April 29, 2017, already three years ago, Wladimir Klitschko found himself in a place he’d avoided for more than a decade.
On the floor.
The Ring and BWAA fight of the year was already one of the great boxing events of the decade with a crowd of more than 90,000 at Wembley Stadium and global television that included a rare shared airing by HBO and Showtime. Everyone viewing can be forgiven for thinking the end was near as Klitschko fell in round five. It turned out the fight was just hitting its next gear. The final chapter of the Klitschko saga at heavyweight had a few lines left to add.
Klitschko would rise, stun upstart young titlist Anthony Joshua before the round was over, and then drop Joshua in the sixth before ultimately succumbing in the eleventh round. Some might recall it as a torch passing but it wasn’t quite that. Klitschko had already lost the heavyweight title in 2015 to Tyson Fury and brother Vitali was nearly five years retired.
What was witnessed instead was a memorable end to a unique era.
There were brother tandems at heavyweight before. There had never quite been something like the Klitschko siblings before. From Vitali’s return to action in 2008 after a retirement due to injury, to his exit from the sport after a win over Manuel Charr in 2012, they were the indisputable 1-2 punch atop the premiere division in boxing.
The Klitschko’s got plenty done before they locked down their shared perch atop the class too. Vitali was enshrined in the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 2018. Wladimir will join him shortly. It’s a measure of the mark they left on their time.
But how good were the Klitschko brothers measured against all time? The question will be asked in two parts. There has been occasion over the years to discuss both brother’s accomplishments and wins as almost the sum of a whole. It’s a mistake. They each had their own specific careers and it’s only fair to look at them singularly first before comparing them to some of history’s best heavyweights as well as each other.
In going back over their careers, five categories will be examined:
2) Competition Faced
3) Competition Not Faced
4) Reaction to Adversity
5) What Did They Prove
For Wladimir, it begins with…
The Tale of the Tape
Born: March 25, 1976
Hailed From: Kiev, Ukraine
Turned Professional: November 16, 1996 (KO1 Fabian Meza)
Record: 64-5, 53 KO, 4 KOBY
Record in Title Fights: 25-4, 19 KO, 3 KOBY (12-1, 8 KO lineal crown only)
Lineal World Titles: Heavyweight (June 20, 2009 - November 28, 1015, 11 Defenses)
Title Reigns: WBO Heavyweight (2000-03, 5 Defenses); IBF Heavyweight (2006-15, 18 Defenses); WBO Heavyweight (2008-15, 14 Defenses); Ring World Heavyweight (2009-15, 11 Defenses); WBA ‘Super’ Heavyweight (2011-15, 8 Defenses); TBRB (2013-15, 3 Defenses)
Entered Ring Magazine Ratings: November 2000 (#6 – Heavyweight; Cover Date - March 2001)
Last Ring Magazine Rating: July 2017 (#3 – Heavyweight; Cover Date November 2017)
Current/Former Lineal World Champions Faced: Hasim Rahman TKO7; David Haye UD12; Jean Marc Mormeck KO4; Tyson Fury L12
Current/Former Alphabet Titlists Faced: Chris Byrd UD12, TKO7; Ray Mercer TKO6; Corrie Sanders TKO by 2; Lamon Brewster TKO by 5, RTD6; Sam Peter UD12, KO10; Sultan Ibragimov UD12; Ruslan Chagaev RTD9; Anthony Joshua TKO by 11
Record Against Current/Former Champions/Titlists Faced: 11-4, 7 KO, 3 KOBY
Klitschko capped an exemplary amatuer career with a Gold Medal in the super heavyweight division at the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games. Representing Ukraine, Klitschko would win three decisions and score a knockout along the way, capturing Gold on points against future professional rival Paea Wolfgramm.
Klitschko’s first major professional title, WBO variety, would come in 2000 with a decision over Chris Byrd. While Lennox Lewis was still widely recognized as the true heavyweight champion for most of Klitschko’s WBO reign, Wladimir made the most of the strap he had scoring five knockouts in five defenses before an upset stoppage loss to Corrie Sanders in 2003.
