By Paul Mason (@KOBoxingSets)
Last week saw the former WBA (Super), IBF, WBO, Ring Magazine and IBO Heavyweight Champion, Wladimir Klitschko decide to hang up the gloves and end his career, rather than invoke a rematch clause with current WBA (Super) and IBF Champion, Anthony Joshua following their fantastic encounter earlier this year.
For me this signals the end of an era in the sport, and the end of a largely underappreciated dominant Heavyweight Champion. Klitschko endured a terrible 2003-2004 where his career was in tatters. Think on a smaller scale of David Price coming back from his devastating knockout defeats to Tony Thompson (x2), Erkan Teper and Christian Hammer, and then going on to become Heavyweight Champion and ruling for ten years.
“Dr Steelhammer” first showed vulnerability, when, after going 24 fights unbeaten, he alarmingly ran out of gas and was stopped by the then 24-13-1 Ross Purritty in the penultimate round of a twelve rounder in 1998. He rebuilt and first reigned as a World Champion in October 2000 by unanimously outpointing gifted American Chris Byrd for the WBO version of the Heavyweight crown. But his reign was to come to a crushing end after five straight stoppage defences in 2003, when the unheralded South African, Corrie Sanders, knocked Klitschko down four times, hurting him every time he connected, before winning the belt via a second round stoppage.
Klitschko shrugged off the defeat and vowed to return stronger. However, after two quick comeback wins against non-descript opposition, he was awarded a shot at his old belt that was now vacant. Another unheralded man was in the opposite corner in Los Angeles resident, Lamon Brewster. In the bout at the Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas, Klitschko was winning the fight easily with his punishing left jab and knocked Brewster to the canvas in the fourth round with a vicious right hand. He appeared close to being able to stop Brewster, but Brewster managed to get through the round, and the following round saw Klitschko’s tank yet again empty quickly and painfully and he was knocked down in the fifth, with referee Robert Byrd forced to stop the fight at the end of the round with klitschko groggy and all over the place. Allegations of foul play were suggested post fight with an attorney for Klitschko asking for a federal investigation, alleging what he said were mysterious circumstances surrounding the fight. It was claimed that Klitschko’s blood and urine samples taken after the fight were missing, and said it was suspicious that the odds favouring Klitschko dropped dramatically before the fight. Nevada Athletic Commission executive director Marc Ratner said nothing abnormal happened before, during or after the fight, and the case slowly disappeared, leaving Klitschko’s career in ruins.
Wladimir again attempted the long road back, and after two quick stoppage wins, he met the dangerous unbeaten Nigerian, Samuel Peter in Vegas in an IBF and WBO Heavyweight Title eliminator. Klitschko showed immense heart, coming off the canvas three times to outlast Peter and triumph unanimously on the cards. This was a massive turning point for the Ukrainian, and showed he had the stomach for a fight.
Klitschko was World Champion again in April 2006, when he stopped Chris Byrd in the seventh round of their rematch to lift the IBF and IBO Titles. He was about to embark on an unbeaten run of Title defences that would be second to only Joe Louis. Three stoppage defences followed, including a sixth round retirement win over Lamon Brewster in Germany to avenge the horror defeat of 2004. He picked up the WBO Title by unanimously outpointing Sultan Ibragimov in a boring tactical fight in New York that the fans booed early on in proceedings,and damaged Klitschko’s reputation across the pond. So much so he wouldn’t return there for another seven years.
He continued to beat what was put in front of him and made five more defences of his IBF and WBO crowns. He then added the WBA (Super) Crown to this by tactically outclassing former Champion David Haye in Hamburg, in a fight many expected him to lose.
He made a further eight defences, against various debatable mandated and voluntary contenders, including Jean Marc Mormeck, the former Cruiserweight World Champion (KO4), Alexander Povetkin (Unanimous) and Kubrat Pulev (KO5) bringing his record of defences of the Heavyweight crown to eighteen, before defending against Tyson Fury in late 2015. In a cagey fight, where Klitschko was reluctant to attack, he meekly surrendered his belts on points to the Manchester Gypsy, and would never regain them. Instead after multiple postponements of a proposed rematch with Fury, Klitschko plumped for the new heir to the throne in Anthony Joshua at Wembley Stadium in April this year. Klitschko was fantastic in defeat, floored in the fifth before flooring Joshua for the first time in his paid career in the sixth in an up and down fight, that was a Heavyweight classic. Klitschko went out on his shield in round eleven. Klitschko gained more respect in defeat than he did in the whole time he was a proud World Champion.
The sad thing with Klitschko is that a lot of criticism was levelled at him during the height of his title defence run at the level of opposition faced. This was not his fault, and had to defend against whoever the governing bodies, or ranking lists put in front of him. Unfortunately for Klitschko, the only other fighter that was on a par with him in his prime was his brother Vitali, and they were never likely to face each other in the ring. His Achilles heel was that there were not a crop of Heavyweights in which to match him with, until the likes of Tyson Fury, Deontay Wilder and Anthony Joshua came along, but by then Klitschko was past his prime and moving towards his forties.
This should not count against Klitschko though, and I firmly believe he will be a first opportunity hall of famer, when he is eligible in five years’ time, and should be remembered as one of the best at the weight. It also should be commended the way he carried himself as a Champion, the way a Champion should, with dignity and class. I was never one to criticise the Ukranian, and never will. He rebuilt himself as a Champion, with a safety first technique granted, but still with devastating power, and I would easily put him up there in the top 15-20 Heavyweights of all time.
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