Vitali Klitschko: One Big Enigma
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.