Boxing fans like to speculate about fights that didn’t happen almost as much as they love offering their opinions, with much conviction and passion, about those that did. With Tuesday’s announcement that three-time heavyweight champion Vitali “Dr. Iron Fist” Klitschko has been voted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility, a familiar topic—Who was the better of the two now-retired Klitschko brothers, Vitali or Wladimir? – figures to be dusted off again. It likely will be cause for spirited debate for some time, as is the case with such unconsummated dream matches as Lennox Lewis vs. Riddick Bowe (the gold and silver super heavyweight medalists from the 1988 Seoul Olympics) and Bowe vs. Mike Tyson (contemporaries who both are products of the gritty Brownsville section of Brooklyn, N.Y.).
Joining Vitali Klitschko, 46, in the IBHOF’s Class of 2018, its 29th group of honorees, in the Modern category are fellow first-ballot selections Erik Morales, 41, and Ronald “Winky” Wright, 46. But Klitschko, now the mayor of Kiev, Ukraine, was likely the landslide choice of an electorate comprised of full members of the Boxing Writers Association of America and a panel of international historians. The newly minted Hall of Famers will be formally inducted on June 10 in Canastota, N.Y., capping four days of nostalgia and celebration. As is its custom, the IBHOF did not release vote totals.
Fighters eligible for consideration in the Modern category must have fought for at least five years, but with their last bout taking place no earlier than 1989. Klitschko (45-2, 41 KOs), Morales (52-9, 36 KOs) and Wright (51-6-1, 25 KOs) all last fought in 2012.
Other living inductees include broadcasters Steve Albert and Jim Gray in the Observer category and German promoter Klaus Peter-Kohl in the Non-Participant category. Posthumous nods went to longtime Madison Square Garden ring announcer Johnny Addie, Northern California promoter Lorraine Chargin (whose husband and partner, Don Chargin, now 89, was inducted in 2001) and Sid Terris, a New York lightweight contender in the 1920s, in the Old-Timer category.
Just as big brother Vitali was a slam-dunk for immortalization, so too is the 41-year-old Wladimir (64-5, 53 KOs), a two-time heavyweight titlist who announced his retirement a little more than three months after his 11th-round technical knockout loss to IBF/WBA champ Anthony Joshua on April 29 of this year, a showdown witnessed by a live audience of 90,000 in London’s Wembley Stadium. Thus did the countdown begin for the mandatory five-year waiting period before Wlad, whose ring nom de guerre is “Dr. Steelhammer,” becomes eligible for his big moment in Canastota.
Despite their 55-month age difference, the similarities between the brothers are so striking they could pass for identical twins, and often were. Apart from having virtually the same face, they are very nearly the same size (both fought in the 245-pound range, with Vitali an inch taller at 6-foot-7) and the same stylistically, European big men who fought straight-up with stiff left jabs and devastating overhand rights the most obvious and effective weapons in their arsenals.
In a poll of 28 knowledgeable trainers, matchmakers, media members and historians conducted by frequent TSS contributor Thomas Hauser and printed in the May 2017 issue of The Ring, the brothers Klitschko were also side-by-side in listing the voters’ choices for the top 20 heavyweight champions of all time. Wlad came in at No. 16, Vitali at No. 17.
But perceptions change, and another panel of 28 experts might flip those positions somewhere down the line, with both brothers strong candidates to move up the rankings. The question as to who deserves a more exalted place in boxing history could have been definitively settled, of course, had they consented to square off for family pride and all four widely recognized world titles during the time when each was the possessor of two bejeweled belts. But such a matchup never could have been anything but theoretical. If blood is thicker than water, so too is love thicker than blood.
“Oh, no. We are brothers,” Wladimir said in 2002, when asked again if either he or Vitali had considered the possibility of a Klitschko vs. Klitschko megafight. “We made a promise that we would never, ever fight against one another. We do not want to break the heart of our mother.”
The extremely tight bond between the brothers, as evidenced by their iron- and steel-infused nicknames, was further illustrated when Vitali fought South Africa’s Corrie Sanders for the vacant WBC heavyweight title on April 24, 2004. Sanders had knocked down Wladimir four times en route to winning on a second-round TKO in their March 8, 2003, showdown, lifting Wlad’s WBO title in the process. Cast in the role of protective older brother settling the score for a bullied younger sibling, Vitali stopped Sanders in eight rounds on April 24, 2004.
“It was very important to beat Corrie Sanders because Corrie Sanders (wanted) to say he is best boxer in world, who beat both brothers Klitschko,” Vitali, who holds a Ph.D in Sports Science from the University of Kiev and speaks four languages, said of a victory that was more personal mission than workplace obligation. “If Corrie Sanders beat me, it is big disaster for Klitschko brothers.”
After Vitali’s avenging dismissal of Sanders, HBO analyst Larry Merchant opined that “I think Vitali clearly has assumed the lead position (between the two brothers). He has a better chin than Wladimir, and he’s smarter. When he gets hit he knows enough to move away and regroup. I don’t see that Wladimir has ever learned that.”
