Wladimir Klitschko – A Decade At The Top

Wladimir Klitschko – A Decade At The Top

Wladimir Klitschko Heavyweight Boxer and Legend

A legacy that will always be left to interpretation. While few would rank the record-breaking Ukranian in the Top 10 most exciting stars to grace boxings blue ribbon division, Wladimir Klitschko still stands as his sports most undervalued champion.

A career that spanned over two decades, although he was widely underappreciated during his time ruling over the heavyweight division, someday Dr. Steelhammer will get the credit he so fully deserves.

The Olympic Champion

Born into a strict military background, both Wladimir and his brother Vitali, another heavyweight icon in his own right, were installed with a boxing discipline from a young age.

With both brothers showing their natural talent in their teens, by the early 1990’s the Klitschko’s had gained quite the reputation across their native Ukraine. Crowned champion at the 1995 Military World Championships before a second place finish in the 1996 European Championships, campaigning at super heavyweight, it was to be later that year at the Olympic Games in Atlanta that a 20-year-old Wladimir announced himself on the world stage.

Dominating on his way to the final, the young Ukranian lived up to his billing by defeating American Lawrence Clay-Bey, Swede Attila Levin (who was knocked out in Round 1), and Russian Alexei Lezin to reach the final.

Klitschko then overcame Paea Wolfgramm of Tonga by a 7-3 score to take top spot on the podium in a weight class that had only been in the Games since 1984. Like Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier, and George Foreman, Klitschko’s rise to the summit of heavyweight boxing began with Olympic gold.

Before retiring, Klitschko had even flirted with the idea of a shock return to the Olympics, after publically expressing his desire to try to qualify for London 2012 but was ruled out by a combination of the current AIBA rules.

While Klitschko still holds standing atop of the podium in 1996 among his greatest achievements, the Ukranian’s generosity and charity work away from the ring has only added to his legacy. So, in 2012, Wladimir put his beloved gold medal up for auction for $1 million to raise funds for the Klitschko Brothers Foundation, a charity for impoverished children in Ukraine.

The Ups And The Downs

Did Klitschko suffer some bad losses? Absolutely. While many associate Wladimir’s career with being almost robotic, it reads like a roller-coaster ride.

As the Olympic gold medalist marched to 24-0 among the paid ranks, the Ukranian was taken the distance just once and was scheduled to make his Kiev debut a returning champion and the new poster boy for his nation. Running out of steam, American journeyman Ross Puritty dropped the homecoming king twice in the 10th, Klitschko’s trainer at the time Fritz Sdunek had seen enough and called a halt to the contest.

For the 6ft 6Inch Wladimir, he is more than aware that going on to pick up more harmful defeats against Corrie Saunders in 2003, a defeat that ended his first title run. Alongside a devastating fifth-round knockout loss to Lamon Brewster in a failed attempt to regain his WBO title in 2004 will always be marked against him.

Despite having already briefly held the heavyweight title after beating Chris Byrd, the man who dethroned Vitali in the fight before, his latest KO loss to Brewster almost left Wlad for dead. Although he was just 28 and had lifted Olympic and world title gold, Klitschko began doubting what more he had to offer.

It’s arguable that the Ukranian had to lose before he finally became accepted by boxing fans. In an attempt to rebuild his stuttering career, Klitschko turned to Hall of Fame trainer Emanuel Steward, the pair embarked on what is one of the sports most iconic partnerships in boxing history.

Returning to the ring with question marks rightfully hanging over the durability of his chin, after coming through DaVarryl Williamson and Eliseo Castillo, Dr. Steelhammer was announced to face the undefeated Samuel Peter in an eliminator for the IBF and WBO titles, many believed it was a contest that could be the final nail in Klitschko’s career.

Peter’s had gained a reputation as a fearsome puncher who at several points looked to have held the Ukrainian’s number. Sendling Klitschko to the canvas three times, he bounced back on each occasion and managed to leave the Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City with a score of 114-111 by all three judges. Not only had Wlad come away with a much-needed win, he had also taken a huge step in proving his doubters wrong.

