Never Spectacular: Klitschko Wins Again

By Adam Berlin on July 2, 2011
Never Spectacular: Klitschko Wins Again
For seven years, Wladimir Klitschko has reigned supreme (Robert Ecksel)

Wladimir Klitschko doesn’t show the desire to take a chance in the name of glory. He doesn’t show the passion to be anything more than very good…

The Background

There’s boxing and then there’s heavyweight boxing. That’s the famous boxing adage and, like it or not, most adages hold, to use another adage, more than a grain of truth. Boxing is for the purists. Heavyweight boxing is for the masses. Ideally, heavyweight boxing is for the purists too, but the difference between the heftiest division and all others is that, historically, the popularity of boxing has risen and fallen with the big boys. 

For seven years, Wladimir Klitschko has reigned supreme. Forget the myriad sanctioning bodies. Forget the bogus titles, the ridiculous differentiations between super champion and regular champion, a distinction so transparently absurd it smacks of WWF hype. Wladimir Klitschko, like him or hate him, is the true heavyweight champion. He may not be the linear champion—Lennox Lewis retired with a win and Klitschko never beat a man who beat Lewis—but coming into Saturday’s big fight Wladimir Klitschko had beaten all comers. Since 2004 he’d remained undefeated, with thirteen wins notched on his belt, all but two ending within the distance.

The trouble with Wladimir Klitschko is that his style never inspires. Yes, his jab is impressive—a straight, jarring pole of a punch that keeps smaller men at bay, which, compared to Wladimir’s towering 6’6” frame, describes pretty much every heavyweight in the division. Yes, his right hand is concussive. When Wladimir has his man hurt, he can deliver a knockout blow that bounces heads off canvases. Yes, Wladimir is a disciplined fighter. He enters every fight in shape, especially notable in a division where scales tell gluttonous tales—Wladimir’s weight hasn’t fluctuated more than ten pounds in ten years. So why have I, and so many boxing fans, never admired this generation’s heavyweight king? It’s simple. Wladimir Klitschko doesn’t act the way we want our champions to act. He doesn’t show the desire to take a chance in the name of glory. He doesn’t show the passion to be anything more than very good. And his methodical, safety-first, too-careful approach seems predicated more on doubt, less on the sweet part of the sweet science. 

Perhaps we demand more from our heavyweights than other fighters; after all, a big reason why heavyweight boxing is different from all other boxing is because when big men enter the ring, we expect knockouts. And the knockouts we expect, the knockouts of heavyweight boxing lore, are less clinical, more primal. Think Mike Tyson destroying his opponents, bombs dropped from the opening round. Think George Foreman and Ron Lyle going toe-to-toe, oblivious to the damage they each received because they were truly fighting to the finish. Think Rocky Marciano winding up with seeming abandon, shooting punches that started in his massive calves. Think Joe Louis standing in the pocket, pulverizing meaty bodies, heavyweight heads. Think Jack Dempsey mauling the men in front of him, breaking ribs. Then think Wladimir Klitschko, jabbing monotonously until finally, finally, rounds later, from his safe perch of height and reach, Klitschko delivers his proficient knockout punch. Devil’s advocates and Klitschko fans could question this criticism—isn’t boxing, according to another boxing adage, about hitting and not getting hit? It is, partially, and for fighting smart Wladimir Klitschko deserves an A. But boxing is more than textbook technique. Ali knew it. There were moments when he seemed the fastest man on the planet, but he took chances and entered the fray. Holmes knew it. He had the best jab in heavyweight history, but he engaged in wars. And the smaller men in boxing, the ones famous for hitting without getting hit, the master Pernell Whitaker, the skilled Saoul Mamby, the ring general Benny Leonard, these smaller men used their wile and guile to defeat stronger, usually heavier-handed men. Their craft was used to equalize a physical disparity.  Klitschko is not only a big heavyweight, but he’s a strong heavyweight; in fact, if we are to believe his trainer Emanuel Steward, Wladimir Klitschko is the strongest man in the strongest division. His style was not born of necessity, but a refusal to go places where the best heavyweights have gone.

