A name you are unlikely to hear is a name that will be mentioned more and more frequently in the press, due to him closing in on a long-standing record within the Heavyweight division, is Wladimir Klitschko.
Respect and love for either of the Klitschko’s is hard to find among fans outside their home nation of Ukraine; where their standing is lofty enough for Vitali to almost run for the presidency, and their adopted country Germany; whose love affair with the brothers is well documented and evidenced every time they have a fight. Despite this, Wladimir is just a few years away from eclipsing Joe Louis’ 11 years and 10 months as Heavyweight champion, a record that has stood for 66 years, which would place his name in the annals of boxing history for what could be a very long time. I myself find it hard to watch some Klitschko fights, but I wanted to have a closer look at how he has made it possible to be this close to such an unbelievable record, yet may never be fully respected by such a huge amount of boxing fans.
The most obvious reason Wladimir garners such harsh criticism outside his two home countries is the style in which he has beaten most of his opponents in the ten years since he last tasted defeat. The Heavyweight division has regularly held a place as the most marketable and popular division in boxing through the years, even when other divisions arguably had far higher quality boxers contesting for their titles. The amount of brawlers and sluggers at Heavyweight eclipses that of other weight classes, often leading to rip-roaring, bloody battles with huge swings and plenty of knockouts. There have been many who have gone down a more technical route, but most of the boxers remembered most fondly by fans are the power-punching pugilists. Then there’s Wladimir. At a glance you would assume a fight involving this tall, hulking, intimidating looking man is certain to be entertaining. He does possess massive power; as testified by a fair few of his victims, yet his weight is used in a far more unsporting fashion. Opponents, usually shorter than Wladimir, are kept at arms length with a steel-rod jab and mind-bending overhand lefts. Even if he does manage to breach the barrage, he will find an all new challenge. Klitschko’s considerable frame can often be seen draped over the back of his opponent, who is certain to suffer some consequences from having 6’6” of primed muscle being supported on his much lighter body. Both of these tactics conspire to incapacitate the contender and leave him frustrated every time he attempts to close the gap between them. It is extremely hard to get much enjoyment from a fight that has all the pace and unpredictability drained from it. Alex Leapai experienced his first questionable clinch in the first 20 seconds of his over-matched bout with the champion.
Then again, there is no obligation, nor any visible desire, whatsoever from Klitschko to entertain on his way to the top. His opponents have wowed their fans with powerful knockouts of their opponents, yet they throw everything they possibly have at Wlad and end up no closer to damaging him than they were at the start. Surely there can be some pleasure gained from seeing one fighter with wild eyes, mouth agape, swinging wildly but not connecting, when in the opposing corner stands a pillar of pure composure, undamaged and untested. Jose Mourinho is surely a fan. Klitschko’s utter dominance; on some occasions against very talented opposition, in all of his fights, depicts an impregnable game-plan. It certainly is not a secret, but that has not stopped some of the world’s best boxing coaches trying and failing to find a way past it to his precious titles. It may not be sportsmanlike or gentlemanly, but when there are world titles, millions of dollars, and the chance to cement your name in history at stake, who can be blamed for taking any road they can to victory. He was visibly distraught and undoubtedly diminished after all of his defeats, learnt his lessons, and has not looked back since 2004.
His lack of universal respect highlights the plight of two other unarguably talented but roundly unpopular fighters who have struggled to gain the plaudits and backing of the average boxing fan. Andre Ward is one of the most defensively complete fighters of his generation, possessing the ability to make most, if not all, of his opponents so far look absolutely hopeless. His victory over Carl Froch at the Super Six tournament looked set to propel him in to the limelight, but a relatively demure and laid-back demeanor, serious injury problems, and a whole host of sickening boxing politics have kept him away from the fans. I have often seen him described as boring, which I can understand from a casual fan’s perspective; he slows the pace of fights and refuses to stand and trade. This does not mean, however, that he should be pigeon-holed as boring and sidelined. In the same way that a knockout artist is admirable in the way they trained their power and accuracy, a defensive master should be respected for honing his craft down to a tee in the way that Ward has. His reactions, balance, guard and head-movement are among the most refined and most impressive in boxing. Add this to the fact that at super-middleweight, he is no small guy, and you can see even more clearly just how talented he must be to have gotten where he is; resisting the urge to pack on the power and search for some knockouts.
Another unconventional but at times unbelievable boxer who, as a near 50-year old recently unified World champion, finally seems to be getting some of the respect he deserves is Bernard Hopkins. He has been spending his entire career forcing the flashiest fighters around to reduce themselves to pot-shotting and unsportsmanlike behavior. Whilst Hopkin’s demeanor outside the ring will have been hugely detrimental to him; as well as some very questionable antics inside it, it does not seem to stop the “Money” Mayweather train from running. By constantly backing frequently beaten but more entertaining fighters, we are pushing these fighters further away from a big fight that, in the case of Andre Ward, is hugely deserved. A fighter’s ability to sell tickets and Pay-Per-View subscriptions should always pale in importance when compared to his ability within the ring. Nor should a fighter who fancies ending his career with a straight nose be so universally panned by fans who should embrace them.
Ultimately, Wladimir Klitschko is doomed to go down in history as a boxer who cherry-picked his opponents, who lost early in his career, and spent most of his years as champion fighting vastly inferior opponents in a less-than-attractive style. This is a damning indictment on the typical Twitter-abusing fan’s impact on this sport. Whilst Mayweather cherry-picks his way to legendary status, an untested Wilder continues to add to a record with more padding than Butterbean’s mattress, and fans clamor for yet another Pacquiao vs. Marquez; the heavyweight division will continue to belong to Wladimir Klitschko; probably until he retires. Possibly as the longest reigning heavyweight champion of all time, not bad for someone so frequently described as boring and slow.