Nobody could have known it then, but heavyweight boxing’s most comprehensive dynasty began on Nov. 16, 1996, when the Klitschko brothers made their pro debuts on the same card. Vitali knocked out Tony Bradham in two rounds in Hamburg, Germany, and Wladimir, the 1996 super heavyweight gold medalist at the Atlanta Olympics, needed just one round to blast out Fabian Meza.
And while the odds are against it, that dynasty could go on for … well, let’s just say it has to end at some point, but maybe not for several years.
In April 2014, only a month after his 38th birthday, long-reigning champion Wladimir figured he was positioned to sit on the throne for another decade. “I just turned 38, but that’s only a number,” he said. “I am still extremely hungry and better than ever. A few years ago I thought I couldn’t improve, but my mission is still a long way from over. I want to box for 10 more years.”
A lot of heavyweights have come and gone waiting for Wladimir – and before him, older brother Vitali – to succumb to the inevitable toll of the aging process, either through defeat in the ring or retirement. And while Vitali, now 44, did officially take his leave from the punch-for-pay ranks in 2013, due in part to recurring injuries and more so to his desire to help his homeland of Ukraine (he assumed the office of mayor of Kiev on June 5, 2014), Wladimir continues to inexorably roll along like waves on the Black Sea.
The latest upstart to forecast a screeching halt to Wlad’s seemingly endless reign of terror is British big man (6-foot-9 and 260 pounds) Tyson Fury, 27, who if nothing else might have the niftiest birth name ever given to someone who would grow up to become a heavyweight boxer.
If verbal putdowns were as damaging as a jolting shot to the jaw, the 39-year-old Wlad (64-3, 53 KOs), who holds the WBA, IBF, WBO, IBO, The Ring and lineal titles, might be in deep trouble in Saturday night’s scheduled 12-rounder at the Esprit Arena in Dusseldorf, Germany. Fury (24-0, 18 KOs), a 5-1 underdog, at various times has suggested that the 6-6, 245-pound champion is a doddering geriatric who probably never was all that good to begin with.
“I will make him look like an idiot,” Fury said to ESPN.co.uk. “I will humiliate him before stopping him. I’m not going to (win on) points, I’m going to stop him.”
There are precedents for Fury’s boastful prediction. Wlad has made early exits twice – in two rounds by Corrie Sanders on March 8, 2003, and in five rounds by Lamon Brewster on April 10, 2004. He also was floored three times by Samuel Peter on Sept. 24, 2005, but still went on to win by unanimous decision.
Since his loss to Brewster (which he later avenged on a sixth-round stoppage), Wlad is 22-0 with 15 knockouts, 18 of those victories in title bouts. When you factor in his first championship reign in the WBO, the younger of the brothers Klitschko is 25-2 with 19 KOs in fights when a world title belt was on the line. Vitali (45-2, 41 KOs) was only slightly less durable over the long haul, going 16-2 with 13 wins inside the distance in championship bouts.
All in all, the Klitschkos are a combined 41-4 with 32 KOs in title fights over four title reigns totaling 22 years, 8 months. It is an incredible run, certainly unsurpassed by siblings in boxing and matched or surpassed in all of sports only by tennis’ Williams sisters, with Serena (21) and Venus (7) combining for 28 victories in Grand Slam events. Oh, some smart aleck might forward the candidacy of the Aaron brothers, who hold the Major League Baseball record for most combined home runs (768), but that is misleading as Hank smacked 755 of them.
Since that rather inauspicious day in Hamburg 19 years ago, it can be said that the only real competition the Klitschkos have had in the heavyweight division – seeing as how they came along when the careers of Lennox Lewis, Evander Holyfield and Mike Tyson were winding down — has been each other. It would have been a global attraction had they fought one another for the championship of the world and their family, but they promised their mother that such a fight would never take place, and it didn’t. Feel free to speculate as to how that one would have turned out; a lot of people have.
Skeptics, of course, will point out that the Klitschkos’ long period of domination is at least partly the result of a watered-down heavyweight division. It’s an assertion that’s difficult to dispute, with none of the preceding Big Five (Lewis, Holyfield, Tyson, Riddick Bowe and George Foreman) ever facing Wladimir, and Vitali only going against one, losing by stoppage in six rounds to WBC champion Lewis on June 21, 2003, in what would prove to be “Double L’s” final bout. It should be noted, however, that Vitali was leading 58-56 on all three official scorecards when the end came on the advice of the ring physician, with Vitali bleeding badly from deep cuts around his eyes.
