Fights that are truly etched in Boxing’s rich history often all have one thing in common. Whether it be ‘Sugar’ Ray Leonard’s dramatic victory over the then undefeated Thomas Hearns, Marvin Hagler’s fearless triumph over the same man or Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali’s inspired showings in their unparalleled fights for Heavyweight supremacy, the battles that truly live forever are those that encapsulate what made the sport’s titans so special. In that same way for a fight to be considered legitimately great, it has to have more than just in-ring fireworks, it has to have a timeless ingredient and more so, a career altering impact.
This Saturday night at Wembley Stadium, former Heavyweight kingpin Wladimir Klitschko enters the lion’s den to take on one of the sport’s most ferocious and feared young champions Anthony Joshua and whilst the action is unlikely to reach the levels of some of those aforementioned classics, its historical impact on the Ukranian’s career is very much comparable in modern times. For almost twelve years, ‘Dr Steelhammer’ was without a defeat and slowly but surely had altered his once damaged reputation and overall legacy. By 2015 Klitschko had convinced people, at least somewhat, that he was a champion worth respecting but it hadn’t always been that way, far from it.
It was March 2003 when a 26 year old Wladimir Klitschko lost his WBO crown, getting stopped by Corrie Sanders in just two rounds in a shocking upset. His rebuild would be cut short too, next losing a bout for the now vacant belt as he was finished by Lamon Brewster after fading following a strong start. The defeat represented more than just another ‘L’ on Klitschko’s record though. These two losses as well as a prior stoppage shortcoming against Ross Purity had led to major doubts surrounding Klitschko’s punch resistance and more than that, his status as an elite Heavyweight fighter altogether.
However whilst those chin concerns continued with Wladimir himself even commenting on his punch resistance, or lack thereof, any doubts about Klitschko’s status would slowly fade. With a more streamlined style built on defensive priorities, ‘Dr Steelhamer’ would reclaim Heavyweight gold with a victory over Chris Byrd. This time Klitschko’s time as Heavyweight champion wouldn’t be brief though, far from it. Instead he would maintain his grip comfortably, defending the belt on multiple occasions, including scoring a redemptive rematch win over Brewster. Soon the belts would accumulate and by the start of 2011, Wladimir and his brother Vitali held all the major Heavyweight titles, except for one.
The elusive WBA belt belonged to David Haye, a man that had moved up to Heavyweight after becoming the unified Cruiserweight champion. For two years, Haye had prodded Klitschko with verbal attacks and after the animosity and anticipation had grown, it was finally time to fight. For all of his successful title defenses, Klitschko had failed to find a real rival, a truly revered foe that people considered great. That problem on its own isn’t completely bleak but although Klitschko was finding the knockouts more often than not, he wasn’t doing it in a fashion ferocious or flashy enough to really capture and inspire people the way some of his predecessors had.
Also, Klitschko’s prior losses and the form in which they came still had a lingering effect. He had three stoppage defeats behind him to less than spectacular opposition and no matter how many wins he racked up, they just wouldn’t be forgotten. Haye represented a chance to erase some of those memories though. Sure he was a smaller man but many onlookers pointed to the ‘Hayemaker’s tremendous speed and power when breaking down the Klitschko clash. Haye was unanimously viewed as world class and had convinced people that though his Heavyweight opposition hadn’t been great, he had the tools to dethrone Klitschko, a man many still viewed as vulnerable.
On fight night Haye’s apparent advantages would vanish though as Klitschko controlled the twelve round affair comfortably to complete him and his brother’s collection of all the Heavyweight belts. However, the fight lacked the thrills and excitement necessary to really elevate Klitschko much, let alone fill the void as his signature win and performance. In fact, much of the post-fight focus was on Haye’s panned excuse of a broken toe, a gesture that in many ways perfectly encapsulated the disappointing event. Nonetheless, Klitschko continued on as champion and his reign did too, with more wins coming to that now consistent response of ambivalence from much of the boxing public.
Klitschko himself wasn’t doing anything wrong though. He continued to knock back contenders with ease and eventually people seemed to begin respecting the longevity. Some of the showings were good, others not so much but a legitimately impressive knockout over Kubrat Pulev seemed to be a turning point of sorts. The new faces had been queuing up for years and one by one they had been dismissed, by hook or by crook. Following a somewhat lackluster win over Bryant Jennings in Klitschko’s US return, one contender remained: the highly controversial and unpredictable Tyson Fury. Over the past five years, Fury had transformed from a laughing stock into a respected and proven contender with an admittedly wacky edge.
Though he didn’t have Klitschko’s physique or pedigree, Fury had an unbreakable confidence and often seemed to unsettle Wladimir in the pre-fight build up. Whether it be unexplainable silliness, calm logic or an aggressive analysis of Klitschko’s reign, Fury seemed to have all the answers and to the shock of many, that trend would continue inside the ropes. Using his unorthodox style to offset the long-time champion regularly, Fury out-boxed Klitschko comfortably for much of the twelve rounds and barring a twelfth round onslaught of sorts, there was very little resilience from a seemingly stunned ‘Dr Steelhammer’.Was Klitschko finished or just exposed? Either way, there was a new undisputed Heavyweight champion of the world and for the first time in a long time, his surname wasn’t Klitschko.
Fast forward almost eighteen months later and lots has changed. Fury’s tumultuous outside of ring activities have halted his title reign and stopped a planned Klitschko rematch from taking place. This has led to both not fighting since and the title belts being spread across the division. Now Klitschko steps back into the ring and whilst Wembley Stadium could prove to be unlike any atmosphere he’s ever experienced before, after 68 entries as a professional, the Boxing ring is very much home for the former champion. Klitschko’s return is an event on its own but the opponent here is what makes this so intriguing. After years and years of searching, maybe just maybe Wladimir Klitschko has found his perfect foe. Quick, explosive and dynamic, Anthony Joshua is not only the undefeated champion but also a man with nothing but knockout wins.
In some ways Joshua looks like the worst possible opponent for an inactive 41 year old fighter but with that comes the unknown which not only adds allure but also could provide real inspiration for the returning champion. If Wladimir can find the chink in Joshua’s armour he not only reclaims the Heavyweight title but more than that, elevates his legacy greatly. For all of his longevity and consistency, Klitschko lacks that undisputable signature win. Whether it be the style or the situation, so much of Wladimir’s reign comes with caveats. Some would likely still discredit a victory over Joshua this Saturday but regardless, if successful Klitschko would’ve taken a version of the Heavyweight title from a young, hungry and greatly hyped champion, and all in his hometown too. Win, lose or draw, it’s an opponent choice that certainly deserves credit.
For well over a decade Klitschko was the Heavyweight champion but in many ways he lacks that one win that really encapsulates who and what he’s been and is. Perception is reality and rightly or wrongly, with a defeat many will categorize Klitschko’s reign as a time in which a good champion ruled a bad division until new blood arrived. In that same way though, a win could solidify Wladimir as a truly great champion, especially considering that he would’ve rebounded when it seemed that the end had inevitably come. None of us know if Wladimir himself really views the fight this way but in my mind, one way or the other Klitschko’s legacy changes dramatically this Saturday night. Wembley and more than that, the Boxing world awaits to find out the answer.