After releasing a challenger who has just landed a barrage of punches, Wladimir Klitschko returns to his boxing stance like a grizzly regaining its ground. There’s no doubt among the tens of thousands present at Imtech stadium in Hamburg, and the millions watching around the world, that, on this summer night, Klitschko is in complete control of his opponent, a brawling Englishman named David Haye. It’s laughable now to look back on Haye’s pre-fight bravado, a routine that included developing an iPhone game in which players could decapitate an anonymous Soviet boxer. The Ukrainian, taller, is imposing his will in reality. Klitschko closes in on Haye. When the round ends and the bell rings, the tally is relayed by the address system: Wladimir Klitschko stands as the undisputed heavyweight champion of the world, holding three belts and leaving a laundry list of fighters who never stood a chance.
Joe Louis was a depression and wartime hero who saved the spirits of downtrodden African Americans with every knockout he delivered. The mighty Joe stands as a pillar in our minds, along with Ali, of not just boxing or professional athletics but freedom and pride, whatever those puffy words constitute today. Detroit’s arena and a chocolate cake treat are named after him. “The Brown Bomber”, as he was known, let the Nazis know that they couldn’t hide from liberated fists. Two great clashes defined his career; a rematch at Yankee Stadium with German Max Schmeling, who had beaten an ill-prepared Louis in the Bronx in their first meeting, and a bout with Billy Conn at the Polo Grounds. The rematch with Schmeling is as much a part of American history as Pearl Harbor (the same event that put Louis’ career, and a rematch with Conn, on hold) but it’s oft overlooked that it bookended a two year period in which Louis was without a peer. From 1939 to 1941 Louis defended his title 13 times against a collection of pugilists dubbed the “Bum of the Month Club.” History has not been kind to these men, all of whom were top-10 heavyweights at the time they faced the dominant Louis. No matter the accolades (many of the “bums” were inducted into the boxing hall of fame) all of these challengers will be remembered as but blades of grass to Joe’s machete.
When I call Wladimir Klitschko he is enjoying a rare moment of relaxation at his home in Florida. The (multiple) belt holder had intended to be recovering from another successful title defense on this date but an operation to remove a kidney stone postponed that conquest until March. The following day Klitschko will fly to Los Angeles to be a guest on the Conan O’Brien show and remind Americans that he is still the champion.
Wladimir and his older brother Vitali have owned the heavyweight boxing division for the past decade. At first glance it’s easy to label the pair as icy Soviet villains but their long, successful stay at the top of the sport has revealed their compelling personalities. Both are avid chess players with PhDs in sport science and are respected for maintaining a cerebral approach to a profession dominated by brutes. There have been clever boxers before them; Lennox Lewis was no dummy and Ali, in his greatest moments, seemed to be thinking ahead of earth’s rotation – but the Klitschkos are well-rounded intellects. Vitali is running for political office in the Ukraine, an aspiration that Wladimir does not yet have time for, though it would be easy for the equally charismatic younger sibling to galvanize voters in his native country. “I think Vitali is determined to achieve his dream. He has his own party and we have a parliamentary election towards the end of this year. He has every chance to pass the certain percentage to reach parliament. I admire the passion of my brother but right now I’m not looking to get involved. It’s better to use politics than to be used by politics.” Wladimir’s original dream, he tells me, was to be a doctor. Growing up in the Soviet Union, with no access to entertainment from the outside world, the dream of becoming a global sports star seemed destined to remain just that, a fantasy. Still, athletics was one of the few ways for the Klitschko brothers to leave the bloc. “I was never in love with boxing, to be honest with you. I started boxing because in the Soviet Union the only way to get past the border was to be a politician or an athlete. I followed in the footsteps of my brother… my main motivation was travelling. I’m thankful to the sport because I guess I had a talent and boxing allowed me to see places and meet people I never would have come by otherwise.”
