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Wladimir Klitschko’s Astounding Comeback

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  • Wladimir Klitschko’s Astounding Comeback

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    By Arne K. Lang

    George Foreman fashioned the most noteworthy comeback in boxing – perhaps in all of sports – when he returned after a 10-year absence and went on to regain the world heavyweight title. But Wladimir Klitschko also forged a remarkable comeback. The difference is that he did it without ever saying goodbye. There was no interregnum in his timeline; no second act.

    Now that his career has come fully into focus, it’s plain that Klitschko will follow in the footsteps of his older brother and enter the Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility. And it’s easy to forget that there was a time when many pundits thought he was something of a tomato can.

    Former Las Vegas Review-Journal sports editor Joe Hawk said this about Klitschko following his loss to Lamon Brewster: “Wladimir Klitschko joins the likes of John Ruiz and David Tua as purported boxers who should never again have their names appear on a sports page. We should’ve known about Klitschko, though. The Ukrainian-to-English converter on our computer says his full name translates to ‘Big Slow Stiff With Glass Chin.’” Associated Press sports columnist Tim Dahlberg was less snarky, but basically echoed that sentiment: “Wladimir Klitschko better get used to working in his brother’s corner during fights,” said Dahlberg in 2005. “It might be the only future he has left in boxing.”

    Although he was reportedly 134-6 as an amateur and won a gold medal at the 1996 Olympics, Wladimir Klitschko (henceforth WK) wasn’t highly thought-of when he turned pro. He had two strikes against him. He didn’t look like a future heavyweight champion. The last lineal heavyweight champion that shared his pigmentation was one-trick pony Ingemar Johansson who captured the title in 1959 which was back in the Stone Age in the eyes of some young sportswriters. And WK was European, hailing from a part of the world once lampooned as the land of horizontal heavyweights.

    And then, while he was still something of a mystery fighter, WK’s reputation was stained by losses to three fighters dismissed as second-raters: Ross Puritty, Corrie Sanders, and Lamon Brewster. Each of those fights ended inside the distance. Against Puritty and Brewster, WK simply ran out of gas. He was leading both fights comfortably on the scorecards. Against Sanders, who knocked him out clean in the second round, he simply forgot to duck.

    Let’s look a little more closely at those three fights.

    Ross Puritty could fairly be classified as a journeyman, but his record (24-13-1 going in) was very deceiving. The former UTEP defensive lineman had gone the distance with future heavyweight title-holder Chris Byrd, had knocked out former heavyweight title challengers Joe Hipp and Jose Luis Gonzalez, and had boxed a draw with fearsome Tommy Morrison…all this despite a very limited amateur background.

    WK fought Puritty on Dec. 5, 1998, in Kiev. The match was assembled in a hurry. Wladimir had fought three weeks earlier and this was his ninth start of the year. The bout was for a minor title so it was scheduled for 12 rounds rather than ten. When the big Ukrainian fell in the 10th round, it was from sheer exhaustion. His corner stopped the fight moments into the 11th.

    The fight wasn’t big news in the U.S., warranting only a paragraph or two in most papers. What most took from the story was simply that another undefeated European heavyweight had been exposed by an American boxer. Ho hum; what else is new?

    WK won 16 straight after this mishap. During this skein he won the WBO title, outpointing Chris Byrd, and successfully defended it six times. But the WBO, the newest of the four major sanctioning bodies, had little cachet. Lennox Lewis and Evander Holyfield ruled other roosts and were considered more legitimate.

    In his title-winning match against Byrd, WK went to post the favorite, but only because he was the bigger man. The presumption was that if the fight went the full 12, Byrd, a slick southpaw, might steal the decision.

    Hardly anyone out-boxed Chris Byrd, but WK put on the clinic, pitching a near-shutout. In fact, one of the judges did award Wladimir every round. He didn’t merely out-box Byrd, he punished him. When the fight was over, one of Byrd’s eyes was completely closed and the other was barely half-open. But the fight was held in Cologne, Germany, and didn’t receive the media attention it would have received if it had been held in the United States.