Going on to once again unstick Chris Byrd for a second time, Klitschko captured the IBF and IBO titles and as they say, the rest is history. With Steward transforming his protege into a ruthless and systematic boxing machine, Klitschko ruled over the heavyweight division with an iron fist for the next decade.

During his iconic second title reign, Klitschko dominated any opponent that could be put in front of him. Barely dropping a round, the unchallenged heavyweight king marched on a 22 fight winning run and successfully unified three of the four world titles.

When the then 39-year-old was comfortably dethroned in an undignified fashion by Tyson Fury, many thought that the finale of his great career had dawned. However, after over a year and a half spent on the sidelines, rather than bowing out, Klitschko risked his legacy to venture to London and face boxing’s new superstar in waiting, Anthony Joshua.

While on paper it may appear that his final fight would be a negative, Wladimir could not be more proud of the way he left the sport. In front of 90,000 fans at Wembley Stadium in London, Klitschko and Anthony Joshua battled in the 2017 Fight of the Year, a bout that generated interest in the heavyweight ranks that hadn’t been seen since the 1990s.

Although he didn’t get the fairytale ending so many fighters dream of, Klitschko left with a new-found respect from boxing fans who saw him reach deep to nearly topple Joshua in a fight that did more for his image than any of the 68 before it.

The Fighter Behind The Numbers

What really cements Klitschko’s position as a boxing great is the records he broke and the statistics he left behind.

Ranked #12 in BoxRec’s greatest ever pound-for-pound fighters list, no boxer in the history of the sport has held the IBF, WBA and WBO heavyweight titles longer than Klitschko. His title run of nine years, seven months and seven days is only second to the great Joe Louis, who some regard to be the greatest fighter of all-time.

Klitschko’s 25 victories in world title fights is the most in boxing’s post-war era and he also still holds the record for the most wins in unified title bouts and the longest unified championship reign in professional boxing history at 15 title bouts and 14 consecutive defenses.

Done? Not just yet. Finishing his career with a record of 64-5 with 53 of his opponents failing to make it to hear the final bell, Klitschko collected the scalps of 12 undefeated fighters and dethroned 10 current or former world titleholders, both of which are also records still intact today.

Many of the critics will talk about how Klitschko fought in what was regarded to be a lackluster time for heavyweight boxing. It’s true, Wladimir may not have graced the ring during the divisions most exciting time, but it is no worse than the level of opposition that were being sacrificed to a prime Mike Tyson.

It’s not like Klitschko was facing a string of novices, he convincingly dispatched of Chris Byrd twice and also saw off former champions David Haye, Alexander Povetkin, and Ruslan Chagaev. In fact, of his 18 title defenses during his second reign, eight came against undefeated opponents.

The Still Growing Legacy

While he may not be remembered for being as tantalizing as Ali, or as feared as Tyson, Klitschko was the ultimate professional who’s discipline to perfecting his craft helped him statistically surpass all challengers.

Klitschko’s legacy is somewhat identical to fellow heavyweight king Lennox Lewis, the 2009 Hall of Fame inductee is another who did not receive the plaudits for his accomplishments during his heyday, but is now revered by boxing. With Wladimir hanging up his gloves, with arguably his popularity at an all-time high, many have begun to acknowledge the heights the 41-year-old reached.

A guaranteed first-round pick for the illustrious Hall of Fame when he is eligible in 2022, while he may have left the sport after a 21-year career at the top, ‘Dr. Steelhammer’ is now only starting to get the recognition he deserves on a great heavyweight career. Yes, a great one.

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Boxing writer for Combat Sport - Sports journalist from Essex, England - Formerly of The Independent and a 2014 graduate of the University of Falmouth - A fan of boxing? Well, give me follow! @IamTomDunstan

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