Vitali Klitschko: One Big Enigma

By Alex Reid on February 16, 2012
Vitali Klitschko: One Big Enigma
We only saw Vitali Klitschko go six rounds with one great heavyweight (Robert Ecksel)

Vitali Klitschko is a mystery man—and he’s about to cause more headaches for boxing critics and historians than he ever has with his powerful jab…

On the face of it, Vitali Klitschko may not seem like a baffling boxing enigma. In fact, he appears very straightforward. He’s a tall, strong boxer with good fundamentals. He has an awkward, somewhat plodding style and an excellent chin. He has a sensible haircut. He has no wish to kiss his next opponent, Dereck Chisora. (There didn’t seem to be any rampant speculation about this last point, but he confirmed it anyway when Britain’s John Rawling decided to ask him in a TV interview.)

Despite all this, however, Vitali Klitschko is a mystery man—and he’s about to cause more headaches for boxing critics and historians than he ever has with his powerful jab. Here’s why: Vitali Klitschko is 40 years old, winding down his career and—unless something dramatic happens this weekend (spoiler alert: it won’t)—his legacy is pretty much set. Soon he’ll retire, and then it’s time to judge where to place him in the heavyweight pantheon—and this is where the arguments begin. The simple reason being that we know less about how good Vitali Klitschko actually is than we do almost any other heavyweight champion in history.

A legacy of success

Dr. Ironfist has a statistically impressive 43 wins (40 KOs) in 45 fights, but it’s his two losses that are particularly intriguing. One came when a torn rotator cuff caused him to retire after nine rounds against Chris Byrd; the second was a sixth-round TKO due to cuts in a brawl with Lennox Lewis (a stoppage he vehemently protested). In both fights, he was ahead on all three judges’ scorecards.

In other words, Vitali Klitschko has never come close to losing a points decision in his professional career. He’s also never been stopped in what we might call the traditional sense (a straight KO or a referee ending a fight due to a fighter being badly rocked and hurt). A remarkable statistical record that only one previous heavyweight champ—Rocky Marciano—can clearly better.

End of an era

Of course, critics will point out that this is due to the fact that the Klitschko brothers have competed in a particularly weak era of heavyweight boxing. Try to think of Vitali’s signature win and you find yourself drawing blanks. He took the unbeaten records of Chris Arreola, Kevin Johnson and Odlanier Solis and handed beatdowns to Samuel Peter, Larry Donald and Corrie Sanders. Not exactly a murderer’s row of fighters. More a coconut shy.

It must be intensely frustrating for an intelligent man like Vitali to realize that his legacy is diminished by the fact that he has never beaten a great heavyweight. It’s the reason that, for so very long, he tried to coax Lennox Lewis out of retirement—knowing that he seriously needed the recognition brought by a win against a top-class heavyweight, albeit one who was past his peak.

Still, we must give Klitschko credit for the dominance which he has shown since that painful loss against Lewis. A total of 11 successful title fights over two reigns over more than eight years; all utterly convincing, some providing glimpses of evidence that he might have caused serious problems to those at the very top of the all-time heavyweight rankings.

Where it gets hard

This is where it gets tricky regarding Klitschko’s legacy—and where the trustiest friend of boxing’s barroom talkers comes into play: rampant speculation. As we only saw Vitali Klitschko go six rounds with one great heavyweight—Vitali more than holding his own in a satisfying fight with an unsatisfying ending-people will inevitably speculate on how he would have done if he had had the chance to test himself against more of his fellow elites.

One thing that should be avoided, however, is the game of mythical head-to-head (at least, when those fantasy bouts are spread long passages of time). Asking how Joe Louis (6’2”, 198 lbs.) or Rocky Marciano (5’11”, 185 lbs.) would cope in the ring with a powerful, sculpted, coordinated, 6’8”, 250 lb. heavyweight with a seemingly granite chin is a moot point. For what it’s worth, I don’t think either would stand much of a chance. But that’s due to training and physical advancements—Jesse Owens or Carl Lewis can’t run the 100m as fast as Asafa Powell, but both will go down as greater sprinters. As such, just because Vitali Klitschko might have too much for Joe Louis physically if both were placed in a boxing ring (which presumably involves one of them being stuffed into Doc Brown’s time machine), it doesn’t mean he has the edge in achievement or greatness. He clearly doesn’t.