Fear, controlling fear, is a big part of boxing. But fear should not control a fighter. Whenever Klitschko is in trouble, I see fear in his eyes. I look for it on TV and see it. I looked for it live when I sat in Madison Square Garden the night Klitschko fought Calvin Brock and saw it. In the early rounds, Brock fought with purpose and suddenly the Ukrainian was uncomfortable, his eyes nervous, unsure, his movements tentative. That’s why, whenever Klitschko steps into the ring, I’m always hoping someone will scare him. If the man in front of him fights back, if Klitschko’s bell gets rung even a little, his methodical approach to boxing rapidly deteriorates. The change starts in his eyes and spreads south, to arms and legs. His jab loses its technically perfect line. His ring generalship does an about face. He looks desperate and vulnerable and sloppy. And when he’s been hurt, Wladimir Klitschko has invariably lost. Ross Purity hung tough and knocked him out. Corrie Sanders stalked him and knocked him out.  Lamon Brewster, heavy handed and hungrier as an unknown thirty-one year old than a semi-known thirty-four year old, knocked Klitschko out. Perhaps Wladimir Klitschko’s most impressive bout was against Sam Peter. He went down three times in that fight, but gathered himself and won a decision. Here was the gutsy performance we expected from a heavyweight champion and for one night, at least, there was some glory.

The sad truth is that the heavyweight division has been at a low point, perhaps its lowest point. There have certainly been spans of time in heavyweight history where bum-of-the-month opponents were the only opponents available. But at least the heavyweights ruling and schooling these so-called bums were exciting. Not so with Wladimir Klitschko. Since he sat down on the throne, the spark that makes boxing boxing, that especially makes heavyweight boxing heavyweight boxing, was extinguished. For seven long years, the jones boxing fans crave, the expectation that we’ll see something surprising and violently dramatic in the time it takes fist to touch jaw, has lain fallow in the heavyweight field.

The Build-Up

Enter David Haye. 

Charismatic. Glib. Bold. Looking the part, a chiseled specimen with eyes that appear confident and clear. Haye ruled the cruiserweight division (his only blemish a knockout loss seven years ago to a man named Carl Thompson) and then he turned heavyweight. For seven years, the same amount of time Klitschko prospered, Haye remained undefeated. While his list of opponents was not stellar, they were solid enough. He knocked out the veteran Monte Barrett. He craftily decisioned the Russian giant Nikolay Valuev, something no one had ever done, earning Haye the WBA version of the heavyweight title. He knocked out ex-champ John Ruiz.  David Haye certainly talked the talk—his appearance on Face Off with Max Kellerman showed Haye’s vulgar bravado all too clearly—but he’d also walked among some decent heavyweights. And Haye’s explosive style was exciting. The man the Brits called The Hayemaker could end fights quickly. He could also put himself in harm’s way, willing to take risks for potential rewards. Taking chances, striving for glory, looking to decimate instead of merely defeat, Haye seemed to embody the spirit of heavyweight boxing. Finally, there was a man above the two-hundred-pound limit worth watching. The major networks had refused to show many of Klitschko’s title fights, which is an incredible testament to how dull this champion is, but HBO was anxious to televise Wladimir Klitschko against David Haye.

The excitement reached the States even before the broadcast began. My brother, a lawyer who represents many people in boxing, received a phone call at 3 o’clock Eastern Standard from famous matchmaker Don Elbaum, who’d just received a phone call from sage HBO boxing commentator Larry Merchant. It was raining in Germany. The ring was outside. David Haye was refusing to fight in the rain. The game hadn’t yet begun, but the head games, a few hours before fight time, hadn’t stopped. Would he or wouldn’t he? Klitschko must have been thinking. Would Haye or wouldn’t Haye fight in the rain? Would Haye or wouldn’t Haye finally step up? Would Haye or wouldn’t Haye have the strength and stamina and game plan to back up what he’d promised, which was to destroy the champ within six? When a man is not quite sure of himself, waiting exacerbates self-doubt. Haye was stalling. Klitschko was thinking. The round before the first round went to Haye.

