I say he is due all props for taking this fight. That’s right. I salute the 41-year-old former unified heavyweight champ Wladimir Klitschko 64-4 (53), for accepting the biggest challenge of his career at such an advanced age for a fighter. In mid-December of last year Klitschko agreed to challenge IBF champ Anthony Joshua 18-0 (18) with the vacant WBA title also up for grabs. The bout will air live in the United States on Showtime this Saturday afternoon and the re-broadcast will be shown that night on HBO. Joshua vs. Klitschko will be recorded historically as the biggest fight ever at Wembley Stadium and the most anticipated ever in the United Kingdom.
It’s been said that Joshua hasn’t fought anybody, but that’s been said about every budding future superstar fighter on the way up since boxing’s inception. The only way to judge Joshua is by whom he has fought and compare how he did against them to the others who fought the same opposition. And based on that it’s abundantly clear that Anthony Joshua is a once in a generation talent.
Anthony Joshua is the most formidable fighter Wladimir will have opposed in 68 pro bouts. It’s just sad that like former champ Larry Holmes, Klitschko dominated a so-so era and that when they finally faced an elite fighter they were past their prime. Holmes had the misfortune of fighting Mike Tyson when he was 38 years old and Mike was peaking. Klitschko is 41 years old and Joshua is clearly peaking and getting stronger with each bout.
One would think after two title reigns and a cumulative 23 successful title defenses during a 21-year pro career, Wladimir Klitschko’s legacy would be nearly etched in stone, but it’s not. In order for Klitschko to depart boxing with all due props, he’ll need to defeat a fighter who has only fought 44 rounds encompassed over 18 pro bouts who is currently 3-0 (3) in title bouts.
“Totally different caliber,” the 41-year-old responded when asked if Joshua was unique among British fighters he has faced.
“He’s a true professional. He wants to get better and I’ve seen these qualities while he was at my training camp two years ago.
“He’s calm and quiet and he likes to learn and that’s great qualities to have. So I’m definitely going to face a challenge that I’ve never faced before.”
Based on Wladimir’s words he fully grasps what Joshua presents. Joshua appears to be the total package….he has height and reach, two-handed power, good form and balance, and he lets his hands go and they’re quick. The unknowns pertaining to AJ are how does he respond to adversity and how good does he take a big punch. So far none of his opponents has lasted long enough in the ring with him to provide an answer.
The thing that makes Joshua such a conundrum for Klitschko is that Wladimir doesn’t have a signature win. During his two title reigns he never looked unbeatable, unlike some great heavyweight champions during their peaks such as Jack Dempsey, Joe Louis, Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier, George Foreman and Mike Tyson. Every one of those fighters had a period of a year or two during their title reigns when it looked as though they’d never lose. If you’re wondering why the names of Rocky Marciano, Sonny Liston, Larry Holmes, Evander Holyfield, Riddick Bowe, Lennox Lewis and Vitali Klitschko aren’t among the group I highlighted, it’s because either their reign was too short or there were a few nights when they struggled and were lucky to escape with their title in check. And that’s the group Wladimir resides in.
The thing haunting Wladimir from a legacy perspective is that although he won a lot, it always looked as if he won by default due to the ineptness of the fighter challenging him. Wladimir was big and proportionally well built. He had terrific two-handed power and decent speed. And once he joined with trainer Emanuel Steward he learned how to use his height and reach and fought more like a big man, thus becoming harder to hit. In practically all of Wladimir’s bouts as defending champ he held the advantage in physicality over his opponent, and in the few in which that wasn’t the case, he was the greater skilled and stronger man.
It’s a tired cliché in boxing when fans and media members say “He didn’t fight anybody” about a seasoned champion. However, in Wladimir’s case it’s not totally without merit. Yes, he fought in an era when the heavyweights were bigger — usually over 225 pounds — but they were mostly just big and nothing else. The biggest knock on Wladimir is that he lost fights in a devastating fashion. With the exception of his last bout against Tyson Fury, when he lost he was stopped. And unlike John Ruiz and Tommy Morrison who suffered brutal knockout defeats, getting stopped affected Wladimir psychologically. After he was stopped by the hard punching Corrie Sanders in 2003 and then three fights later by Lamon Brewster, Wladimir changed completely as a fighter and that is what most remember about him.
From that point forward Wladimir entered the ring with monumental trepidation and you could see how concerned he was about getting hit. And if the opponent came out hard and threw at him with bad intentions, Wlad would fight just enough to win without chancing getting into exchanges looking to score a knockout, because he was more vulnerable to getting hit with something he didn’t see in return. So for a majority of his second title tenure, he won in spite of the fact that he was fighting first not to lose — which again makes you wonder about just how deep the talent pool was that he had the luxury to fight like that and was still able to dominate.
Right or wrong, the perception by many boxing observers is that Wladimir Klitschko, who held so many physical advantages over his opponents, wasn’t durable, had a questionable chin and fought not to lose. Now I’m not going to excoriate his opposition because I’m smart enough to know that over 10 years there had to be a few fighters he met that could fight. But try to find his signature win – does it exist?
When carefully examining Wladimir’s record, the two best fighters he beat were David Haye in 2011 and Alexander Povetkin in 2013. Both lasted the distance but they didn’t really compete. On top of that, both fights were terrible and hard to watch. Haye wasn’t able to crack his reach and physicality and Povetkin couldn’t get anything going due to Klitchko’s continuous clinching and holding. Klitschko even managed to drop Povetkin four times but couldn’t keep him down.
Wladimir Klitschko, because of all the above, has a lot riding on the outcome of his fight this weekend. If he can beat Anthony Joshua who is entering his prime, there’s a good chance that will be what most will remember about him. A win over Joshua, who would’ve been favored over every opponent Klitschko fought on the night that he beat them, will no doubt be the signature win of his outstanding career.
More people will see Wladimir fight Joshua than any other bout of his career. Couple that with Anthony being the best and most recognized foe he’s ever faced, count on most fans and advocates passing final judgement on Wladimir based on the outcome of this bout. If somehow Klitschko can beat Joshua coming off a loss and bad showing in his last fight, and a long period of inactivity…that would really say something for him.
Amazing that such a dominant, long-term champion can have his legacy made or broken on the strength of one fight, but that’s the case here.
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Frank Lotierzo can be contacted at GlovedFist@Gmail.com