A deep dive through the career of Wladimir completed, the page turns to the elder of the impressive family duo.
It was a career cut short and then reimagined for Vitali Klitschko. Regarded far and wide as the best heavyweight in the world at the end of 2004, a series of injury issues caused multiple delays in a planned mandatory defense against former heavyweight champion Hasim Rahman in 2005. Following a knee surgery, an exasperated Vitali announced he was hanging up the gloves.
In the only two losses of his career to that point, his body had let him down. It appeared his body had let him down for good.
Three years later, with almost four years between fights, Vitali Klitschko challenged once-defeated Sam Peter for the WBC crown. It was the beginning of an intriguing second act.
Before arriving at that dramatic scene, and what followed, let’s start with…
The Tale of the Tape
Born: July 19, 1971
Hailed From: Kiev, Ukraine
Turned Professional: November 16, 1996 (KO2 Tony Bradham)
Record: 45-2, 41 KO, 2 KOBY
Record in Title Fights: 15-2, 12 KO, 2 KOBY
Lineal World Titles: None
Title Reigns: WBO Heavyweight (1999-2000, 2 Defenses); WBC/Ring Magazine Heavyweight (2004-05, 1 Defense); WBC Heavyweight (2008-13, 9 Defenses)
Entered Ring Magazine Ratings: October 1999 (#8 – Heavyweight; Cover Date - February 2000)
Last Ring Magazine Rating: August 2013 (#1 – Heavyweight; Cover Date November 2013)
Current/Former Lineal World Champions Faced: Lennox Lewis TKO by 6; Shannon Briggs UD12
Current/Former Alphabet Titlists Faced: Herbie Hide KO2; Chris Byrd RTD by 9; Orlin Norris KO1; Corrie Sanders TKO8; Sam Peter RTD8; Juan Carlos Gomez TKO9; Tomasz Adamek TKO10
Record Against Current/Former Champions/Titlists Faced: 7-2, 6 KO, 2 KOBY
Vitali had an accomplished amatuer career, including a silver medal in the 1995 World Championships for Ukraine after a loss in the final to Russian Alexei Levin. Expected to be his nation’s super heavyweight of the 1996 Olympic team, Vitali was suspended for a banned substance violation. Wladimir would assume the slot on the team, defeating Levin among others en route to the gold medal.
Klitschko’s first professional gold came via the WBO’s heavyweight belt with a knockout of Herbie Hide in 1999. Vitali made two defenses before retiring on his stool with an injury against Chris Byrd in 2000.
Vitali won five in a row to earn a WBC mandatory position to challenge Lennox Lewis, losing on a cut after six rounds but launching himself to greater acclaim. Following the retirement of Lewis, Klitschko would claim the vacant WBC belt and Ring Magazine title with an eighth round knockout of Corrie Sanders. Klitschko would defend once before his first retirement.
Resuming his career in October 2008, Vitali forced a surrender from Sam Peter after eight rounds to reclaim the WBC crown. He would defend the belt nine times before retiring again in 2013. Since 2014, Vitali has fought in a different arena, serving as the mayor of Kiev, Ukraine. Vitali was elected to the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 2018.
Among a sample of outside the ring honors, Klitschko was named as or in the following:
- Ring Magazine Comeback of the Year - 2008
- International Boxing Research Organization All-Time Heavyweight #19 - 2019
Capturing international attention with a lengthy knockout streak to start his career, Klitschko knocked out Hide in two for the WBO honors. Two defenses, also inside the route, ran his record to 27-0, 27 KO, before the Byrd defeat.
Again using the Ring Magazine rankings as a reasonable gauge of Vitali’s professional years, the below are the men who were ranked in the top ten when Klitschko faced them. Unlike the evaluation of Wladimir, there are no TBRB rankings included as they did not exist during Vitali’s active career. The ranking provided for each foe represents the most recent in Ring’s print edition prior to Klitschko facing them.