However, of a more recent vintage, try assessing how Vitali Klitschko would have got on against prime versions of, say, Larry Holmes, Mike Tyson, Riddick Bowe or Evander Holyfield. Whisper it quietly, but it’s even legitimate to ask how Muhammad Ali—a man who weighed around 210 lbs. in his absolute prime – would have handled a fellow who is naturally 40 lbs. heavier, four or five inches taller, with good boxing skills and an awkward if unspectacular style.

Bad news, Vitali

However, all this is just that; supposition and speculation. It’s fun to imagine, but, unfortunately for Vitali, it’s pretty spurious. The solid evidence we have is that Vitali lost his only fight against an aging, slightly unfit heavyweight great. He may have been a tad unlucky, but it wasn’t the referee who caused those cuts on his face—it was Lewis’ punches. When it comes down to it, tender skin is as much a weakness as a glass jaw. Stretch the point further and you can even attribute his shoulder-injury loss to Chris Byrd, in some small part, to Byrd’s slippery style causing him to miss. Plus, he chose not to fight on (with an intensely painful injury, it must be added) when victory was three rounds away. Whichever way you look at it, Vitali lost not just to the best heavyweight he ever faced (Lewis)—but also probably to the two best heavyweights he’s ever faced. Now that really is a painful point.

In my opinion, it also means that he can’t be placed anywhere in a top 10 heavyweights of all-time list. The bottom end of a top 20 is probably the best he can do, despite his huge physical advantages over many of those who will feature above him.

It’s a frustrating shame for Vitali that he didn’t get the opportunity to avenge those losses—more specifically, the chance to face Lennox Lewis again. Maybe it’s unfortunate too that the Ukrainian wasn’t born five or 10 years earlier when he could have tested himself against the likes of Bowe, Lewis or Tyson in their prime. Perhaps those fine big men would have violently shown up flaws in Vitali that his deeply inferior pool of competition has not. We simply do not know. That’s why this giant heavyweight really is destined to be something of a mystery. We’ll never really know exactly how good he is— and that’s why his place in the heavyweight hall of fame is so damn tricky to assess.

Alex Reid is one half of the Boxing Clever podcast and writes for Sport magazine

Follow us on Twitter@boxing_com to continue the discussion

Vitali Klitschko vs Dereck Chisora - Promo

Vitali Klitschko - Dereck Chisora - Face Off (Part 1 of 2)

Vitali Klitschko - Dereck Chisora - Face Off (Part 2 of 2)

Vitali Klitschko v Dereck Chisora (with Robin Reliant) Head to Head Arrival / for iFILM LONDON

Vitali Klitschko talks boxing, politics & Dereck Chisora


Vitali Klitschko vs Chris Byrd Part 1

Vitali Klitschko vs Chris Byrd Part 2

Vitali Klitschko vs Chris Byrd Part 3

Vitali Klitschko vs Chris Byrd Part 5

Vitali Klitschko vs Chris Byrd Part 6

Discuss this in our forums

Related Articles


This is a place to express and/or debate your boxing views. It is not a place to offend anyone. If we feel comments are offensive, the post will be deleted and continuing offenders will be blocked from the site. Please keep it clean and civil! We want to have fun. We want some salty language and good-natured exchanges. But let's keep our punches above the belt...
  1. Lee J 07:53am, 09/27/2012

    Most comparisons of how Vitali would have fared against previous greats tend to fixate on his physical adavantages. Surely however no one can dispute that pound for pound many of his illustrious predecessors do in fact leave him for dust. And as to how many great fighters Joe Louis beat—well he beat the absolute best of his time Baer, Sharkey, Schmeling, Carnera, Braddock Walcott, Conn—champions all, plus many viable contenders (a few unworthies too). Many of these men would have handily beaten most of Vitali’s title victims too. Another factor in Joe’s favour is that he made something of a specialty in chopping down ‘giants’. This is not American bias (I am European btw) but a conclusion reached after a lifetime of following the sport. Vitali may well have beaten Joe on any given night but that does not necessarily mean he is greater.