Klitschko would suffer another stoppage defeat the following year to Lamon Brewster for the then-vacant WBO belt. It would be his last defeat for over a decade. Klitschko again tasted gold at the expense of Byrd in 2006, stopping the crafty American in seven for IBF honors. Three defenses followed before Klitschko completed a partial unification of the division with a wide unanimous decision to regain the WBO belt from Sultan Ibragimov.
Klitschko would defend both belts twice before facing Ruslan Chagaev with the vacant Ring Magazine (and, to many observers, lineal) crown at stake. Klitschko dominated Chagaev and forced a surrender after nine rounds.
Chagaev had been the WBA titlist but the WBA wouldn’t sanction the contest with Klitschko and Chagaev was stripped following the defeat. Klitschko would rectify the matter in 2011, defeating former lineal cruiserweight king David Haye for Haye’s WBA title. Four more victories followed before Klitschko would be recognized by the Transnational Boxing Rankings Board (TBRB) as heavyweight champion following a victory over Alexander Povetkin in 2014. After Povetkin, any dispute about claims to the historical throne after the retirement of Lewis had no serious counter.
Altogether, Klitschko defended the IBF crown a record 18 consecutive times, the WBO belt a record 14 consecutive times in his second reign with their belt, and the Ring/lineal throne eleven times before losing the heavyweight championship to Tyson Fury in 2015.
Among a sample of outside the ring honors, Klitschko was named as or in the following:
> Ring Magazine Upset of the Year - 2003
> Ring Magazine Upset of the Year - 2015
> BWAA/Ring Magazine Fight of the Year - 2017
> International Boxing Research Organization All-Time Heavyweight #18 - 2019
Klitschko started his paid tenure with 24 straight wins before suffering a shocking stoppage in eleven rounds to veteran Ross Puritty. Klitschko bounced right back with ten straight wins by knockout to earn the shot at Byrd. Extended the twelve round distance for the first time, Klitschko established himself as a bonafide contender, scoring two knockdowns in a veritable shutout.
Using the Ring Magazine and TBRB (from their establishment in late-2012 forward) rankings as a reasonable gauge of Klitschko’s professional years, the below were the top ten ranked opponents Klitschko faced. The ranking provided represents the most recent in Ring’s print edition or available through the TBRB archives prior to Klitschko facing them. Also included are fighters whose upsets of Klitschko led to rankings immediately afterwards.
> 10/14/2000 – UD12 Chris Byrd (#8 at Heavyweight)
> 12/07/2002 - RTD10 Jameel McCline (#6 at Heavyweight)
> 03/08/2003 - TKO by 2 Corrie Sanders (Unrated)
> 04/10/2004 - TKO by 5 Lamon Brewster (Unrated)
> 09/24/2005 - UD12 Samuel Peter (#8 at Heavyweight)
> 04/22/2006 - TKO7 Chris Byrd (#1 at Heavyweight)
> 11/11/2006 - TKO7 Calvin Brock (#9 at Heavyweight)
> 07/07/2007 - RTD6 Lamon Brewster (#8 at Heavyweight)
> 02/23/2008 - UD12 Sultan Ibragimov (#6 at Heavyweight)
> 07/12/2008 - KO11 Tony Thompson (#9 at Heavyweight)
> 06/20/2009 - RTD9 Ruslan Chagaev (#3 at Heavyweight)
> 03/20/2010 - KO12 Eddie Chambers (#3 at Heavyweight)
> 07/02/2011 - UD12 David Haye (#2 at Heavyweight)
> 07/07/2012 - TKO6 Tony Thompson (#10 at Heavyweight)
> 10/05/2013 - UD12 Alexander Povetkin (Ring #1/TBRB #2 at Heavyweight)
> 11/15/2014 - KO5 Kubrat Pulev (Ring #1/TBRB #2 at Heavyweight)
> 04/25/2015 - UD12 Bryant Jennings (Ring #5/TBRB #8 at Heavyweight)
> 11/28/2015 - L12 Tyson Fury (Ring #3/TBRB #2 at Heavyweight)
> 04/29/2017 - TKO by 11 Anthony Joshua (Ring #5/TBRB #1 at Heavyweight)
Missing above is a fighter who could easily have been listed among former titlists or former lineal champions. Germany’s Axel Schulz lost a controversial decision to George Foreman in 1995 for the lineal and IBF heavyweight stakes. Schulz won five straight after a loss to Michael Moorer in 1996; Klitschko handed him his first stoppage loss in 1999.