Klitschko can shrug his shoulders at his skill but his statistics are startling. In 59 fights, Wladimir is 56-3 with 49 knockouts. Wladimir’s reign, long and impressive, has coincided with the low point of heavyweight boxing history. Regardless, he has been the Heavyweight champion for six years and if he retains that title for five more he will stand alongside Ali-beater Larry Holmes and the legendary Joe Louis as the longest reigning masters of the sport’s once most valued division. Detracting from his sterling record is the fact that there are no capable challengers to the title. At the suggestion of the prospect of tying or breaking this record, Klitschko responds humbly. “It’s probably wrong to say I don’t care about it,” he starts, “because I do, but I will say that I don’t think about it. I just enjoy my time as an active athlete and everything else. I think those champions are fantastic and they made the sport what it is. I’m not seeing myself next to them, it would be nice, but my goal is to succeed in what I’m doing at this moment and have fun.”
In July of 2010, HBO network announced that it was dropping coverage of the heavyweight division from its boxing programming. Ross Greenburg,then-president of HBO sports, attributed the decision to the total lack of interest in the United States and the division being devoid of challengers to the Klitschko brothers’ dominion. HBO had benefitted greatly from the wave of talented and intriguing heavyweights that populated the 90s, a list of names that includes the likes of Evander Holyfield, Riddick Bowe and “Iron” Mike Tyson. The emergence of Lennox Lewis, a Canadian (now Englishman, according to his passport) as the undisputed champion in the early 2000s was the first sign that the great American heavyweight had disappeared. The reserved Lewis delivered the punch line to the joke that Mike Tyson’s career had become in ’02 and though HBO tried desperately to portray Lewis as an American figure it was clear that the U.S. was not willing to warm to a foreign champion of any kind. So, in recent years HBO has focused on the welterweight and lightweight division, and found its stars. Floyd “Money” Mayweather Jr., an egotistical American with lightning-quick speed, and Manny Pacquiao, a determined Filipino, have built a resonating rivalry by fighting parallel to one another. As the two fighters knocked off more names, anticipation of a mega-fight heightened. With a controversial American and a captivating foreigner, boxing fans had no need to check up on the Klitschko-owned heavyweights. Last week Mayweather Jr. tweeted a direct call for Pacquiao to meet him in the ring and briefly set off a storm of media hype that displayed the expectations for the long-delayed event. The next day it was announced, through Pacquiao’s people, that the fight would not take place until construction of a new venue in Las Vegas, with greater seating capacity than the MGM Grand, is completed. The fight is expected to be one of the most watched and betted upon sports events in history but there is a strange feeling of finality to it, as if the entire sport will disappear at the end of the 12th round.
Klitschko tells me that he feels “fantastic” after his operation, and that, “the most important part of [his] life is staying healthy.” When asked for his thoughts on his latest challenger, Jean Marc Mormeck, he feigns respect but his confidence is audible. Dr. Steelhammer (his nickname) is quick to remind us that the bearded power puncher promised at the stage-setting press conference that he would be the “first heavyweight champion in the history of France.” Clearly, this kind of bold trash talk (the norm for boxing) agitates and energizes Klitschko, like he’s a physicist being told that god created the universe in seven days. After this interview blitz and, of course, his appearance on Conan, the champ will bunker himself at his training facility in Austria and fight sparring partners who have been trained to mimic Mormeck’s style; aggressive and powerful. “I have three video screens in the gym that are constantly playing film of my opponent. My sparring partners are picked out by a matchmaker to have the same size and fighting style of my opponent, even look the same.” It is here in describing his routine where Klitschko starts to sound like the intimidator he is reputed to be. When asked if this prolonged obsession with beating one man ever turns into real hatred for his competitor he responds, “I always separate who I am in real life from who I am in the ring. When I fight I am putting on a persona.”
Klitschko appears to be a natural on screen. When he strolls onto Conan O’Brien’s set, attempting the impossible by following Ricky Gervais, Klitschko is wearing a wide smile, giddy at the prospect of being on television fully clothed, for the purpose of laughter. Wladimir’s jokes are fairly flat but he’s gamesome with the lanky host, who dances about curling his fists like an old-time Irish boxer. Klitschko looks to be enjoying himself. Still, all fun aside, he finds time to defend his fighting style and announces that he is want for challengers when Conan jokingly calls for a fight. It’s hard to dislike Klitschko, who has no problem loosening up next to Andy Richter and would rather talk about the kid from the Make a Wish Foundation who’s carrying his belt into the ring than his opponent. Klitschko is a nice guy and there isn’t anybody in the world who can anger him.
