is in there for a reason though. He goes three rounds with The Champ, two of which he was clearly carried. The lion in the ring stalks the lamb, and the kid circles around with long arms and a high guard the way The Champ’s opponent, Bryant Jennings, might try to do on April 25 at Madison Square Garden in New York.
The Champ will be ready then. Hell, he’s ready now.
Round 3 is brutal. Where before, the only shots the kid caught were light taps, The Champ is hurling everything with full force now. The World Champion is no longer taking it easy on him. He strafes the kid’s face with all the classics: a jab that looks more like a telephone poll, a right cross that might as well be a dump truck and that vaunted left hook he used last time out to behead his opponent with ruthless precision. The kid is standing by the end of things, but only because The Champ wants it that way.
One sparring partner scurries away and another one replaces him. This time, the threat is real. Joseph Parker, a young, talented and internationally accomplished prospect from New Zealand, is clearly more formidable and since he hasn’t just fought three rounds, he’s got fresh legs and a clean face. He’s tall like The Champ, has long arms and knows how to use them.
Two rounds fly by and Parker is doing pretty well. He’s keeping The Champ off of him with jabs and crosses to the body and is able to use his reach in ways most fighters can’t. If Jennings is smart, he’ll try to do some of the things Parker did. He did well enough for six minutes to not appear completely outclassed. That’s something. He even landed one excellent right-hand counter flush under The Champ’s left eye after the two traded feints in the middle of the ring.
You haven’t seen guts until you’ve seen a man stare straight at The Champ threaten bodily harm with a punch and the man throws one hard back at him anyway.
But Parker’s conundrum will be the one Jennings’ finds, too. When the third round between them starts, the sixth and final round of sparring for the day, The Champ shakes off all gentlemanly pretense and rocks Parker around the ring as if the preceding two rounds had been some sort of mirage.
Whatever The Champ was working on beforehand, (likely slipping and blocking incoming punches from someone with as long as arms as Parker) he’s down with now. All that is left for Parker to deal with is the World Heavyweight Champion, one of the finest who has ever lived. He strives admirably and with great courage, but Parker is simply no match for him at this stage of his career.
The Champ is too much for him. He’s too much for him the way he’s been too much for every other heavyweight in the world for the last nine years and the way he’ll probably be too much for Jennings in his next fight, too.
When the violence is over, The Champ takes off his gloves and headgear. The remaining hour is spent towering over everything and everyone in the room. Some want quotes. Some want pictures. Some wants autographs. He is the master of his domain. He struts around the room like a rooster. Even his walk is pregnant with integrity, and it’s the kind that sharpens a spine like a razor, the kind that can only be earned the hard way.
Almost no one else in the world has that kind of walk. How could they? Wladimir Klitschko has it because he’s gone through hell and back to become the man he is today. Redemption was knocked to the canvas three times against Samuel Peter almost ten years ago and it clawed its way back to its feet every single time. It never gave up, and the remembrances of knockout losses to Lamon Brewster and Corrie Sanders the years prior didn’t keep it from trying to exist either.
The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places. That’s something Ernest Hemingway wrote. He wasn’t writing about The Champ but he might as well have been. Klitschko is stronger now precisely because he was broken so thoroughly before. He is strong in the broken places.
Strong, intelligent, direct, polite and serious: Klitschko is unlike anyone you’ll ever meet. You can see something in his eye when he talks, whether he’s looking at you or not. You know where you stand with him right from the beginning because it rests there in his gaze, and it’s something not seen in many other human beings on the planet, much less prizefighters.
He’s The Champ. You are not. He knows it.
You do, too.
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