  2. John Wilkinson 03:26pm, 09/26/2012

    Quite a nice article.  REALLY ENJOYED IT! Yeah, I can readily “agree” with the points brought out. I’d RANK Wladimir above Vitali, though! For further discussion, I’ve done a CONNECTICUT BASE 19,000 Copies distribution in 11 cities RANKING 13 hvywts. from the M.Ali era (“more or less” from Ali’s era) -HERE’S WHAT I HAD- 1) Ali 2) Norton 3) Shavers 4) Lyle 5) Cooney 6)Bugner 7) Ellis 8) Larry Middleton 9)Henry Clark 10) Evangelista 11) Merritt 12) Pedro Lovell 13) LYNN BALL -spare me- the criteria I used here, (lot of work to push it), but, I think the list is quite accurate. WHAT’S UP WITH BOXREC Ranking -Floyd Patterson- R.I.P., 5TH best of All time? What, Floyd has his family on the reviewing committee? Floyd Patterson’s ERA is “very distinct” (could he of bested Rocky? we’ll NEVER KNOW!)but, to RANK HIM in such spot is “utter sillyness” [No disrespect to the Floyd Patterson Foundation, but, LETS BE REAL HERE!]

  3. nick 11:42am, 09/19/2012

    Vitali was very unlucky on many fronts as far as measuring his greatness. If he had been able to defeat Lewis the first time, or had a rematch, this certainly would elevate him much higher. Also when Danny Williams beat Mike Tyson, instead of Tyson fighting Klitschko, it was of course Williams. Had Vitali beaten Mike Tyson, it would have really meant something. Ironically, Shelly Finkel, who later has worked I believe with one of the brothers, or both, when he was working with Tyson, the names of the Klitschkos as brought up by a European reporter. Finkel seemed to scoff at the idea, was he perhaps fearful that the Klitschko’s would upset the Tyson gravy train? I think Vitali’s greatest victory was when he came back after nearly four years and routed Sam Peter. I thought at the time it was a very dangerous fight for Vitali, but I think he really wrecked Peters big time.

  4. André 02:58pm, 09/18/2012

    And what great fighter did Joe Louis beat ? This is just another sad attempt to downgrade a non american champion.

  5. nick 09:15am, 09/17/2012

    Here is something to think about. I place Vitali in the greatest of all time heavy weights at number 12. I have him ahead of Riddick Bowe by one (an underachiever who had he beat Tyson or Lewis would be higher) and two ahead of his brother. Sometimes we look at a fighter and say that at a certain moment he was the greatest of all time. (Some have suggested Mike Tyson for that.) But we generally look at a man’s career and the opposition he faced, rather than a single year or moment. But this is something to contemplate. While at 40, we look at Vitali as past his best years, I think this present 40 yr old Vitali would have beaten the Ali that came back against Larry Holmes and Trevor Berbick, and would have beaten Hollyfield who lost Byrd and Toney, some 10 yrs ago. Though he never fought until the age of 40, I would have to put Lewis here at number one, and suggest that you could make a case for Foreman and Holmes being slightly ahead of him in that department.

  6. Darrell 03:30am, 09/11/2012

    Pretty fair article to be frank, although in the recent poll picking the top heavyweights I did rank him at 9.  For mine, I did take into account his physical abilities & modern advantages.  Others obviously didn’t…that’s how those things roll & why, as Alex Reid has pointed out, Vitali is a bit of a mystery.  In fact, while going through that particular poll I came to appreciate some of the other heavyweight champions, Jim Jeffries for one, he too was a bit of a mystery but less so after some timely research.

