Wladimir Klitschko - Grading the Pros and Cons of This Era’s Top Heavyweight:
The all-time placement of Wladimir Klitschko is one of the more interesting conundrums in modern boxing history. His supporters feel he belongs right up there with the best of all-time, while others think he is a vulnerable champion who has taken full advantage of the worst heavyweight division in history. As is usually the case in matters such as this, the truth probably lies somewhere in the middle.
Let’s look at the more common standards we use when judging heavyweight champions historically and see if we can’t make some sense of one of the more enigmatic careers of all heavyweight champions.
[Also See: Top 10 All-Time Best Heavyweights]
Pros: Sure, there are no wins on his record that inspire much awe. Still, is there anyone you can name who Wladimir ducked? That is an important consideration, as the knocks on other champions usually fall across the lines of who they didn’t fight or who they avoided. The division may be god-awful, but he has effectively cleaned it out.
Cons: When a champion gets to a spot where he’s considered one of the best in his division’s history, there are usually a few gems on his record. Alas, Klitschko has none. It can be a little tricky with long-dominant champions. Everyone he fights seems unaccomplished, but that has a lot to do with Klitschko controlling the division with an iron-hand. How can anyone get to a prominent position when Wladimir has the division on lock for almost a decade?
Nevertheless, the toughness of the era a fighter competes in has always been a standard to judge greatness and Klitschko is not above it. It’s just going to be hard to rank him too high when his best wins are against such non-illustrious names. Is it fair? Maybe not. But it’s the way it is.
Pros: We always urge boxers to fight in a style better suited to them personally. We get irritated when a tall fighter doesn’t utilize his reach or when a power hitter doesn’t get inside enough. Then along comes Klitschko with a style we consider unpleasant and he catches nothing but flack. We need to remember, an abundance of machismo does nothing but bad things for a fighter like Klitschko. The late and great Manny Steward took a fighter hanging by a thread in his career and maximized his assets--skills, reach, height, and athleticism. At the same time, he helped camouflage Wladimir’s shortcomings--chin, infighting ability, and how he is lost and tires drastically in fights featuring wild exchanges.
Cons: Is it fair to knock Klitschko for such a negative style? Maybe not. If not for that style, he might have been long-retired by now. One would be remiss, however, in not at least mentioning some of the negative aspects of his approach, which has been far from thrilling. In a sense, we expect the heavyweight champion of the world to be an executioner, not a nullifier.
While effective, Klitschko’s whole style is built around his need to NOT FIGHT. It’s all designed so his fights are one-way traffic. The last thing he wants to do is exchange. We might not need great heavyweights to be seek-and-destroy brawlers, but we also like to see them actually engage in combat. When watching Klitschko in the ring, the only times we have seen him fight--he lost. It would be nice to see a heavyweight kingpin win an actual fight. It’s hard to sense greatness in a fighter whose chief asset is his ability to avoid getting into a brawl.
Pros: This is one area where it’s difficult to knock Klitschko. He has done everything that is within his power to do. He has consistently faced the best in the division and has barely been touched. At the end of the day, we can only judge an athlete on the basis of how he fared in relation to his peers. No one says Joe Louis is not great, even though his era didn’t have a ton of killers. No one says Babe Ruth wasn’t a great baseball player, even though he played against only white guys.
Cons: Dominance can be a double-edged sword. While it’s impressive to beat every challenger with apparent ease, it can only serve to underscore the weakness of the era in which Klitschko participated. For the most part, the fighters who are considered truly great actually needed to struggle just to show they can overcome. It seems unfair that struggling with an opponent makes that fighter seem better, so that when everything is so easy-breezy, it makes it look like Wladimir is fighting a bunch of stiffs. The belief on the part of most experts is that while Klitschko’s work is admirable, he has benefited massively from the worst era in modern heavyweight history.
Pros: It’s hard to argue with 21 wins in title fights. He can’t help issues like the strength of his competition. For what it’s worth, Chris Byrd, Samuel Peter, and Davis Haye are the strongest of the post-Lewis era for guys not named Klitschko and Wladimir beat them all and except for the first Peter fight, in convincing manner.
Cons: It was hard to not chuckle when watching the documentary titled “Klitschko,” they portrayed the Byrd fight like it was the Thrilla in Manila. The fact of the matter is that it’s difficult to paint any Klitschko victim as some sort of titan. Let’s face facts--it has been a pretty uninspiring lot of challengers--American retreads and European nobodies. They’re basically the guys Rocky Balboa beat between the rematch with Apollo Creed and the first Clubber Lang fight. As Mickey said, “They was good fighters, but...”
Pros: Klitschko deserves some credit for having almost the opposite of the typical trajectory of a heavyweight champion. Most champions start off fast and the first half of their careers are the best part and then they lose their touch later. Klitschko’s first 8 years had their share of good moments, but that was also the time he suffered his only 3 losses. In the past 8-9 years, no one has gotten anywhere with Wladimir. That’s unusual and speaks to his determination and improvement.
Cons: It’s hard to think of any heavyweight champs from recent memory who lost to the caliber of guys who not only beat Klitschko, but stopped him inside the distance. Ross Puritty, Corrie Sanders, and Lamon Brewster are an inglorious trio to lose to, especially if you’re talking about top-five placement on the all-time list of heavyweight champions.
A good modern example is Lennox Lewis, who lost to Oliver McCall and Hasim Rahman. If not for those losses, or if he at least lost to someone better, he would be right at the top of the all-time list. As it is, he’s in the bottom of most experts’ top-tens. Klitschko also has to pay the historical price for those setbacks.
Pros: You gotta hand it to the guy. After he suffered his third stoppage loss, he was damaged goods, with his career on life support. It takes tremendous inner-resource to emerge from the brink of career ruin and then somehow forge a long championship reign. His legacy might need some time to stew in the minds of experts and fans alike. Again, he wouldn’t be the only heavyweight champion to not beat a slew of killers like Muhammad Ali was able to. After all, Joe Louis, Jack Dempsey, and Jack Johnson got to the top of the list and who did they beat that was so scary?
Cons: For many, it won’t matter that his record shows a long string of wins in title bouts and a near-historic stay at the top. All they will remember is the long string of dogmeat opponents, with Klitschko passively engaging in the art of non-combat. They will remember the endless softening-up of inferior fighters and how Klitschko’s entire thrust seemed to revolve around his need to not actually fight, but to subdue, probe, and nullify.
While perhaps unfair, it’s important to remember the history of this division preceding this era. The fearsomeness of Sonny Liston led to the Ali brilliance of the 60’s and to his memorable wars against fellow legends in the 70’s. Then along came the smooth and fluid boxer-extraordinaire Larry Holmes, which led to the unforgettable Tyson era. Then we had all the wars with the storybook-figure Evander Holyfield and then the obvious impressiveness of Lewis who, while not always thrilling or popular, boxed like fine wine being poured when compared to what’s out there now.
Fans have learned to have a blood-thirst when it comes to heavyweight championship action and they’re not getting it with Klitschko. They expect to see fluid skills. Klitschko, while dominant, is awkward and oafish when compared to past greats. We also expect some kind of rivalry to emanate after a decade at the top. Or at least some element of overcoming. We don’t get that with Wladimir.
A lot of this is obviously not his fault. At the end of the day, we will have to account for what he did right. Winning a couple dozen title fights without so much as a robust challenge might speak to a weak era. It also indicates greatness on a level we may not relate to well, but a level that exists nonetheless.