By Tris Dixon
THERE was a period when only a connoisseur of this sport would want to watch a Wladimir Klitschko fight.
He was always big business in the Ukraine and Germany, but that did not spread much further afield. He did not connect with those who liked the blood to flow, the fights competitive and the art of all out war.
That changed on a heady April evening in Wembley, sprinkled with a violent magic and majesty, when Anthony Joshua was coroneted as the next big thing and Klitschko ticked any boxes that needed to be checked before retirement.
Until he had run into Tyson Fury more than a year before, Klitschko had been a dominant force on the scene. He spluttered and faltered against the Manchester giant but claimed hunger and a renewed vigor had been restored after signing to face Joshua.
It seemed like it had. He shared the most explosive heavyweight title fight in years, possibly decades, trading knockdowns with the man who, in his retirement this week, Klitschko has anointed as his heir.
For Klitschko, the numbers do not lie, even if they might not tell the entire story. He will, in history, get mixed reviews as he has done throughout his career. But the crashing-bashing nature of his historical finale means he leaves with a respect that he had not previously been given by all. As a fighter, he was not to everyone’s taste, as gentleman he has been a fine ambassador, taking the higher road as rivals tried to drag him into all kinds of pre-fight shenanigans.
He never bit, choosing instead to remain stoic and bite down, getting on with the job at hand and making his opponents pay in the only place that really mattered – the ring.
Some enjoyed his meticulous approach, they admired his technique and the methodical way in which he could break down and then dissect his foes. He bugged the hell out of others. They were frustrated by a frequent lack of fireworks. He had the arsenal, but appeared fearful of using it. He had the power and size, but seemed reluctant. That was borne, of course, from his early career stoppage losses to Lamon Brewster and Corrie Sanders.
They scarred him, but rather than live with the shame of defeat he began to wear those scars as badges of honour. It is often said that it is only in defeat that you see the true measure of a man, of a champion.
Klitschko’s resolve stiffened to the extent that he did not lose again for nine-and-a-half years, spanning 22 bouts.
In 69 career fights – following on from Olympic gold in the amateurs – he scored 64 wins. For a guy who was not exciting, he switched off a lot of lights, ending 53 challenges inside the distance. In total, he boxed in 25 ‘world’ title fights and maybe a dozen in which you could make a case for the lineal title being on the line.
Yet it is a defeat, to Joshua, for which he will be most fondly remembered for.
That showed us what he could have been like as a fighter without the handbrake on. But then he would not have amassed all of those defences. He would not be headed into the Hall of Fame at the first time of asking. He might have been retired long, long ago.
As things stand, and he leaves on some of his own terms, he can step away satisfied he has been the most dominant champion since Lennox Lewis. Perhaps the competition has not been there. And do not forget that older brother Vitali was often the more physically exciting fighter of the two to watch, but that Wladimir has stuck around for so long is testament to his desire to right the wrongs of Ross Purrity and Brewster and Sanders.
Maybe it has taken him this long and so many defences to put those nightmares behind him.
I always remember, from my time on the staff at Boxing News, how he had been driven by one of our old front pages that called him a ‘broken man’ after Brewster.
He took that with him moving forwards. “I will show you a broken man,” he seemed to say. And he set about breaking men.
He broke a generation of contenders with his cautious but sometimes pulverising jab, an educated battering ram of a right hand and an under-utilised but venomous left hook that could unhinge a man from his senses whether fighting at range or on the inside.
Under Emanuel Steward he necessarily became more hesitant and reserved, but he – in time – also became more relaxed, more lucid and more confident. As the years ticked by, it became not the opposition that posed his greatest threat but a lack of motivation.
“How do you do it?” I asked him several years ago as we paced down a long hallway of a top London hotel. “That,” he admitted, “is becoming the hardest thing.”
David Haye was going to be his defining bout but that fight fizzled in the Hamburg rain. Wladimir was not extended.
Then it was back to beating low-key mandatories and, sometimes, the best available next contenders. He was rarely tested. No one really made him go through the gears. Perhaps that is why training camps had become such a chore, that and two decades of them. That is a stagnating combination if ever there was one.
You can say with conviction that quantity comes over quality in his career, as he racked up Hall of Fame digits without facing Hall of Fame foes. Of those he defeated it is hard to see who will one day join him on the walls of Canastota with their own plaque.
The Joshua fight has consequently caused him to make some serious admissions. At 41, and with his decision not to face the younger champion in a November 11 rematch in Vegas, comes the conclusion that he feels he will not improve from the first fight, that the hunger to do so is not there, that his time has run its course and that he is no longer ‘the man’ in the division. Those are stark things for a dominant champion to have to swallow. But he has done so, and he has done so with dignity.
He departs on a high, yet having lost his biggest fight.
It was one of the few times in the career of the exceptional Ukrainian that he left fans wanting more. Yet as any great performer knows – but few care to admit – that is the perfect time to bow out.