    The pity for me is that Vitali’s peak years would have been around the time he sat the game out trying to get his body back into order.  Prior to that & after Lewis he was awesome destroying the supposed next big thing at that time, Kirk Johnson, and a few others in particularly excellent fashion.  Those after his sabbatical had ended were largely dealt with in similar fashion, notably Peter, Gomez, Arreola, Briggs, Solis & Adamek.

    I guess you can only beat who’s put in front of you.  If the crops not that great, that’s the hand you end up with.  Either way, only the tiniest fraction of men can claim to be the best fist fighter on the planet (along with Wlad of course), wherever his true place in the pantheon of heavyweight champions is Vitali can have legitimately claimed to have been that…it’s a legacy that he & his fans (of which I am) can extract some satisfaction from.

    Now go fight Haye & knock him out, will you Vitali…

  7. Gics Marin 12:56pm, 09/09/2012

    disgusting . period

  8. Ken Hissner 11:25am, 02/19/2012

    That was an excellent story on Vitali.  You really got into areas I never thought of.  He is the brother with the better chin if not the better abilities except in the heart area possibly.  If his brother was not around at the same time can you imagine what would be written of him or visa versa for Wladimir?  Their dominance had be do a story “Who is the Next Black Hope to Challenge the Klitschkos?”  The title alone got me a lot of flack but I welcomed it as recently as on a ESPN Radio show last week when asked what’s the matter with the American heavyweights?  No Gold since 1984 with Tyrell Biggs thanks to no Cubans and no Russians there.  It seems basketball has taken away a lot for more money and less physical contact.

  9. tuxtucis 12:03am, 02/19/2012

    I would remember that only after some times a boxer receive his real ranking…Even after first win over Frazier and over Foreman, Alì was ranked 9th between the all-time heavies on the Ring Magazine of 1975…So the real greatness of Klitschos brothers will be understood between some years…Anyway I think that three stoppages of Wlad and the lack of competition of Vitali will take them away from top 15…

  10. Your Name 10:43pm, 02/18/2012

    No i think size is relative and Ali,Foreman,Holmes,amongst other were legit heavies and would have been today.
    1.Ali never weight trained and neither did most of the guys-in Zaire he weighed 217,Foreman 220 and Holmes was in that vicinity.
    2.Add 15-20lbs with modern training and you are talking about 230-240ish lbs heavies with scary cardio and mobility.Vitali is 243 currently.
    3.Reach-Foreman 82,Holmes 81,Ali 80,Vitali 80.
    Thus Ali,Holmes and Foreman were legit heavyweights not to mention Norton,Terell,Lyle,Cooney,Tucker,Bugner,etc
    4.With due respect to Vitali i dont think Ali/Holmes would have had problems with his opponents apart from Lewis who beat him.

  11. victor langhorne 02:52pm, 02/18/2012

    Great article but you have a glaring error in your article. Lennox Lewis never cut vitali with a punch . He grabbed Vitali by the back of the head and held him while throwing an illegal elbow…that is how lennox won because the elbow cut Vitali and the fight was subsequently stopped…to write such a great article and to misinform on such a serious point is diappointing…I enjoyed your article up until that point.

  12. Zack David Berlin 02:33pm, 02/18/2012

    People get very bent out of shape when it’s suggested that modern guys - the Klitschkos in particular - could be former greats - especially Ali. And in fairness if past and modern heavies are compared with pound for pound consideration, a lot of the old guys would top most lists. But the thing to remember about Ali is that, speed and athleticism aside, he was usually the bigger guy in the ring. He used his height and reach well. And because he’s such a global icon, it’s hard to separate who he was as a fighter and his mythical status. Ali was before my time, but it’s tough to imagine a guy 6’3”, 208lbs. (which is what he was in his prime) beating someone over 6’6”, a ripped 245lbs., with skill, great jab, footwork, stamina, and in Vitai’s case, a granite chin. Ali was no puncher. I can envision scenarios where he wins, but many more scenarios where the great big dude beats the great little dude. Per, the majority of Ali, Frazier, Foreman, Norton oppoents are cruiserweights today.