David “Hayemaker” Haye entered the ring first, which was good for business. His entrance would have been even better business had this fight taken place on Haye’s home turf in England or neutral Las Vegas turf. Germans filled most of the 55,00 seats, but as the camera panned Hamburg’s Imtech Arena, the British were the ones standing, screaming, making this heavyweight event sound like an event. Doing his ring walk to Ain’t No Stopping Us Now Haye looked less cocky than I expected. His beard looked fuller, perhaps a ploy to absorb the shock of Klitschko’s punches, and his eyes darted. English fans mobbed him, jostled him, and suddenly, as if channeling their violent energy, Haye’s game face came on. Once Haye took the plastic booties off his boxing shoes, protection from the rain, and stepped into the ring the mayhem settled to a steadier buzz. German crowds, like the heavyweight they’ve adopted, are notoriously measured. Acting civil, like following orders is in their blood. When their man Klitschko did his ring walk, the applause sounded more than polite, but less than exuberant. Nicknamed Dr. Steel Hammer, Klitschko’s usual steely gaze was tinted with anger. He’d expressed his desire to not only beat Haye, but hurt him. At the other end of the ring, Haye showed nervous energy, pacing from post to post, practically brushing shoulders with older Klitschko brother Vitali. He seemed anxious to get things started, to deliver his power punches, to exploit his opponent’s flaws. As he’d said at one of many pre-fight press conferences, “It’s going to be fun to watch this robot start malfunctioning. That’s what’s going to happen, real fast.” 

The Let-Down

The fight started with great expectations. For the first three rounds, David Haye moved side to side, and while he was not the man moving forward, he was the man making the fight. He landed some lunging rights. He avoided virtually all of the Ukrainian’s limited fire. He was tackled by Klitschko, a tell-tale sign that the bigger man was feeling less-than-dominant.  And he was clearly the more fluid, more relaxed fighter. Klitschko breathed heavy and his one weapon, his jab, was tentative at best. Klitschko was never in range, missing more than connecting. The HBO crew saw it differently. They felt Klitschko was landing his jab. They mistook Klitschko’s forward motion for dominance. And HBO’s unofficial scorer Harold Lederman echoed their sentiments, as did the judges, eventually. But if the measure of a round’s winner is who you’d rather be, I’d rather have been David Haye. Klitschko was not in the kind of control he thrives upon , his face was marked, and his eyes remained unsure.

Round 4 saw a change. Klitschko’s stiff body didn’t exactly loosen completely, but he became warmed up enough on this cold Hamburg night to start letting some punches go. His jab was less than superlative, but his opponent no longer seemed interested in making this fight a real fight. I found myself jotting down every punch thrown, which was too easy to do. Klitschko was landing about a dozen punches a round. Haye was landing about a half dozen. For a fight, even a heavyweight fight, this was devastatingly low. 

Haye had a chance to firm up the scorecards in Round 7. Referee Genaro Rodriguez, who’d warned Klitschko to stop pushing Haye down to the canvas, was a man of his word after the fourth infraction. True, Haye was lunging off balance whenever he committed to a right, but Klitschko was clearly pushing down on Haye’s head. Rodriguez did the right thing and took a point away from Klitschko. But Haye didn’t capitalize on the moment. Instead of fighting hard, instead of making it a 10-8 round, the numerical equivalent of the knockdown he was hoping for, Haye was content to stay away. He hardly threw a punch. 10-8 lackadaisically turned 9-9.

Rounds 8 through 11 were more of the same. Haye moved side to side, landing a few lunging right hands. Klitschko landed some jabs, a few left hooks from far away and fewer power rights.  The expectation that something explosive might happen, that David Haye might indeed land a fight-changing haymaker, that heavyweight boxing would, finally, regain its stature, had all but dissolved, as if Hamburg’s rains had washed away the possibility of everything every fan wanted. These were disappointing, dull rounds, the only drama when Haye lunged and Klitschko pushed the off-balance Brit to his knees. Earlier, between the seventh and eight rounds, after Klitschko’s point deduction, Klitschko’s trainer Emanuel Steward had argued his client’s case to referee Rodriguez. Like a judge intimidated by the prosecutor in front of him, Rodriguez decided not to rule on Haye’s subsequent falls. No points were deducted. Klitschko won the rounds.

