This past weekend WBA/IBF/WBO heavyweight title holder Wladimir Klitschko 64-4 (53) lost all three of his title straps to Tyson Fury 25-0 (18) via unanimous decision. Fury’s somewhat stunning upset ended Klitschko’s 9 1/2-year reign (2nd only to Joe Louis’ 12-year reign as heavyweight champ) as the alpha fighter in what used to be boxing’s flagship division. Klitschko, for much of his duration as champ was the subject of conjecture in regards to how good or great he was or wasn’t. Some viewed him as one of the greats and others thought he was nothing more than a huge physical presence and just a big fish in a small pond. His fights weren’t terribly exciting because Wladimir did a lot of holding and clinching as a result of being stopped three times before he became a full-flowered fighter under the guidance of head trainer Emmanuel Steward.
Under Steward, Wladimir learned how to use his size and reach and to fight like a big man. And boy did that pay dividends for him, especially against the more physically limited opponents he defended his titles against. If you go back and read what was stated in this space before many of Wladimir’s title defenses, you’ll note that it was often highlighted that everybody he fights, must first address what he’s going to do against them – before they can devise their counter attack….Something that changed drastically the night he met Tyson Fury, who at 6’9″ is three inches taller with a two inch reach advantage, something Wladimir seldom was ever confronted with.
Now with Wladimir days removed from losing to Fury, the boxing community has it’s panties in a bunch going back and forth as to whether or not Fury, 27, would’ve defeated Wladimir, 39, if he was at or near his physical prime, which clearly wasn’t the case on November 28, 2015. While in the ring with Fury, Klitschko looked as if he aged in dog years during particular patches of the bout. Those defending Klitschko for his poor showing have countered that Joe Louis was 37 when 28 year old Rocky Marciano knocked him out of the ring, Muhammad Ali was 39 when 30 year old Larry Holmes pummeled him for seven of the 10 rounds the fight went, and Holmes was 38 when 21 year old Mike Tyson stopped Larry in four rounds. Historically, despite those one-sided beatings, Louis ranks above Marciano, Ali ranks above Holmes and Holmes ranks above Tyson.
Okay, I get it, the old great was clearly at a disadvantage, but styles did play a part in the above like in the Klitschko-Fury bout.
Prime-for-prime, I’d take Louis over Marciano, but Joe often said he had trouble with swarmers like Rocky. I’d take the best Ali I ever saw over the best Holmes I ever saw, but Larry was almost a mirror image of Muhammad and Ali always had trouble with guys who could jab, and Holmes owned one of the greatest jabs in heavyweight history. As for prime Holmes versus prime Tyson, I like Larry to do what Buster Douglas did, only more convincingly. However, Holmes never fought one good let alone great attacker like Tyson, and the fighters who did pressure him like Ken Norton and Mike Weaver did, gave Larry two of his toughest fights during his seven year title tenure. Prime-for-prime, it’s not automatic that Klitschko beats Fury although he’d have to be considered the favorite.
Yes, the Klitschko-Fury bout was nearly impossible to watch, and the overall mean of fighting during it was not worthy of having the words heavyweight championship of the world attached to it. That said, Fury’s size, style, awkwardness and lack of fear would’ve always given Wladimir, if not an ulcer, at least bad indigestion. During Klitschko’s reign as champ, I gave him his props but dully noted that his size, being 6’6″ with good form and athleticism played a big part in his success. Sure, he fought some big opponents, but most of them were just that, big. Not one of them were close to being a good technician, most were too awed and scared to fight him, and the others lacked the skill and punch to bother him. In Tyson Fury, for the first time, he had a fighter in front of him who he not only had to look up to, but also couldn’t just extend his left arm like it was a leg and keep Tyson away from him. Fury took that luxury away and knew his jab would keep Klitschko occupied and befuddled like he never was before in his career.
Wladimir, in past bouts used his jab to keep his opponents away and once they were blunted by the jab, BAM, he’d cut loose with the disguised right hand and that would usually be the beginning of the end. Other than one-twos and an occasional hook off the jab, Wladimir never punched in combination because it was too risky. He fully grasped that when he let his hands go, even against an opponent who was often in retreat, he was vulnerable and open. He also never went to the body because he had to bring his hands down and that would leave his chin open, so it wasn’t worth the risk. Another hole in his game was, due to his size, upper-body and head movement wasn’t a staple of his game. In the main, Wladimir never had to take any risk. The jab worked offensively and defensively and the right, when the opponent sensed he had to take a risk if winning was the goal, usually was tug in the middle of a desperate exchange. A very simplistic strategy, but one cannot dispute the end result.
The above formula worked beautifully for Wladimir and that alone would cause a lot of past greats trouble. However, against Tyson Fury it didn’t cut it. For once Wladimir was getting peppered with a pesky jab, and just when he thought he could match Fury’s jab, Tyson either moved, switched to southpaw or grabbed and clinched him, exposing another thing Klitschko couldn’t do; fight on the inside. Another thing Fury did was use head and shoulder feints, which really exposed just how much Wladimir feared getting nailed with a sucker shot. The moderate feints usually caused Klitschko to interrupt whatever he was doing or on the verge of doing. For once Klitschko had to address what his opponent was doing to him, and doing so while getting hit and mocked totally unnerved him psychologically. With just a little movement and slipping Wladimir could’ve perhaps got inside and ripped Fury’s body….but he never needed head movement or had to work the body before. Couple that with his reluctance to assume risk, you saw what you got. And that was a big strong guy lumbering around the ring looking for one punch to end the fight. A problem which became exponentially bigger because Wladimir would only let loose if he felt it was safe and Tyson couldn’t counter him.
For the better part of 12-rounds Wladimir Klitschko was asked many questions strategically by Tyson Fury that he never had been before. This wasn’t an accident, Tyson and his team did a terrific job getting ready for Klitschko from a fundamental and strategic perspective. Against Fury, whose size, reach and movement presented him a conundrum like he never had to deal with before in over 19 years as a pro – many of his deficiencies as a fighter were exposed? And I’m not sure that wouldn’t have been the case had Wladimir been at his peak.
It’s been recently reported that Wladimir is going to exercise the return clause in his contract and fight Tyson again. So I ask, what will change in the rematch? It’s not in Wladimir’s nature to come out bombing the way Lennox Lewis did against Andrew Golota. And if he doesn’t do that, is it plausible to think he’s going to cut off the ring and beat Fury ‘s body and slow him down, making it easier to plant some big right hands on his chin; I don’t know. And what if Fury survives and thrives in the early going of the rematch? Will Wladimir lose gumption and revert back to a walking statue looking for the perfect shot to pull the fight out as the rounds go by?
Again, I don’t know, and that’s why as dreadful as the first fight was, I want to see the rematch.
Frank Lotierzo can be contacted at GlovedFist@Gmail.com