    WK’s WBO title reign ended with a loud thud in Hanover, Germany, when he was annihilated by the aforementioned Sanders, a 37-year-old South African who boasted a 38-2 record but whose best sport was actually golf. With 33 seconds remaining in the opening stanza, Sanders, a southpaw, caught WK napping and put him on the canvas. Three more knockdowns would follow before the bout was stopped in the following round, but the other knockdowns were extensions of the first. And then, three fights later, Waldimir suffered another mortifying defeat, this coming at the hands of Lamon Brewster.

    The Brewster fight was a repeat of WK’s match with Ross Puritty, only shorter. Wladimir won the first four rounds on all three scorecards. Brewster barely made it back to his corner at the end of the fourth. But then WK suffered a mysterious meltdown. He was knocked down twice in the fifth, the second coming just as the bell sounded to end the round. Ascertaining that he was in no condition to continue, even with a 60-second respite, referee Robert Byrd waived the fight off.

    Wladimir was of the opinion that he had been drugged and, according to one post-fight story, his blood sugar level was discovered to be abnormally high. But when his attorney went to the press and demanded an investigation, important boxing writers, in the main, dismissed it as sour grapes. Where once they had questioned his chin, they now questioned his chin and his heart and his integrity.

    Having been upset twice in a span of four fights, WK had a lot of making up to do to win back the affection of his fans and the respect of the media. Seventeen months after his loss to Brewster, with two more fights under his belt, he dispelled any questions about his heart, rallying to defeat Samuel Peter in a match in which he suffered three knockdowns. Wladimir was in distress in round five and again in round 10, but he won the last two rounds and prevailed by three points on all three scorecards.

    Peter, a New Jersey-based Nigerian, trained by future Hall of Famer Lou Duva, was undefeated coming in with 22 knockouts among his 24 wins. With the fight being staged at Atlantic City’s Boardwalk Hall, he was chalked the favorite – the only time that WK was cast in an underdog role by the bookies until the final fight of his career.

    The victory set up a rematch with Chris Byrd who now owned the IBF title. The second meeting was a carbon of the first through the first six rounds, but this time Byrd wouldn’t still be standing at the final bell. WK finished him off with a right hook in the seventh.

    WK’s second world title reign lasted nine years and seven months. During his tenure he made 18 successful defenses and acquired the other two meaningful belts. He avenged his loss to Brewster (TKO 6), repeated his triumph over Samuel Peter (KO 10), comprehensively out-boxed former unified cruiserweight champion David Haye and, in a match between two former Olympic gold medalists, thoroughly outclassed previously undefeated Alexander Povetkin (that’s Povetkin eating a left hook in the photo).

    WK would have pitched a shutout if not for having a point deducted after shoving Povetkin to the canvas. As it was, he won by 15 points on all three cards. The fight, however, was a stinker and there were precedents for it.

    Wladimir was too dominant during his title reign. When he won lopsidedly, as was usually the case, it was said that he was too robotic. And the emphasis shifted away from him to his opponent who was seen as just another mediocrity plumbed from the wreckage of a weak division.

    Yes, the heavyweight division was inferior relative to the days of Ali and Frazier and the young George Foreman. However, that was the Golden Era of Heavyweights and WK’s opposition stands up fairly well when juxtaposed against the heavyweight class of other eras. Overall, he opposed a more worthy cast of challengers than Joe Louis who was carefully steered away from good black fighters until he was deep into his 13-year title reign.

    Klitschko vs. Povetkin was marred by excessive clinching. In hindsight it was precursor of the match that marked the end of WK’s title reign, his November of 2015 contest with Tyson Fury in Dusseldorf. That was an ugly fight, a poor effort by both contestants, although a few pixilated British scribes credited Fury with painting a masterpiece.