- 04/01/2000 - RTD by 9 Chris Byrd (#10 at Heavyweight)
- 06/21/2003 - TKO by 6 Lennox Lewis (Champion at Heavyweight)
- 04/24/2004 - TKO8 Corrie Sanders (#3 at Heavyweight)
- 12/11/2004 - TKO8 Danny Williams (#9 at Heavyweight)
- 10/11/2008 - RTD8 Sam Peter (#2 at Heavyweight)
- 03/21/2009 - TKO9 Juan Carlos Gomez (#9 at Heavyweight)
- 09/26/2009 - RTD10 Chris Arreola (#6 at Heavyweight)
- 12/12/2009 - UD12 Kevin Johnson (#10 at Heavyweight)
- 09/10/2011 - TKO10 Tomasz Adamek (#2 at Heavyweight)
One can make a case for other quality wins not found in Ring’s top ten. Hide, whose only loss prior to Klitschko came against Riddick Bowe, could have had a case to be rated on the fringes in 1999. Kirk Johnson had been rated as high as eighth early in 2003 but had slipped out of the top ten by the time he lost to Vitali in December of that year. Like Povetkin for Wladimir, Vitali foe Manuel Charr is not regarded as a genuine former titlist as his heavyweight belt came only as the WBA sub-variety.
While light on contenders faced prior to the Lewis bout, Vitali faced six in a row across the end of his first act and start of his second, including four straight beginning with Peter. Peter had risen to be regarded, by Ring and many others, as the next best heavyweight in the class after Wladimir in 2008. From his win over Hide through the end of his career, Vitali handed six men their first career defeat, including 2004 Olympic super heavyweight gold medalist Odlanier Solis.
Following his win over Kevin Johnson, Vitali’s opposition declined for most of the remainder of his reign with the exception of the bout with Adamek in 2011. Adamek, a former light heavyweight and cruiserweight titlist, won six in a row at heavyweight to earn a shot at Vitali’s WBC belt. Adamek suffered the first of what would be only three stoppage defeats in a 59-fight career.
Competition Not Faced
As always, this section is concerned with what did not occur more than why it did not.
As was the case with Wladimir, let’s consider what might have been added to Vitali’s ledger from the point he entered serious contention forward. That would extend from around the time of the Hide fight to the end of his career. Across that span, several men won other major heavyweight belts whom Klitschko didn’t face, the most notable being his brother.
No points can be lost for that.
The other men who held major titles during Vitali’s relevant active years were:
- Evander Holyfield (WBA)
- John Ruiz (WBA)
- Hasim Rahman (World Champion)
- Roy Jones (WBA)
- Nicolay Valuev (WBA)
- Sergei Liakhovich (WBO)
- Oleg Maskaev (WBC)
- Ruslan Chagaev (WBA)
- Sultan Ibragimov (WBO)
- David Haye (WBA)
We can also wonder about matches with some of the same contenders Wladimir missed like David Tua and James Toney. The years between Byrd and Lewis could have been more challenging but Vitali played to get a mandatory and the efforts bore fruit. Several of the men who won titles across the span of Vitali’s career, like Maskaev and Liakhovich, did so while he was retired the first time. They were, though, contenders before and after their reigns. Haye, Chagaev, and later Alexander Povetkin are all notable names in the era that also could have added depth to Vitali’s mark. The Haye fight came closest to occurring but ultimately didn’t come to pass.
Reaction to Adversity
For Vitali, there is a worthwhile argument for his greatest adversity coming outside the ring. The fallout from the Byrd defeat left him with a veritable scarlet letter in the United States for far too long. The breakdown of his body, both in defeats and then the preparation for the Rahman fight that was never to be, surely tested the will of Klitschko. The focus and professionalism it took to restore his body and resume at a high level are commendable.
In the ring, adversity was rare. Despite his final surrender, Vitali fought at least several rounds with a reportedly torn left rotator cuff against Byrd. Versus Lewis, Vitali was begging to go on despite a grotesquely wounded left eye. In the Sanders fight, Klitschko absorbed some tremendous shots early from a proven puncher. Late in his career, Vitali again injured his left shoulder against a Derek Chisora who continues to give hard rounds to top heavyweights today. Taking the lessons learned from the Byrd defeat, Klitschko posted a lopsided decision over Chisora relying almost entirely on his good arm.
