There was a time when the public at large stopped to watch, read, and listen whenever the heavyweight champion of the world entered the ring. Those days are long gone. But it’s still worthy of note when the man presumed able to beat anyone else on the planet in a boxing match defends his crown.
At Madison Square Garden on April 25, Wladimir Klitschko put his championship on the line against Bryant Jennings.
Klitschko, age 39, is an anomaly among fighters. A highly-educated man, he transitions easily from Russian (learned in his native Ukraine) to German (the language of the country where his professional career bloomed) to English (he now lives in the United States with actress Hayden Panettiere).
Klitschko’s ring ledger shows 64 wins, 3 losses, and 54 knockouts. He has won 22 consecutive fights over the past eleven years. At present, he’s the longest-reigning of three champions from the old Soviet Union who stand atop three of boxing’s traditional glamour divisions. Sergey Kovalev (175 pounds) and Gennady Golovkin (160) are the others.
In a different era, Klitschko would have been regarded as a living legend by the American public. But boxing in the United States has been in decline for a long time. And on top of that, Wladimir plies his trade mostly in Europe.
“For our business model,” Bernd Boente (Klitschko’s primary business advisor) states, “America is not the center of the world.”
Prior to facing Jennings, Klitschko had fought at Madison Square Garden three times. The first was a second-round knockout of David Bostice on the undercard of Lennox Lewis’s April 29, 2000, annihilation of Michael Grant. That was followed by a seventh-round stoppage of Calvin Brock on November 11, 2006, and a desultory twelve-round decision over Sultan Ibragimov on February 23, 2008.
One of the problems that Klitschko has faced in seeking to prove his greatness since then (and erase the memory of knockout defeats at the hands of Ross Puritty, Corrie Sanders, and Lamon Brewster earlier in his career) has been a lack of inquisitors.
Dominance is one thing. Greatness is another. Since last appearing in New York, Wladimir had defeated the likes of Alex Leapai, Francesco Pianeta, Marius Wach, and Jean-Marc Mormeck. His most recent opponent, Kubart Pulev, evinced the skill and finesse of a Bulgarian circus strongman.
Jennings (a 15-to-1 underdog) wasn’t expected to pose much of a threat. His team kept referring to Buster Douglas’s monumental upset of Mike Tyson, which occurred almost twenty-five years to the day before the February 4 Klitschko-Jennings kick-off press conference. But Douglas was a well-schooled fighter with victories over Oliver McCall, Trevor Berbick, and Greg Page to his credit when he dethroned Tyson. Jennings had a meager amateur background. And his 19-and-0 (10 KOs) pro record had been compiled against pedestrian opposition.
At the kick-off press conference, Jennings had the look of a man who would be happier once the fight was over. And not because he thought that he’d be champion when the fighting was done.
Klitschko, by contrast, seemed happy and relaxed as the festivities unfolded.
“Let us, Bryant and me, entertain you,” Wladimir told the media. “He has the quality of Rocky Balboa. From Philadelphia.”
Nothing on Jennings’ resume suggested that he was a credible opponent for Klitschko. The bout shaped up as a performance rather than a competitive fight.
Team Klitschko controls its environment as completely as possible. In the case of Klitschko-Jennings, that included a contract clause mandating a smaller-than-usual eighteen-by-eighteen-foot ring.
When fight night arrived, a crowd of 17,056 sat in relative silence through an abbreviated undercard. But it came alive with Ukrainian flags waving when Wladimir entered the ring.
At 6-feet-6-inches, 242 pounds, Klitschko was three inches taller and fifteen pounds heavier than his opponent.
Jennings retreated in the early going, looking to survive rounds rather than win them. That allowed the Klitschko to dictate when and where there was violence. On the few occasions when Bryant came forward, he found it hard to work his way past Wladimir’s jab and the right hand that lay in wait behind it.
Then, in round four, Jennings became more aggressive, lunging forward with punches (which seemed to be asking for a counter) and pumping his free hand to the body when Klitschko tied him up on the inside.
In round six, the performance turned into a fight with hints of Klitschko’s 2004 loss to Lamon Brewster wafting through the air. In that long-ago encounter, Wladimir scored multiple knockdowns in the first few stanzas before collapsing from exhaustion at the end of round five. But this is a different Klitschko, stronger and far more confident than the Klitschko of eleven years ago.
Jennings won the sixth round. But in round seven, Wladimir recalibrated the distance between them and regained control, moving around the ring as though he were playing chess; fighting a patient, cerebral, methodical fight.
Jab . . . Straight right . . . An occasional hook up top . . . Minimal body punching (to avoid exposing his chin). Tie Jenning up when the smaller man got inside and push him back with superior strength.
In round nine, Klitschko suffered a small cut under his left eye. Referee Michael Griffin deducted a point from Wladimir in round ten for excessive holding. But not much else went in Jennings’ favor. Bryant fought as well as he could. But Klitschko was too big, too strong, and too good for him.
This writer scored the bout 118-109 in Klitschko’s favor. The judges saw it 118-109, 116-111, 116-111. Wladimir didn’t look as sharp as he has in recent outings. Perhaps age is creeping up on him. Or maybe Jennings is better than Kubrat Pulev and Alex Leapai.
One can (and should) argue that Lennox Lewis and Hasim Rahman were the legitimate heavyweight champions when Klitschko wore the WBO crown from October 2000 through March 2003. And brother Vitali was the more credible champion for part of Wladimir’s current reign, which began in 2006.
That said; Klitschko is now the best heavyweight in the world. His size and ring skills would have made him competitive in any era. The eighteen consecutive successful title defenses in his current run place him third in the heavyweight division behind Joe Louis (25) and Larry Holmes (20) in that category.
And there’s no end in sight. As Bernd Boente said recently, “As long as Wladimir is motivated and healthy, he will continue to fight. I know it is in the back of his mind that, if he is still champion on December 21, 2017, he will beat Joe Louis’s record [of 11 years, 8 months, and 8 days] for the longest reign by a heavyweight champion.”
So what comes next?
At present, the most interesting challengers Klitschko could face are Tyson Fury and Deontay Wilder.
It’s unlikely that Wilder will fight Klitschko. More likely, Deontay will avoid Wladimir and try to move in after Klitschko has departed from the scene. Fury might take the fight. Contested in England, Klitschko-Fury would be a huge event. Beating Fury wouldn’t do much for Wladimir’s legacy. Losing to him would hurt it.
And then there’s the possibility of Klitschko versus Shannon Briggs.
“We are in the entertainment business,” Boente told this writer. “We have to sell tickets and get ratings. Shannon Briggs is not at the top of our list for future opponents. But if we can’t get Fury, if we can’t get Wilder, we would have to consider Briggs.”
Thomas Hauser can be reached by email at email@example.com. His most recent book – Thomas Hauser on Boxing – was published by the University of Arkansas Press.