For those inclined to go even further back to play the what-if game, you have to wonder how the Klitschkos would fare if they were dropped into the mix in the mid-1960s through the 1970s, when a golden era of heavyweights was graced by Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier, Sonny Liston, Foreman, Ken Norton, Larry Holmes and even slightly lesser lights like Earnie Shavers, Jerry Quarry and Ron Lyle.
But all any fighter can do is go against the best available opponents in his era, and the Klitschkos have done just that. There is one voice, though, that reverberates from beyond the grave to place Wlad on a very lofty pedestal.
“For one-punch power, Wladimir tops them all,” Wlad’s now-deceased Hall of Fame trainer, Emanuel Steward, said before Klitschko’s rematch with Samuel Peter in 2010. “If he ever becomes more aggressive and just went after people, he could be the most devastating heavyweight puncher ever.”
Wlad, now trained by Steward protégé Johnathon Banks, remains an energy source disinclined to go to full voltage. He is patient, almost to a fault, waiting for the just the right opening to let fly and frequently clinching when the other guy attempts to work in close. In America, they call such a style kind of boring; in Europe, where Wlad has appeared in 16 of his last 18 bouts, it sells out soccer stadiums. Promoters are expecting a crowd approaching 60,000 for his showdown with Fury, one of the few fighters to hold height, reach and weight advantages over the Ukrainian.
“I believe Wladimir’s quite nervous about this fight,” Fury surmised. “It’s a big uphill fight for him. He’s getting on a bit, and I’m the tallest opponent he’s ever faced. You just have to wonder what he’s going to be told when he goes back to his corner and he can’t land his shots or he’s being caught more than he’s ever been caught. I believe I’ll hit Wladimir more times than he’s ever been hit before purely due to my size, athleticism and speed.”
It should be noted, however, that Fury knows what it’s like to be floored by a smaller man, having gone down in the second round of his April 20, 2013, fight with two-time former cruiserweight champ Steve Cunningham, who was giving away six inches in height and 44 pounds to the native of Manchester, England. For all his massive size, Fury does not pack the one-punch putaway power of Klitschko; if he gets nailed the way he did against Cunningham, it’s a fairly safe bet he won’t beat the count.
Fury isn’t the first fighter to attempt to irritate the implacable Wlad with brash words, and he probably won’t be the last. The well-faded (and 43-year-old) Shannon Briggs, a former WBO heavyweight champion who lost a unanimous decision to Vitali for the WBC belt on Oct. 16, 2010, has tried every trick in the book to get a rise out of Wlad in recent months, including showing up uninvited at a Miami restaurant and eating food off his plate in September.
Compared to Briggs’ semi-deranged antics, Fury’s putdowns aren’t causing much consternation to Wlad or his support team. They’ve heard it all before.
“He’s talking the talk,” a dismissive Banks said of Fury’s nonstop goading. “I honestly think he’s talking like this to get under Wladimir’s skin. Is it good for him? I don’t know. Will it be bad for him in the fight? Yeah, it will.”
If King Klitschko isn’t toppled by Fury, who then? Rangy American Deontay Wilder (34-0, 33 KOs), who holds the WBC belt once worn so long and well by Vitali? Anthony Joshua (14-0, 14 KOs), the 26-year-old Englishman who took the super heavyweight gold medal at the 2012 London Olympics? Either would be an underdog to Wlad, but then so would every other heavyweight at this time.
Regardless of what happens going forward, Wlad – and Vitali, for that matter – are mortal-lock, first-ballot inductees into the International Boxing Hall of Fame when they become eligible. Wlad already has entered the realm of heavyweight history; his defense against Fury will be his 25th fight as a reigning champion, 23 of which were victories. The legendary Joe Louis made 25 successful defenses (a record for all weight divisions) over his 12-year, 3-month reign, which was interrupted by World War II, and Larry Holmes retained the crown for 20 winning defenses over seven years.
It doesn’t seem likely that Wlad can keep going for another eight or nine years, but, given the current landscape, who’s to say he can’t?