    There was a rematch clause that to Wladimir’s dismay was never activated. If Tyson Fury had been fit to honor it, perhaps WK would have left the sport on a winning note. But from the standpoint of his legacy, perhaps it was better that his career ended as it did.

    His farewell fight with young gun Anthony Joshua was a see-saw thriller contested under a clear sky before a great multitude at London’s venerated Wembley Stadium. And when it was over, folks that previously knocked him were forced to concede that he may have actually been pretty darn good. He was still pretty good, just not good enough to overcome Anthony Joshua but by then he was 41 years old!

    If I were to ask you if WK ranked among the greatest heavyweights of all time, you should take that as a rhetorical question. Wladimir Klitschko was special.

    Check out more boxing news on video at The Boxing Channel

  • #2
    "If I were to ask you if WK ranked among the greatest heavyweights of all time, you should take that as a rhetorical question." Whether I should or shouldn't, I don't. Wlad was a behemoth, who "excelled" only at draping his immense carcass over smaller opponents, thus exhausting them into defeat. To each his own, of course, but I don't find that even remotely impressive. When I think of the great heavyweights, several names come to mind, including Jack Johnson, Jack Dempsey, Joe Louis, Rocky Marciano, and Muhammad Ali. Wladimir Klitschko is notably, and justifiably, absent.


    • #3
      I respect your opinion, NYT, but I respectfully disagree. Thanks for the feedback.


      • #4
        Wladimir Klitschko at his best would've been a handful for any heavyweight great circa Sullivan through Joshua/Wilder. And he ranks among the greats, the only dispute is where to slot him.


        • #5
          Actually, I 'd rate Vitali's comeback as one of the most astounding in boxing history. Never though about Wlad but I get your cogent points.


          • #6
            Good reading.

            When I first saw Wladimir Klitschko fight, it was in 1998 on an ESPN card (or ESPN2, I don't recall) against journeyman Carlos Monroe. The card took place in Louisiana and was promoted by Top Rank. It was Klitschko's first US fight and he had no affiliation with Top Rank so not sure how he ended up on this card. But he impressed me with how smooth and natural he looked in the ring in stopping Monroe in six rounds. He didn't look as mechanical as many other Eastern European fighters we had seen fight in the states.

            Anyway, like most I totally wrote Klitschko off after the Brewster loss. I thought there was no way he could ever resurrect his career and this was as far as he'd get. We may see him in with a few names but his stamina and chin would always be an issue.

            He did of course resurrect through an amazing transformation under the tutelage of Emanuel Steward. It was really a remarkable turnaround and he along with his brother were the dominant forces of the division for over a decade. Again, after Brewster not many thought he'd be anything more than a name on a resume at best. I was among those and am quite amazed at what he ended up accomplishing.


            • #7
              We (KO Digest) interviewed Wlad on the tenth anniversary of the Brewster disaster. He had this to say to us back in 2014: "As a matter of fact, that was also the first fight that I started to work with Emanuel Steward. Actually, I was watching that fight lately and I was watching through the years as motivation. It’s always something that I wanted to pay back because I really got a lot of criticism after that fight and I was written off the stage of boxing. I was just someone that was over and done and nobody would even think that I could come back and make my sporting career a big success. So, even this first fight with Emanuel, that also kind of gives a lot of respect to Emanuel because he stuck with me. I lost respect from a lot of people, my opponents included, and to gain that respect back, it takes some time. It takes some strength. I said “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” and that’s exactly what happened. I was almost killed in that fight, killed with the way of my desire for a win, my ambitions in sports, and my ego is the most important part. As an athlete, you have to have a big ego, and I do have a huge ego that helped in the past to get where I am today. Even at 38 years old, I haven’t achieved what I have in my mind. I’m not going to share it with you, but I’m not done with my mission yet because my payback for all the criticism I received from everyone is not over yet. I’m on my way to where I want to be, but I’m not there yet."


              • #8
                At the recent BWAA dinner, I thanked him for the interview.


                • Kid Blast
                  Kid Blast commented
                  Editing a comment
                  Very cool.