The evidence of his career strongly favors Vitali’s reaction to adversity being of the bite-down-harder and keep working toward the win flavor.
What Did He Prove
Winning was of course a flavor Vitali tasted far more often than he did not. He was the sort of fighter who set about the task of victory almost from the onset of every bout. As a percentage of his career, and this is just a guess, his rounds won ratio might rival pound for pound titan Floyd Mayweather in contemporary comparison.
No matter whether he was fighting someone as great as Lewis or as lightly regarded as an Albert Sosnowski, Vitali appeared to approach every fight just as in shape. Vitali wasn’t as fluid and athletic as his brother but, from earlier in his paid tenure, he was able to master his style and command the canvas as a ring general. It reflected the sort of focus, maturity, and diligence easily translated to his success in politics later.
It combined with a physical toughness fans were able to appreciate. Vitali was never off his feet as a professional boxer and took some big shots, including in the already mentioned Sanders bout and the Lewis battle. Lewis landed some hellacious stuff as their six dramatic rounds wore on and Klitschko kept his feet. Lewis was as telling a puncher as any in heavyweight history. Even in his final fight, Lewis might have put many men away with what Klitschko took that night.
Vitali just wasn’t one of them.
He was, along with his brother and men like Mayweather and Hopkins, a role model for how to stay prepared between fights and Vitali’s return gave him the boost of creditable longevity. Given his size, amatuer background, ring IQ, toughness, and finishing ability, Klitschko did more than enough to prove himself a long night in any heavyweight era.
Measured Against History
More than a long night, it’s fair to say either Klitschko brother would have been formidable at their best against the best of more heavyweights than not in any era. Take the Klitschko’s as they were and put them in the years between, say, Joe Louis and Sonny Liston. How many would confidently pick a Ezzard Charles, Jersey Joe Walcott, Rocky Marciano, or Floyd Patterson, all of whom were at their best near or below 190 lbs., to beat either of them?
One can make a pound for pound argument about any of those fighters being better if they’d like. There can also be arguments about some earlier champions being more dominant relative to their era. No fighter, after all, can beat any more than what is available to them in their own time.
Less reasonable is an argument some Klitschko detractors made against them at their peak of dual rule that they were just winning because they were bigger.
At heavyweight, that’s part of the point.
It’s not the only thing that matters and we’ve seen plenty of smaller men beat much larger ones in boxing’s unlimited class over the years. Chris Byrd and Eddie Chambers competed just fine in the Klitschko years with a range of sizes. Neither could beat Wladimir because he was both bigger and better than the other bigger men around them. For a decade between 2005 and 2015, each brother was better than everyone they faced.
In terms of accomplishments, Wladimir has the edge over Vitali. He won Olympic gold, won more professional title fights, and unified three of the four major alphabet belts. Including Wladimir’s first reign as a WBO titlist, he has the second most wins (25) in fights for a version of the heavyweight crown after Joe Louis (26). If one regards his lineal claim as beginning with the win over Chagaev, he has more title wins and defenses than Johnson, Marciano or Dempsey as the division’s true champion.
Vitali, like Wladimir, also won Ring’s recognition as heavyweight champion with his win over Sanders, his first over a Ring-rated contender. Some recognize that as a lineal claim but his hastened reign never allowed a chance to solidify the recognition. There were arguments about Wladimir’s claim while Vitali was still active. There were none to be taken seriously after Wladimir’s win over Povetkin following’s Vitali’s final retirement.
While Wladimir’s losses were worse, with three of five coming against men unrated by the standards applied here, he beat a far deeper pool of available talent. Wladimir had seventeen fights against fighters rated prior to fighting him by Ring or TBRB. Seven of the fifteen he defeated were top five opponents. Vitali faced far fewer opponents rated in the top ten on the eve of their fights with him, with three wins over fighters rated in the top five.
How does Wladimir compare to some of the better big men in the game in the post-Muhammad Ali era?
