By Lyle Fitzsimmons
His accomplishments precede him long before he reaches the ring.
• Consensus world heavyweight champion.
• Thirteen successful title defenses.
• Seven defenses against current or former world champions.
• Unbeaten for more than nine years.
• A KO winner in 50 of 62 career fights.
And even at a freshly-minted age 37, he shows no signs of slowing down.
Yet somehow, Ukrainian strongman and reigning IBF/IBO/WBA/WBO champion Wladimir Klitschko remains one of the sport’s most consistently underappreciated commodities.
The 6-foot-6 slugger, last active in November, will return to action on Saturday night in Mannheim, Germany when he faces German-based Italian challenger Francesco Pianeta – the No. 13 non-belted heavyweight in the world, according to the IBO’s Top 100 computerized rankings.
The fight is getting a large dose of apathy from the mainstream boxing press, which finds itself preoccupied with the latest belligerent missives from Floyd Mayweather Jr. and the insistent claims from Robert Guerrero – who’s spent the last year goading his way into the spotlight – that he’s actually the civilized and gentlemanly alternative to “Money’s” longstanding theatrics.
Much of that can inattention can be laid at the feet of Pianeta, a heretofore anonymous 28-year-old who’s ranked no higher than seventh by any of the most significant organizations and whose highest-ranked opponent was a 47-year-old version of ex-WBC champ Oliver McCall.
Not exactly the stuff heavyweight superfights are made of.
In fact, the biggest buzz surrounding Klitschko heading into fight week had zero to do with Pianeta, and everything to do with the $23.3 million purse bid forked over by Russian-based promoter Vladimir Hryunov for a subsequent date with former Olympic gold medalist Alexander Povetkin in the summer.
With 75 percent of that largesse earmarked for his wallet, it’s hard to imagine Klitschko letting Pianeta play a role that stretches far beyond crash test dummy.
Assuming the stand-in is indeed dispatched, Klitschko will continue his quest for history.
A 14th straight title defense would keep him in elite company in the division’s all-time annals, alongside only Joe Louis, Muhammad Ali and Larry Holmes in the modern era.
Louis was undisputed world heavyweight champion from 1937-1948 and defended a remarkable 25 times, winning all but three by stoppage.
Ali defended his consensus crown 10 straight times, including five KOs, between winning it from George Foreman in 1974 and losing it to Leon Spinks four years later.
Holmes won the vacant WBC version of the title against Ken Norton in 1978 and risked it 17 straight times before giving it up in 1983 to wear the newly-founded IBF’s belt. He defended that title three more times before finally losing to Michael Spinks in 1985.
Fifteen of Holmes’s 20 defenses ended inside the distance.
Klitschko’s automaton-like compilation of numbers – albeit without a single career-defining foe – warrants inclusion in the same general breath as Ali and Holmes as the fifth-best among the 15 heavyweights who’ve claimed consensus recognition since Ali first emerged as champion in 1964.
To these eyes, only Ali, Holmes, Riddick Bowe and most recent undisputed champion Lennox Lewis are clearly ahead of him in the last 49 years, which, by definition, puts him ahead of more-celebrated notables like Evander Holyfield, Mike Tyson, Joe Frazier and Foreman.
Why? Because he’s a big man who can box and punch and can’t help but climb the charts with each successively more dominant performance. He’s cleaned out the top 10 and all but unified the division in the family name, which is a significant accomplishment in a splintered era.
IBO President Ed Levine is solidly in Klitschko’s corner in terms of historic comparisons.
“I think it’s clear that Wladimir has accomplished more than most men who’ve ever reached the championship level,” he said. “His level of dominance since becoming champion rivals anyone’s, and I think people will only develop a true appreciation for him after he’s no longer active.”
Provided he’s successful against Pianeta and then Povetkin, Klitschko’s long-term opponents list may veer toward the few contenders he’s not already handled. Finnish slugger Robert Helenius, 29, is 18-0 and ranked third on the IBO computer, Bulgarian Kubret Pulev, 31, is the incumbent European champion and confident British tough guy Tyson Fury, 24, has trained his sights on the reigning elite.
The latter defeated American Steve Cunningham in an IBF eliminator in April in New York.