Povetkin, while noted among contenders, is not listed as one of the former titlists defeated because he won only the WBA’s sub-recognition as titlist. Klitschko held the highest WBA designation as the organization’s super champion.
From the first Byrd win to his final fight versus Joshua, Klitschko handed ten men their first defeat. Seven (Peter, Brock, Ibragimov, Chagaev, Povetkin, Pulev, and Jennings) were rated contenders. Also notable, in all but three years from 2006-17, Klitschko faced or defeated at least one top five heavyweight according to the Ring or TBRB ratings and in five of those years defeated the highest rated fighter available, without the same last name, or both.
Competition Not Faced
As always, this section is concerned with what did not occur more than why it did not.
In the case of Wladimir, as with most fighters, it makes the most sense to consider what might have been added to their ledger from the point they entered serious contention forward. That would extend from his first over Byrd to the end of his career. Across that span, several men won other major heavyweight belts whom Klitschko didn’t face. The most significant are Lennox Lewis and his brother. In the case of the former, Klitschko was being groomed toward Lewis before disaster struck. Lewis would retire before a clash had the chance to emerge as an option again.
The latter only ghouls could hold against him.
The other men who held major titles between 2000 and 2017 were:
> Evander Holyfield (WBA)
> John Ruiz (WBA)
> Roy Jones (WBA)
> Nicolay Valuev (WBA)
> Sergei Liakhovich (WBO)
> Oleg Maskaev (WBC)
> Shannon Briggs (WBO)
> Bermane Stiverne (WBC)
> Deontay Wilder (WBC)
> Charles Martin (IBF)
> Joseph Parker (WBO)
Along with these men, there were notable and still viable contenders in the early to mid-2000s like David Tua and James Toney that would have been considered quality opponents and wins.
Some of the crew who held belts had blink-and-miss-it reigns. Jones’ tenure at heavyweight lasted a single night. Maskaev, Liakhovich, and Briggs all lost their belts almost immediately. So did Martin and he, along with Parker, snared straps while Klitschko already had a foot out the door. Regardless, any of them would have added more depth to Klitschko’s resume as titlists defeated.
Wilder’s reign only briefly overlapped with Klitschko. Could his power have been a threat to an aging Klitschko or was Wilder still too raw? We didn’t get to ask the question in a meaningful way.
The three most notable names Klitschko didn’t face arguably came in the first decade of the century. While past his best, Holyfield was still a highly regarded contender in the early 2000s. Ruiz was a significant part of the title picture from 2000-2010 with wins over Holyfield, Rahman, and Andrew Golota. The giant Valuev took the WBA title from Ruiz and hung around the title picture for about five years. In each case, Klitschko defeated men who defeated those Klitschko didn’t get to but that’s never the same as head-to-head supremacy.
Reaction to Adversity
Understanding Klitschko’s reaction to adversity comes in two parts. There is the way he reacted under fire on single nights, and the way he reformatted himself as a professional. There is no arguing against his vulnerability. Klitschko was stopped four times. The Sanders and Brewster defeats came six to seven years and more than forty fights into his career, so arguments that he wasn’t at his physical peak ring hollow.