Based on numbers, the reign of Wladimir beginning with his IBF title victory in the Byrd rematch is probably closest to the reign of Larry Holmes. Holmes took no losses along his path to the top so he starts with a marked advantage in an overall comparison. How each reigned is still well worth a look, particularly considering both ruled eras regarded as less than what came immediately before them in real time.
Holmes won the WBC title in 1978 (while Ali was between a split with Leon Spinks for the lineal and WBA crowns) and defended it sixteen times. After his sixth defense, and previously defeated foe Mike Weaver’s upset of John Tate for the WBA belt, Ring recognized Holmes as the rightful champion of the class. A subsequent win over Ali left him all right’s to history’s throne.
Switching affiliations from the WBC to IBF in 1984, Holmes added three more defenses before losing to light heavyweight champion Michael Spinks. Including a fight with Marvis Frazier where only history’s crown was on the line, Holmes can be credited with 20 title defenses.
Wladimir defended the IBF crown 18 times, was recognized by Ring as rightful champion after his seventh defense against Ruslan Chagaev, and as previously noted would ultimately add the WBO and WBA belts to his mantle. In Wladimir’s favor in this comparison is his almost complete unification of his era. Holmes never had a unification fight. Calendar wise, his reign was also longer at more than nine years to Holmes’ seven and change. Klitschko also reigned to an older age (39) than Holmes (35).
In Holmes favor was a deeper testing from his top ten challengers. Klitschko defeated eleven top ten contenders in his 18 defenses. Holmes’ first thirteen challengers could all be found in Ring’s top ten. By the end of the Holmes run, it would stand at 17 of 20 challengers. Both men defended successfully against six top five challengers and both beat top five heavyweights to start their lengthy runs.
The perception of Wladimir as a big puncher with a vulnerable chin can be shared with the most dominant heavyweight champion preceding his reign. Lennox Lewis’s losses to Oliver McCall and Hasim Rahman dogged him for those looking for flaws in an otherwise mighty career. Lewis’s pluses far outweighed his minuses.
Along with unifying what were then the three most recognized heavyweight belts (the WBO heavyweight belt was often a drag on the organization in the 1990s, with multiple winners opting to dump it in pursuit of bigger glories, even if some of their other champions achieved distinction), Lewis also won the rights to the lineal throne twice in his career. Beginning with his win over Razor Ruddock, Lewis faced 18 men rated in his career rated in the Ring top ten, posting a mark of 15-2-1.
Lewis’s chin issues were overstated. He took some big shots in his career and was on his feet asking to go on after one of only two knockdowns suffered in his career. Klitschko was certainly more vulnerable but never as much as speculated after the first Peter win or he wouldn’t have gone over a decade without a loss, much less a knockdown suffered.
While Wladimir’s most enduring period of time at the top was longer, and he won more title fights, several other metrics favor Lewis. The 1988 super heavyweight gold medalist should really have been 16-2 against his rated opponents, a draw against Evander Holyfield in 1999 left as a stain on the sport. Lewis never lost to an unrated fighter with both his losses against fighters who were rated when he lost to them (McCall at #4, Rahman at #8). While both had fifteen official wins over top ten contenders across the span of their careers, a review of his rated foes gives Lewis the edge in top five wins with eight (and, again, that should have been nine).
Statistically, Vitali might not measure up well with his brother, Lewis, or Holmes. There are others of recent vintage where Vitali compares strongly.
Debated Hall of Fame selection Riddick Bowe had roughly the same number of professional fights as Vitali with a similarly limited pool of top ten opposition relative to their respective eras. Research for this piece found only seven fights for Bowe against men rated in the top ten by Ring when he faced them, three of those against Evander Holyfield and one of them the rematch against Andrew Golota that ended the significant portion of his career before a sad later comeback. Two of Bowe’s other rated wins, Larry Donald and Herbie Hide, would later lose as unrated opponents for Vitali. There were also former titlists Pinklon Thomas and Tony Tubbs (with some controversy), as well as future beltholder Bruce Seldon to Bowe’s credit.
While Vitali may not be able to point to a win as significant as either of Bowe’s two against Holyfield, his greater longevity, consistency, and willingness to take on Lewis even on short notice weigh well in his favor. Vitali also holds the narrow edge, relative to his era, for wins over top five heavyweights.