  13. gomomoosa 10:48am, 02/18/2012

    @Zack I would place Vitali as top 5 greatest of all time and place Wlad in top 10 perhaps 7th or 8th.
    I think Wlad might have problems with guys like Foreman, Bowe, Lewis and Tyson—guys that could take him out of his comfort zone and where the cautious style might not work.

  14. Zack David Berlin 10:28am, 02/18/2012

    @gonomoosa. Don’t totally agree with your assessments. I don’t see Holmes beating Vitali, or Ali. I’d say Lennox wins 6/10, and you’re right, it would figure to be bloody every time. But even with your ranking, Vitali is top 4 All Time. Where would you put Wlad?

  15. Zack David Berlin 10:25am, 02/18/2012

    @Alex Reid. Yeah, my bad. I misread that. Thought you said Frazxier, not Louis. Actually though, Louis is listed at 6’2” but was actually just over 6’.

  16. gomomoosa 09:32am, 02/18/2012

    Vitali is like a Toyota (Lexus?) ,good at everything skillwise but great at nothing with an engine that keeps running!
    BUT he is an all-time great and the sum of his parts is greater than any individual trait.
    Combine the dedication and fitness aspects and he is a worthy champ.
    Prime Vitali vs. the ffg prime guys:
    Lewis-Lennox wins 7/10 times. Too many options, variety, will bloody Vitali every time and never lost a rematch. The Lewis that avenged Rahman, made Golota’s eyes pop and reduced McCall to a crying mess is one mean….....!
    Bowe-Vitali wins on points but gets shaken a few times by thunderous infighting and his face is a bloody mess.
    Tyson-Vitali wins a late tko stoppage
    Holyfield-a war with Vitali winning a decision.
    Ali-Ali avoids Vitali’s right hand easily,gets the decision with movement and he says afterwards that 12 rounds is so easy compared to 15!
    Holmes-pops and bloodies Vitali, confusing him with the speed of the piston-like jab, movement and stamina and getting a close decision
    Foreman-Vitali gets the decision with Georges face swollen from the continual jabs.
    Frazier-tko’s Joe in the latter rounds with the ref mercifully saving Smokin’ Joe

  17. retech son 06:04am, 02/18/2012

    Sir Alex, if you dont have Iron in your top ten, then of course there is no way you will be impressed with Vitali’s resume.

    That also, as per the facts you presented not on your prejudice before writing this article.

  18. Alex Reid 04:24am, 02/18/2012

    zack - appreciate your response, but re: getting my facts right: I don’t mention Joe Frazier or his height at all! You make good points about Tyson and Holmes. Holmes at least beat everyone he fought for 48 fights/until his late thirties (yes, including Ken Norton, who was a good opponent). Tyson’s CV is a little lacking (he’s not in my heavyweight top 10 either), but destroying unbeaten Michael Spinks in one round is impressive, even if he’s a naturally smaller boxer.

  19. Alex Reid 04:15am, 02/18/2012

    Thanks for all your comments! tuxtucis - I think we see things the same way. For those that disagree with me, of course you’re fully entitled to, but my genuine objective was not to bash or trash Vitali, more just to take an objective look at his CV. I like and rate the man, but the bottom line currently is - unfortunately - he has two unavenged losses to the two best heavyweights he’s faced. I wish he’d had better competition to test himself against though (I bet he does too), as I think he has some of the qualities for greatness.

  20. Guy 02:40am, 02/18/2012

    Vitali is a good, solid heavyweight champion and definitely deserves to be in the top 20 (perhaps 15) heavyweights of all time. However, he is not a great heavyweight because almost all (except Lewis) of his opponents were no great shakes. Sure, he was holding his own against Lewis but as Alex Reid stated his tender skin let him down forcing the ref to stop the fight. If he had won the fight Vitali would have made my top 10 but he didn’t and so he’s a top 15-20 candidate at best. Still a fan though because of his dedication to the sport. Keep going Vitali!