The Sanders win was a blast out against a limited but excellent puncher. The Brewster and Purrity wins both saw Klitschko run out of gas dramatically while seemingly on his way to the winner’s circle. The Brewster defeat was the sort that lends itself to endless armchair psychology. Did Klitschko panic a bit when he hit Brewster with everything he had and Brewster kept getting up? Was there skullduggery afoot as was briefly bandied about after the fight? Or was it simply a fast early pace and a Brewster left hand in round five simply carrying the night?
Simple is usually the wisest course.
From a 1998 win over Steve Pannell to Klitschko’s critical 2005 victory over Sam Peter to earn his second title shot at Byrd, Klitschko was knocked down officially nearly a dozen times. To his credit, Klitschko never took a ten-count. He kept getting up even when his senses were elsewhere, leaving cornermen or referees to save him from himself.
He was willing to go out on his shield.
The determination shown in those moments must explain some of what followed the loss to Brewster. Klitschko, forced the hard way to learn his power and athleticism simply weren’t enough, reacted to adversity by developing into a ring general who fought a little taller, paced himself, held on when he needed to, and simply stopped losing.
What Did He Prove
In learning to stop losing for as long as he did, Klitschko proved the sort of fanatical professional it’s hard not to admire. The focus, mental strength, and work ethic it took to come back from the Brewster loss can’t be underestimated. His first act was tumultuous. Klitschko’s second act endured.
The first win over Peter set the stage for what was to come. All three knockdowns suffered that night against the power punching Nigerian weren’t clean but Klitschko was hurt more than once. He simply wouldn’t cave. In the twelfth round, he punctuated victory with a shot that had Peter nearly out.
Klitschko didn’t look back.
From the first Peter fight to the loss to Fury, he defeated more legitimate top ten contenders than any other heavyweight. His approach may not have always appealed to everyone, and it hurt his ability to cross over into the lucrative US pay-per-view market even as he became a stadium attraction in Europe. No one should confuse caution with fear.
At the peak of his reign, Klitschko lined them up and proved willing to fight the deserving challengers who dared to pursue him. He was a model champion for any era in that respect.
The ways Klitschko defeated his challengers varied, as did the entertainment value of the contests. There were nights where the unfavorable nickname “Clinchko” was fair, like Eddie Chambers and Alexander Povetkin.
He won that way, critics be damned. They waited, over and over, for another disaster to strike no matter the mounting evidence a different force had been forged in earlier fires. Klitschko kept them waiting until his last night in the ring before he ever felt the hostile feel of the canvas on his back again.
There were nights where he fought with a bit of an edge, bringing out his offensive tool box and unleashing in the Byrd rematch, the defeat of Brock, and with an extra degree of saltiness against a Kubrat Pulev who seemed to genuinely aggravate him.
He won that way too.
In what was a genuine superfight in the division, he used his range and improved defensive capabilities to control, outthink, and outpoint the dangerous David Haye. Like a Holmes-Cooney, if for different reasons, Klitschko-Haye is sometimes overlooked in discussions of the biggest heavyweight clashes. Make no mistake. It was a mega-event with global interest and as much press and attention as any two fighters could bear. When the lights were brightest, Klitschko won going away.
Klitschko’s power proved prodigious throughout his career. Even as his temperament became more precise over time, Klitschko by knockout was still an almost inevitable conclusion during his best run. Boxers couldn’t outbox him, sluggers couldn’t find the button, and a lethal right hand, underrated left hook, and heavy jab always lingered to keep foes honest.
Someone as cagey as Fury might always have been kryptonite for Klitschko but it could be the lessons of younger years ultimately cost him against Joshua. Klitschko never seemed to press like he could have after the knockdown in the sixth, allowing Joshua time over a few rounds to find his legs. A more careless Klitschko might have snared one more for the win column that night three years ago.
Perhaps he worked too hard not to be that fighter again to find him one more time.
Perhaps father time just did what he always does eventually.
Well before the final defeats to Fury and Joshua, Klitschko put adversity to the rear and established himself as one of the most dominant heavyweight champions in history.
Verdict: To Be Continued with Measured Against All Time: The Klitschko’s Pt. 2 - Vitali
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 firstname.lastname@example.org