You can watch the black and white film of Joe Louis’ rematch with Max Schmeling on YouTube. The fight is brief enough to be viral-friendly. It’s warming and eerie to watch the two glide silently across the crackling picture like ghosts. Louis, appearing as blanche as his competitor, smacks Schmeling so hard, so quickly, so convincingly. It’s a curse-laden statement in fists. Before studios had to make up “Us vs. Them” flicks about noble US athletes taking on villainous foreigners, there was this real fight for the heart of an entire nation, of the world. Schmeling, though not a fascist himself, was backed heavily by the Nazis, who hailed his upset of Louis in 1936 as evidence of Aryan superiority. Contrarily, Louis was the superhero of American labourers and, by default, the answer to the Nazis’ racist regime. There is no sporting event that exists today that can come close to the impact of this singular boxing match. It’s not just about Louis, who exacts revenge perfectly, or Schmeling, who is immediately exposed for being unprepared to withstand a cyclone – It’s about both men and what either side represents in a context far beyond the roped-in platform in Yankee Stadium. I try to place Wladimir Klitschko in the film instead of Schmeling. I try to imagine how the Ukrainian would fare against Louis. Would he maintain that same knowing, mechanical resolve? Would Louis ambush a fighter weaned on weak competition with his devastating right? This is all we can do with Klitschko and his numbers – wonder what would happen if he stared down another mitted genius. Even the great Joe Louis needed a Ying after beating down all those bums.
When I prod Klitschko about the diminished popularity of heavyweight boxing in North America and the subsequent growth in interest in the lightweight division and mixed martial arts, he begins as if the attention shift doesn’t bother him at all. “That’s what you guys think over here. Out there in Europe people say ‘what? We have a crisis? What are you talking about?’ I think the numbers speak for themselves; the attendance, the TV ratings worldwide. Am I sad about it not being on HBO? I’m not. It’s easier to access on ESPN. We (he often includes his brother when discussing the brand of Klitschko) have so many followers that we can sell out a 50,000 seat stadium in two days.” Without any further prompt, Klitschko then begins breaking down his dearth of worthy adversaries, “There is talk about me not having any famous fighters to fight. They’re all good but not famous. They can’t all be as loud as David Haye, that British kid. There will be strong challengers, we just don’t know them yet. If not, then it’s my time. My trainer, Emanuel Steward, tells me that it was always like that in the history of boxing.” I ask who has given him his best challenge to date. He responds quickly, as if this is the question he is most prepared to field, “My greatest challenger is myself. It sounds arrogant I know but the battle within is the one I most often lose. Some might say I have a big ego but you need ego to be a great athlete.” (Ironically, Klitschko’s best challenger would be his older brother, but the two have sworn never to fight. The brothers used to spar but even that had to end after, as Wladimir says, “It got too emotional, too bloody. If you have a sibling, you understand.”).
Russ Anber, a former Olympic boxing trainer, cutman and current host of TSN’s In This Corner, gives a few reasons for the Heavyweight division’s, and more specifically, Klitschko’s lack of popularity. First, he notes that the US will never care for a sport in which they’re not competitive. “The Klitschkos are dominant in Europe, they’re European heavyweights and they’re not a by-product of the North American system or culture. Because of that, they’re discounted. It’s a piss-poor attitude as far as I’m concerned…If you look back, Europe wasn’t very interested in Heavyweight boxing when American fighters were dominating. I think Tyson was the only guy to have real crossover appeal.” Klitschko admits that while his popularity has never waned in Europe, he still feels the need to fight in the US. “My past five fights have been in Germany and it is an amazing experience to fight in soccer stadiums, but the States always have been exciting and yes, I would like to fight in the US again sometime soon. Before he passed away I got a chance to meet Max Schmeling, the former champion, this was about 14 years ago, and he told me and my brother ‘Guys, you have to make it in the States. I did it and now you have to have a presence there to be successful’.” But, Schmeling had Joe Louis.