As often happens when Wladimir Klitschko and his opponent get to the twelfth, a fight does break out, at least a little. No longer afraid of running out of gas, finally secure that he won’t get hurt, Klitschko will will himself to stand in the pocket for a few seconds. And his opponent, having survived this far, still hoping, usually beyond hope, that he has a chance, attempts to turn reality into dream by throwing desperate, daring punches. That’s what happened after Klitschko and Haye touched gloves to start the last round. Klitschko shortened the distance between himself and Haye. Haye committed completely and landed a hard right that stunned Klitschko. Klitschko’s eyes turned vulnerable, his body lost its tall lines, and he held on until his head cleared. Haye tried to free himself to land a follow-up shot, something he hadn’t done all night. Klitschko let go and threw a few brave shots of his own. But a minute passed and then a second minute and it was clear that the final sixty seconds would wind down without any more drama. It was a disappointing end to a disappointing fight. 

My unofficial scorecard showed a closer fight than the official verdict, for expectation had moved my pen to mark a hopeful 10 in Haye’s early-round columns, but Klitschko won the fight.  The final scores, rendered by two American judges and one South African, were 118-108, 117-109 and 116-110.

In some ways this Klitschko fight was a microcosm of Klitschko’s career. He was tested a very few times in the early rounds. He spent all of the middle and later rounds fighting from a safe distance, winning uninspired points, which mirrors Klitschko’s last seven years. And he finally went for broke in the last round as he’s gone for broke less than ten percent of his fight life. Tonight was supposed to be one of those tests, a real test, but it wasn’t. Blame Haye for not walking nearly as proudly as he talked. Blame Klitschko for being Klitschko. Unfortunately, with the heavyweights out there, this dull dance will continue for a few more years until some big man arises that can indeed fight an inspiring fight or until Klitschko, along with his older brother, decides to finally hang up the gloves.

Like the fight, the post-fight interviews followed the usual blueprint. Klitschko evenly stated, “It was hard to hit this man. He was very fast. He was super cautious so I couldn’t land. I was expecting after all that talk that he would fight a spectacular fight.” On the subject of David Haye’s behavior, Klitschko was more critical. “It’s not good for the sport. There has been a lot of class in this sport and I definitely disagree with David Haye as a human being to behave this way.” For his part, David Haye admitted to a sub-par performance, blamed a broken toe for his inability to push off on his right foot to land his power shots. In a clear case of The lady doth protest too much, methinks, Haye displayed his bare foot for the camera. But by this point, no one was really listening to the Hayemaker whose bluster had proved false.

This was a poor fight on too many levels. For three rounds I bought into the hype the way many fans did and felt the stirrings of an adrenaline rush as Haye moved and lunged. And then reality came in—the fight-specific reality that this would be another un-spectacular heavyweight championship fight with Wladimir Klitschko in the starring role, and the larger reality, the heavyweight reality, that there would be no changing of the guard, no true excitement, at least for now, in this division that often makes or breaks boxing. 

There’s boxing and there’s heavyweight boxing. Tonight, Wladimir Klitschko remains the big man in boxing’s biggest division. Klitschko’s fans may be chanting, Long Live the King, but true boxing fans know truth. In the ring, the reigning king has lived an all-too pedestrian life.

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  1. Darrell 02:19am, 05/30/2012

    Not a bad article but Klitschko hasn’t always been boring.  He was pretty exciting on the way up and leading into being KO’d by Brewster.  Since then, he’s been exceedingly cagey.

