by David P. Greisman (photo by Pavel Terekhov)
It was a moment years in the making.
Wladimir Klitschko, 6-foot-6, a towering, powerful man thought to be the future of the heavyweight division, locked eyes with Lennox Lewis, 6-foot-5, as big, as strong, the best of boxing’s marquee weight class.
They never fought.
Klitschko and Lewis shared the ring only for “Ocean’s Eleven,” a remake of the classic casino caper. They briefly tussled on the big screen in 2001. Two years later, Klitschko was rebuilding after a two-round destruction at the hands of a semi-retired fighter named Corrie Sanders. Lewis had thrown his last punches as a professional prizefighter, six rounds of heavy trading against Klitschko’s older brother, Vitali.
Though Lewis won that night, it was still Vitali, not Wladimir, who would be considered the rightful heir to Lewis’ throne.
Vitali only fought three times before injuries forced him into retirement. Supremacy was Wladimir’s to win or lose.
A year after the knockout loss to Sanders, Wladimir suffered another devastating defeat, the third of his career, this one against Lamon Brewster. By the time his brother retired, Wladimir was three victories into remolding himself into a winning form.
Vitali has since returned from retirement. But Wladimir, not Vitali, still remained the rightful heir to the heavyweight throne.
This past Saturday, Wladimir officially assumed his crown, capping off a streak of 11 consecutive victories with a ninth-round stoppage of Ruslan Chagaev. Before that streak began, the idea of Wladimir Klitschko as future of the heavyweight division had become a pipe dream. His one-sided win against Chagaev cemented such acclaim as a reality.
Chagaev, undefeated and a world titlist before a spate of health issues stripped him of his championship belt, was considered by many the third-best big man around, behind only Wladimir and Vitali Klitschko.
One would be hard pressed to find a single memorable punch Chagaev landed against Wladimir Klitschko.
There was only one memorable punch Klitschko landed on Chagaev, a right hand two minutes into the second round that put Chagaev on his posterior.
It was a one-two combo, a jab to the forehead followed by a cross lower on the face. Chagaev would rise promptly. Klitschko would never have another highlight-worthy moment. He would never need one.
Instead, he wore Chagaev down physically and mentally, damaging him with the accumulated bruising of jabs and right hands, and sapping him of his will to take any further punishment.
Klitschko did so with simple but effective defense.
He moved to his left, Chagaev’s right, forcing the southpaw Chagaev to reposition himself. He kept himself at a comfortable distance, with Chagaev within range and within his own reach, but far enough that the shorter man had to work to get inside. Chagaev never threw enough punches to get inside and stay there long. Klitschko had little problem taking a step back or to the side to get away and reset.
The best punch Chagaev landed came after the bell rang to signal the end of the seventh round. The left hand caught Klitschko flush on his cheek. Klitschko staggered a step back but remained standing. The china chin that twice had failed him showed no sign of shattering.
The match, if it could be called that, lasted two more rounds. Chagaev remained in his corner, never coming out for the 10th.
Such is the blueprint for Klitschko’s fights. In his last 11 outings, only three have gone to the scorecards, two of those (Samuel Peter, Sultan Ibragimov) having gone the distance, the other (DaVarryl Williamson) a technical decision due to a cut.
The rest ended early.
Eliseo Castillo lasted four rounds. Chris Byrd and Calvin Brock made it seven. Ray Austin was out within two. Lamon Brewster, in a rematch, remained in his corner after six. Tony Thompson was dispatched in the 11th. Hasim Rahman was done in less than seven.
Six of his last 11 opponents have held world titles. Almost all have been ranked in the top 10 of the various sanctioning bodies, and most actually belonged there.
Yet none seem to pose a threat to Klitschko once the bell rings.
Klitschko rarely approaches them as if that is true. Rather, be it due to patience or caution, he uses his jab to set up the right hand, breaking his opponents down until they either cannot get off the canvas or will not rise from their seats.
It is not overly entertaining. It does not need to be.
Seven of the past 11 victories have come before a faithful German audience, which shows up in support of fighters of various nationalities who make that country their base. All but 15 of Klitschko’s 56 pro fights have been in Germany.
The fans show to see Klitschko win. The fighter gives them what they want and is paid handsomely through ticket sales and television contracts.
By default of being the number-one heavyweight, Klitschko also gets money from HBO for American broadcast rights to many of his fights. Klitschko would have been on HBO on Saturday, but his original opponent, David Haye, withdrew due to an injury and the network passed on the Chagaev bout.
By default of being the number-one heavyweight, Klitschko can be an occasional attraction in the United States. He has headlined in New York City, in Atlantic City and in Las Vegas. What name recognition he has outside of boxing circles, he has through appearances on late-night television shows and morning news-talk programs.
Only six of Klitschko’s wins have come by decision. He looks at his record and sees that he is doing his job. Any complaints about a lack of fireworks are also because his opponents aren’t doing theirs.
A champion in a weak division is still a champion.
Those who believe Klitschko does not yet deserve such recognition point to his brother, Vitali, and say that Wladimir has not taken on and will not take on the number-two man in the division.
Vitali Klitschko has fought twice since coming back, victories over Samuel Peter and Juan Carlos Gomez. He has accomplished enough to earn his ranking, but those who nitpick do so based on what Vitali could do in the division, not what he has done.
What Wladimir Klitschko has done is win 11 straight, taking out anyone and everyone. He is the new, true heavyweight champion, taking over the designation once held by Lennox Lewis, a man with whom, like that day on the movie set, he can now see eye-to-eye .
The 10 Count will return next week.
David P. Greisman is a member of the Boxing Writers Association of America. His weekly column, “Fighting Words,” appears every Monday on BoxingScene.com. He may be reached for questions and comments at [email protected]