As Vitali showed in giving Lewis all he could handle, accumulated accomplishments are not the entire story of any fighter. Lewis may not have been in the best shape of his career, and may have been toward the end, but both men took the distinct measure of each other.
What the largest part of the audience thought they were seeing is important in how a fighter is recalled. The loss to Lewis, with Vitali slightly ahead on the cards, and the failure of a rematch to materialize added a romance to Vitali his younger brother may not have captured until his epic finale against Anthony Joshua. It was enhanced when Vitali returned from the misfortunes of injury and remains for many to this day.
Does Vitali get more credit than he should for the Lewis bout? He might. It would have been nice for him to get one more round, knowing it was all he was going to get before the plug was pulled but the savage cut he suffered more than merited a stoppage. Hasim Rahman beat a better version of Lewis and seems to get less credit for the feat. In that case, there was a definitive return bout. The lack of a Lewis sequel will always carry an air of wonder.
It folds neatly into Vitali as one of the grander what if’s in heavyweight history. If Vitali’s body had held up, would Wladimir have ever become what he did? What if David Haye had opted for Vitali instead of opting out to challenge Nicolay Valuev? Vitali’s last twelve wins all came in WBC title fights, ten of them successful title defenses. Could he have run those numbers closer to twenty?
We’ll never know, but it’s hard to pick out a name in the years he was away who was likely to defeat him. He only lost twice and there are plenty who would argue they never saw Vitali genuinely beaten. Vitali may have translated to heavyweight’s deeper eras better because it didn’t take him as long to find his best form. The relative scarcity of top wins in his time still can leave far too much room for supposition regardless of his volume of title fight wins.
The issues Wladimir had to overcome through the first Brewster fight would almost certainly have been obstacles in the stacked 70s or 90s. It may have been tougher then to find his way back to contention. Wladimir came along when he had the time to find himself as a competitor.
In the years Vitali was first retired, Wladimir grew, changed, and adapted. After his first win over Peter, Wladimir was certainly every bit the ring general his brother was, rarely losing rounds. While Vitali avenged Wladimir’s losses to Puritty and Sanders early in his career, Wladimir was far more impressive against the slick Chris Byrd both times than Vitali was, before and after injury that night, in building a lead in an awkward affair. Wladimir at least avenged his own loss to Brewster.
While it’s fair to say Wladimir had the better overall career, there was still clearly a point where Vitali was the better man. Is that the same as being better on each man’s best day?
Vitali’s toughness, more natural acclimation to the sport, and one-sided dominance in his return make a case for him. Wladimir was quicker, faced a wider variation of opposition, was less prone to injury, and while Vitali had a higher knockout percentage, Wladimir’s one-punch power appeared greater. Wladimir at his most dominant developed a willingness to win by any means necessary, control pace, nullify exchanges, and minimize offensive threats behind one of the great jabs in heavyweight history and the threat of what sat behind it.
Wladimir’s peak form may have been a perfect kryptonite against the style of Vitali.
Like the questions of what might have been for an uninjured Vitali, we’ll never know. All we have is what was. In Vitali, we have a fighter who for many is probably more fun to imagine against the biggest names of all time. Vitali left a big impression, no matter the depth of his resume, with enough time served and quality wins to lend substance to any imaginings.
In Wladimir, we had a heavyweight who proved that no ledger is worth evaluating until it can be viewed in full. Wladimir might rate all-time behind a Holmes or Lewis, but his efforts were still enough to be worthy of comparison and no discussion of the great heavyweight title reigns is complete without him. He will join his brother in the Hall of Fame soon.
Vitali Klitschko - Borderline Hall of Fame Accomplishments; Top heavyweight in any era
Wladimir Klitschko - All Time Great Heavyweight Champion
Author’s Note: This is an occasional series which will examine the most accomplished of modern fighters in seeking to establish how their careers stack up with history’s finest.
Cliff Rold is the Managing Editor of BoxingScene, a founding member of the Transnational Boxing Rankings Board, and a member of the Boxing Writers Association of America. He can be reached at [email protected]