Anber also sees Klitschko’s style as a turn-off to North American spectators. “His style is the style of the Eastern Bloc, so it’s readily accepted in Europe. It’s not the rough and tumble, aggressive American style that we’re accustomed to. Having said that, he does provide what North American fans love; knockouts, but he does it in a very methodical way. It’s almost like human fencing. He probes with the left hand and looks to land the big right hand bomb. It’s a very basic, technical style, almost robotic. He’s using his best weapons and he doesn’t try any other style or punches, he doesn’t take chances. He does what he does well and that’s it – it works great for him and it will take a heck of a man to beat him.” Klitschko gets defensive when responding to criticisms of his style, which is unsurprising since a fighter’s style is almost a part of his personality. Again, Wladimir turns to the hard facts; “I think whatever the answer could be, the best answer is the fighting records. Out of 59 fights, 49 guys have been knocked out. It’s my 16th year as professional boxer and I’ve found a pretty good style in terms of studying my opponent perfectly and using any advantage that I have. I will continue the same way and won’t change my style.”
I ask Klitschko if he’s conscious of becoming the longest-reigning champion again. In his second response he gives in a little, saying that he sees his “brother, 40 years old and the way he fights right now is better than he’s ever fought before. I’m 35 so I still have some years to go.” When I bring up the record to Anber I ask if Klitschko could stack up with the greats like Louis, Holmes, Ali and Foreman. “Absolutely he’d be able to compete. Why? Because he’s an athlete, because he’s skilled and because he’s been a fighter his whole life. There’s no reason to believe that he couldn’t have gotten in the ring with anybody in the world at any given time and competed with them. He’s that good. In order to have greatness, however, you need a great opponent, you need a great matchup to bring greatness out from within you. Ali had it with Liston and then Frazier. Vitali almost had it with Lennox before he retired. Wladimir has not been involved in a great fight of epic proportions where he beats somebody that many give a chance to win. He didn’t fight Tyson or Lennox. Everyone he’s faced has been somewhat insignificant.” And if he winds up being the longest reigning champion, where would he rank? “That’s a subjective call,” says Anber, “I’m a traditionalist, so to me, Ali and Joe Louis will always be the greatest – not only for what they did in the ring but for their impact and accomplishments outside it. With Klitschko, sometimes we as sports fans just get bored of dominance. This guy beat everyone that was put in front of him and you can’t take that away from him, you have to consider him one of the all-time greats. The numbers will speak for Wladimir Klitschko, he just hasn’t had that breakout fight.”
On Tuesday the world celebrated Muhammad Ali’s 70th birthday. It was another occasion to replay clips of Ali rhyming, shuffling and winning. Ali is still our champion – the definition of the modern athlete and the immediate answer to the question “who is the greatest of all-time?” Like Louis, Ali transcended the sport, turning every fight into a larger political statement. People could watch Ali box and ascribe whatever meaning they chose, for he cut a dynamic and polarizing figure – pugilism was a blank metaphorical canvas. Against Sonny Liston, Ali (then known as Cassius Clay) played himself up as the prophetic and electrifying underdog to Liston’s beastly favourite. When he faced “Smokin’” Joe Frazier, Ali was the liberated black man, the free-speaking Muslim to Joe’s quieted southerner. Every Ali fight after he famously rejected the draft was a symbol of revolution. Every fight towards the end of his career was a battle against mortality. It didn’t matter if the fight was really just another win and another loss because a competitive duel between two men, with a beginning, middle and end was enough to rally a crowd. Unlike Ali and Louis, Klitschko has had no signature matches in which he has been cast as any kind of symbol. He hasn’t faced a challenger who comes within shouting distance of George Foreman or Billy Conn. His demeanour, origin and style sets him up to be an ideal foil (the Ivan Drago comparison, though not entirely valid, is unavoidable) to a loud American. It is easy to picture Klitschko, with his methodical approach, being contrasted by an improvisational risk-taker raised in one of those Northeast cities that billows smoke and sounds of sirens and chatter. Unfortunately that effervescent equal does not exist, so we are left with half a sport, endless dreams of epic bouts that will never happen and one immaculate yet lonely champion, steadily climbing a hollow mountain until he can breathe the rarefied air of enshrinement.
A documentary about Wladimir and his brother Vitali entitled “Klitschko” was released last year. You can watch the film here. “In This Corner” airs weekly on TSN and Russ Anber will be covering Olympic boxing for CTV this summer in London. Watch Wladimir Klitschko take on Jean-Marc Mormeck on March 3rd in Dusseldorf, Germany.