“When Wladimir Klitschko fights me,” Fury said, “I will knock him out just like I knocked Steve Cunningham out.”
Of the top 10 challengers in the IBO rankings, Klitschko has beaten No. 2 David Haye (UD 12, July 2011), No. 8 Tony Thompson (KO 11, July 2008; and KO 6, July 2012). His brother, WBC champion Vitali, has beaten No. 4 Tomasz Adamek (KO 10, September 2011) and No. 7 Odlanier Solis (KO 1, March 2011).
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This week’s title-fight schedule:
WBC super flyweight title – Si Sa Ket, Thailand
Yota Sato (champion) vs. Srisaket Sor Rungvisai (No. 3 contender)
Sato (26-2-1, 12 KO): Third title defense; Unbeaten since 2005 (21-0-1)
Rungvisai (18-3-1, 17 KO): First title fight; Fourth fight in Japan (0-3)
Fitzbitz says: “Long, lean Japanese champ won his belt from a Thai champion in Tokyo, and he’ll hold on to it here against a slugging Thai challenger on his home turf.” Sato by decision
IBF/IBO/WBA/WBO heavyweight titles – Mannheim, Germany
Wladimir Klitschko (champion) vs. Francesco Pianeta (No. 7 WBO contender)
Klitschko (59-3, 50 KO): Tenth WBO title defense; Ninth WBO defense in Germany
Pianeta (28-0-1, 15 KO): First title fight; Fifth scheduled 12-round fight (3-0-1)
Fitzbitz says: “Klitschko has been dominant against high-end contenders and barely passable journeyman, and it doesn’t figure to change with Pianeta.” Klitschko in 6
WBC welterweight title – Las Vegas, Nev.
Floyd Mayweather Jr. (champion) vs. Robert Guerrero (interim champion)
Mayweather (43-0, 26 KO): First title defense; Held titles at 130, 135, 140 and 154 pounds.
Guerrero (31-1-1, 18 KO): Sixth title fight; Held titles at 126 and 130 pounds.
Fitzbitz says: “Guerrero and his team did a nice job to get the fight, but once the bell rings they’ll realize what they’re in against. Unless there’s a Tarver-Jones moment, the 0 won’t go.” Mayweather in 8
WBC featherweight title – Las Vegas, Nev.
Daniel Ponce De Leon (champion) vs. Abner Mares (No. 1 contender)
Ponce De Leon (44-4, 35 KO): First title defense; Held WBO title at 122 pounds
Mares (25-0-1, 13 KO): Seventh title fight; Held titles at 118 and 122 pounds.
Fitzbitz says: “Young challenger may not have it easy, but his grinding body work should ultimately overwhelm an older, less dynamic champion.” Mares by decision
WBA super featherweight title – Tokyo, Japan
Takashi Uchiyama (champion) vs. Jaider Parra (No. 10 contender)
Uchiyama (19-0-1, 16 KO): Seventh title defense; Nine straight wins by stoppage (66 rounds)
Parra (20-0-1, 10 KO): First title fight; First fight outside South America
Fitzbitz says: “Streaking and powerful champion has unbeaten quarry in front of him, but will take advantage of home turf and big-stage familiarity.” Uchiyama in 10
WBA super flyweight title – Tokyo, Japan
Kohei Kono (champion) vs. Liborio Solis (No. 1 contender)
Kono (28-7, 11 KO): First title defense; Three straight wins since 0-3 stretch in 2010-11
Solis (14-3-1, 7 KO): First title fight; First fight in Japan
Fitzbitz says: “Kono looks like a vulnerable commodity, but not here and not now against road-tripping Venezuelan with no jump-off-the-page triumphs.” Kono by decision
NOTE: Fights previewed are only those involving a sanctioning body's full- fledged title-holder -- no interim, diamond, silver, etc. Fights for WBA "world championships" are only included if no "super champion" exists in the weight class.
Last week’s picks: 2-1
2013 picks record: 19-15 (55.9 percent)
Overall picks record: 482-167 (74.3 percent)
Lyle Fitzsimmons has covered professional boxing since 1995 and written a weekly column for Boxing Scene since 2008. He is a full voting member of the Boxing Writers Association of America. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter – @fitzbitz.