Vitali, however, had not always been held in such high regard. He was disparaged by some as boxing’s version of the Tin Man from The Wizard of Oz after he declined to come out for the 10th round of his WBO title defense against the much-smaller Chris Byrd on April 1, 2000, a fight in which he won eight of the previous nine rounds on all three official scorecards. It later was revealed that he had fought much of the way with a torn rotator cuff that would require surgery to repair.
“It was not right, (fans) being mean to me after the Byrd fight,” Vitali complained of an injury that might have ended his career had he continued. “Nobody believed I was really hurt. I got so much criticism. I heard many people say, `He gave away world title. He don’t have heart.’ It was a very difficult time for me. But because I stop fight, I can fight again.”
Any nagging questions concerning Vitali’s heart were answered once and for all when he challenged WBC champion Lennox Lewis on June 21, 2003, at the Staples Center in Los Angeles. Klitschko was leading by two points on all three scorecards when referee Lou Moret, on the advice of ring physician Paul Wallace, stopped the fight and awarded a TKO victory to Lewis as a result of severe cuts to both of the Ukrainian’s eyes. Klitschko left the ring to a thunderous ovation.
Prior to his winning Dec. 11, 2004, WBC defense against England’s Danny Williams, who had knocked out Mike Tyson four months earlier, Mark Taffet, HBO’s Pay-Per-View boss, echoed the new, improved and ultimately lasting impression of the elder Klitschko.
“The heavyweight champion is the mythical strongest man on the planet,” Taffet said. “When you look to a heavyweight champion, you look to someone who fulfills that bill. I have to say, Vitali Klitschko fulfills that bill as well as any man who’s worn the belt in a long time … Vitali Klitschko is a giant of a heavyweight champion. He has had some of the most exciting and devastating knockouts over the last year, year and a half, as any heavyweight has had in recent memory.”
Vitali’s knockout percentage of .911 (41 of 45 his wins ended inside the distance) was the highest of any heavyweight champion at the time of his retirement, although it is being eclipsed at this point by current WBC titlist Deontay Wilder at .974 (38 of 39 victories by KO or stoppage). It remains to be seen whether Wilder, whose quality of opposition to date does not compare to Vitali’s, can maintain that torrid pace.
As mayor of Kiev and even before as an activist for political reform in his homeland, Vitali fought more important fights than he ever encountered in the ring, and against more daunting opposition. He and Wlad were among the hundreds of thousands who took to the streets in 2004 to protest what they considered to be a rigged election in Ukraine, in which Moscow-backed Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych originally was declared the winner over the Klitschkos’ choice, pro-Western Viktor Yushchenko.
“Our father (a helicopter pilot for the former Soviet Union) was a communist, and I grew up with the old Soviet ideology,” Vitali said at the time. “It was brainwashing all the time. I wish my country to go the democratic way. After every one of my fights, in Ukraine they hear me speak about freedom, liberty and free press. Everybody wants to change from the ways of the old Soviet Union.”
Morales, the only Mexican fighter to hold world titles in four separate weight classes (122 to 140 pounds), is also destined to be forever linked with another fighter, but his three-fight arch-rivalry with countryman Marco Antonio Barrera (a 2017 IBHOF inductee) was more blood feud than anything resembling brotherly love. It was a downsized, south-of-the-border version of Muhammad Ali vs. Joe Frazier, with Morales winning the opening segment and Barrera the last two, all by decision.
Several times during the rubber match Morales declined to touch gloves with Barrera, and he spurned the winner’s attempt to shake hands after the decision was announced. A central issue in their animus toward each other is the fact that Morales, who grew up in desperate poverty in Tijuana, saw the college-educated Barrera, a Mexico City resident, as a member of the privileged upper class. In describing the smoldering dislike between them, promoter Bob Arum said before their climactic third fight that “in all my years in boxing, I have never seen such a legitimate, mutual hatred than the one which exists between these two fighters.”
Now that they’re both Hall of Famers, perhaps the time has come for both of these magnificent fighters to at least acknowledge the fact that together they made magic, and memories all fight fans are apt to cherish.
Wright, a clever southpaw from St. Petersburg, Fla., was the ultimate road warrior, traveling the globe to take bouts and once arriving in the other guy’s hometown, far more often than not spoiling the occasion for the local favorite. He honed his craft in such countries as South Africa, England, France, Germany and Monaco before returning to the United States and winning world titles in two weight classes, scoring two impressive victories over Shane Mosley and an even more dominant one against Felix Trinidad, whom he schooled on May 14, 2005, at Las Vegas’ Mandalay Bay, winning 34 of 36 rounds on the three judges’ combined scorecards.
Trainer Dan Birmingham, who worked with Wright from the time he was an amateur all the way through his pro career, said it was Wright’s observational powers that helped set him apart in the ring.
“Winky’s a real sharp guy,” Birmingham said before Wright’s losing catch-weight bout with the similarly observant Bernard Hopkins. “I remember when we were in Europe. We would drive around the block and I would get lost. Winky would be in the car for a half-hour and knew every turn in the city.”
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