  21. retech son 10:15pm, 02/17/2012

    I dont see any bad about the article it just happens that Vitali’s strong points were discussed first while the weak points were highlighted last.

    If the same was reverse I dont see any problem either.

  22. zack 08:28pm, 02/17/2012

    Weak article really. Starts off objective SOUNDING. Digresses into its real intention: to discredit Vitali. The basic idea here is inane. How good do we really know ANY fighter was? How good was Marciano or Louis or Frazier, etc. Frazier wasn’t 6’2” btw. Get your facts straight. He was under 6’. And how good was he? He was great. But we’ll never know how he’d do against people from other eras he could never have fought. Duh. Then you name Holmes and Tyson as consensus greats - which they are. But by your measuring stick, they wouldn’t be. What great heavies in their prime did either of them beat? Michael Spinks? A fat, old Ali? Ken Norton? Gerry Cooney? Buster Douglas - oh yeah, that’s right, Tyson lost to him. I think the best way to classify heavies past vs. present either as all time CHAMPIONS, or all time head to head. If it’s champions, my list looks like this:
    1. Joe Louis
    2. Muhammad Ali
    3. Jack Dempsey
    4. Jack Johnson
    5. Rocky Marciano
    All time head to head:
    1. Lennox Lewis
    2. Vitali Klitschko
    3. Muhammad Ali
    4. Wladimir Klitschko
    5. Evander Holyfield

  23. Robert Ecksel 04:59pm, 02/17/2012

    I couldn’t agree less, Ivan. And I’m sure I’m not alone. What exactly is so “disgusting and unprofessional” about the article? It seems about as learned and evenhanded as an feature on Vitali could be. Rather than just respond with loaded adjectives, why not plainly state your case?

  24. Ivan 04:31pm, 02/17/2012

    This article is just terrible. We don’t need your opinion. This is disgusting and unprofessional.

  25. "Old Yank" Schneider 09:57am, 02/17/2012

    Very nice article. Vitali is a product of the old Soviet Boxing Machine—plucked out of the ranks as a child and fed boxing 24/7. He is a vestige of what amateur development once looked like—no instant gratification entertainment; no one-hit wonder. He is likely to be remembered as the last of an old school breed while also representing the vanguard of the new prototype of super-heavyweight.

  26. Shane Holmes 01:57pm, 02/16/2012

    Faux! Vitali is no doubt one of the top ten Heavyweights of all time. Lewis had his time on his back. Something that Vitali never has had. He was never put down. Your article started off like you had the intentions of giving Vitali credit, but then you bash him at the end, which I believe was your true intention.

  27. tuxtucis 01:11pm, 02/16/2012

    Perfect article…I agree near 100%... Alex Reid is equilibrate: he’s not one of those young ignorants who says Klitschko must be in top 5, but he’s conscious too that in fantasy match-ups obviously he would have beaten the greats of the pasts, while many good historians refuse to accept that…But if men run and swim faster, lift heavier weights, jump longer and higher than in ‘20, we cannot deny that Klitschko hits far harder than Dempsey…That doesn’t means not Klitschko is greater than Manassa Mauler…Same way all competitive swimmers nowadays are not greater than Weissmuller…
    Simply I think there are at least 12-13 boxers who had undeniably better careers and more significant wins than the Ukrainan..

  28. Irish Frankie Crawford Beat Saijo 10:52am, 02/16/2012

    Doubts?....I for one don’t doubt for a minute how Vitali would have fared against a prime Bowe or Tyson. On one hand a prime Lewis would have been a real challenge….but if McCall and Rahman could take Lennox down….Vitali sure as hell could too….and there’s no doubt about that. When you talk top ten heavyweights of all time we’re not talking P4P….so the big modern day heavyweights deserve their proper recognition…both Vitali and Lennox are top tenners all time….period.

Leave a comment