    His vulnerability once he’s been hit hard is palpable but understandable for someone with a glass jaw.  I don’t think it detracts from his value, I believe it enhances him as a boxer…he hasn’t been close to being KO’d for years.  He knows his strengths & stays within those parameters.  Although there’s a reluctance to tread a more dangerous path, it’s admirable to see someone not get caught in the game of machismo for the sake of it.  That may seem a bit anaemic for those with Mexican tendencies but I admire it for smartness & discipline.
    . He’s had some top performances too, the trouble is that many of his opponents go into their shell when they feel the power, understandably so.  Berlin touched on the German crowds, they don’t help.  An animated crowd will add to the fight atmosphere.
    . For all that, I prefer Vitaly who despite being defensive also, seems to have a nasty streak and will trade if he’s so inclined.

  2. Zack D 09:40am, 01/01/2012

    This article is biased drivel. I see it was written a while back, but since it just came via email as a recap of the year in boxing, I thought I’d comment. Hope Berlin reads it. To begin with, get your facts straight. It’s best to know what you’re talking about when you’re going after an athlete at the top of his sport.  Haye “craftily decisioned the Russian giant Nikolay Valuev, something no one had ever done”. Umm, actually, that’s incorrect. Chagaev also “craftily” decisioned Valuev before Haye did it. Klitschko DESTROYED Chagaev after that. Also, Haye’s opponents were “solid enough”. That’s interesting, considering the only semi-relevant opponent he had at HW other than Valuev was Monte Barrett - another guy Klitschko easily destroyed 10 years ago. Haye’s HW resume was a joke. Like you.

  3. Yomi 06:08am, 07/11/2011

    The fight was clear-cut and professional, though people may not really appreciate Klitschko as a person, does it really matter? But he’s humble to the core and very level-headed which I can kill for any day. He’s a perfect gentleman/real man.

  4. Your Name 03:03pm, 07/05/2011

    klitschko is boring n haye is all talk heavyweight boxing is at an all time low!!!!!

  5. Paul D'Antuono 09:28am, 07/05/2011

    Very well written article ..
    Great insight by way of Klitschko’s eyes saying so much to someone who is really paying attention. The beard is something I have observed over the many years during the Big Fights as a tell tale sign that the Bearded fighter is almost a sure bet to lose…
    I suppose the Boxer with the beard has been looking for the extra Machismo he deep inside knows he will need to defeat the Man in front of him,  i.e. the guy grows the Beard because that’s all he can do, hoping to be more of a man as he sees he is lacking ... It seems to me that the Klitschkos can win boxing matches for EVER but they will never be exciting unless someone brings the excitement in that case they will also lose the fight but there is no someone ?
    Anyhow thanks for the great article. Please say hey to your brother David for me ... My name is Paul D’Antuono I work for Roberto Benitez, U.S National Champion and Olympian whom your brother helped with unexpected devotion and kindness ! ! !
    Sincerely
    Paul D’

  6. Your Name 06:25am, 07/04/2011

    I would comment, but I’ve been trying to remove the fish hook that Haye inserted in my mouth throughout the hype building up to this fight. Huge disappointment that night in Germany.

  7. Akoni 05:50am, 07/04/2011

    Your article is objective and honest. Wladimir was Wladimir on Saturday. Haye’s tactics were unsuccessful; he did not walk as much as he talked during the pre-fight conferences.

    Unfortunately, we are lumbered with Wlad until a long-awaited hero saves us from the lumbering, boring giants.

  8. joe 03:24am, 07/04/2011

    Wladimir Klitschko is a bad joke, and David Haye is an even bigger joke. And the heavyweight division is the biggest joke.

  9. irus illustrisimo 05:42pm, 07/03/2011

    I am neither a Klitschko fan or a Haye fan. But your column is so biased to Haye! Are you black? I have watched the fght myself.It should be Haye who must do the Tyson thing as hes the one losing the fight.He must not be contented staying outside throwing might-get-lucky punches.Please remember Haye is a champion too! Haye was not comitted to take the fight to Klitschko even though he was clearly gobbling jabs from Klitschko! Hes the one who must take the chances! But it was clear he dont mind losing just as long he does not get knocked out. More like Mosley when he fought Pacquiao.

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