by Kelsey McCarson
In 2009, Wladimir Klitschko defeated Ruslan Chagaev to become the legitimate and undisputed world heavyweight champion.
There would be no bandwagon for Wladimir Klitschko, no ticker tape parade to celebrate his heavyweight title unification run, no covers of Sports Illustrated with him standing over his defeated opponent, no video game franchise for kids to rush out and buy – indeed, nary a peep was heard from American fight fans other than mild disinterest or downright scorn. The fight wasn’t even on HBO much less PPV.
Maybe it’s just the way everything started. The heavyweight division had just come out of arguably its finest decade ever. The 1990s was the era of great heavyweight champions. Mike Tyson, Evander Holyfield and Lennox Lewis were the cream of the crop, but the other guys of that era were really good too. An aging George Foreman, Michael Moorer, Riddick Bowe – it was a spectacular time to be a fan of heavyweight boxing.
By 2003, an aging Lennox Lewis was putting the final touches on his impressive legacy. His last effort was a gutsy performance where he was forced by a younger challenger to dig down deep and fend off the surefire future champion’s advances.
Lewis defeated Vitali Klitsckho by TKO in the 6th when the fight was stopped after it was determined by the ringside physician that Klitsckho was too badly cut to continue. Instead of a rematch, Lewis shrewdly retired, and the entire world knew who the next great heavyweight champion would be.
It decidedly was not Vitali’s previously more heralded younger brother, Wladimir, who was mired in TKO losses. Just 3 months before, Wladimir had been blasted out of the ring in two rounds by the hard-hitting Corrie Sanders.
Sanders’s next fight was against Vitali for what many considered the heavyweight championship of the world. Elder brother Vitali slapped Sanders down in 8 rounds to solidify himself as both the best heavyweight in the world and the better Klitsckho brother. Meanwhile, Wladimir lost that very same month when Lamon Brewster TKO’d him in 5 brutal rounds.
Most boxing fans simply wrote the younger Klitsckho brother off. He would never be “the Man”. He would never be the champion of the world. Even his brother, long supportive of Wladimir’s dreams of heavyweight fortune, advised his younger brother to give it up.
“Even my brother Vitali said, ‘Look at your face, where you are right now, I think it’s time to say goodbye to the sport’. I thought I wasn’t where I belonged. I was always a champ but suddenly I was on the floor. It was very motivational and a great experience,” Wladimir told News of The World.
Klitschko realized that he needed a change. He began the hard work of reinventing himself. His co-architect during this time, legendary trainer Emanuel Steward, advised Wladimir to start listening to him (and not Vitali) and start watching film on other great fighters of the past.
And that’s exactly what he did.
“There were certain things I took from other different fighters and even Mike Tyson. Even though we are different sizes, certain things I took from Mike as well,” Wladimir said. “If I could change those things, I wouldn’t. I would never be the person I am today inside or outside the ring if I hadn’t suffered those two losses.”
It still may not have mattered much had not elder brother Vitali not suffered a career threatening injury. Forced into early retirement in 2004, the heavyweight division was left with a void. While Vitali was clearly the cream of the crop, the crop was bereft of any other true contenders.
Slowly but surely, Wladimir Klitsckho worked himself into position. Like some sort of robotic warrior, Klitschko systematically began to dominate the division. It was rough at first. His new style of using his height to keep his opponents at bay still had some kinks. He was forced to weather storms at times because of it. Samuel Peter put him down on the canvas 3 times in 2005, but Wladimir made it back to his feet each time. And he won every other round of the fight. It made him stronger. It made him better.
There would be no more losses for Wladimir Klitschko over the next 7 years much less any by TKO.
Instead, Klitsckho has reeled off 13 consecutive victories and solidified himself as the best heavyweight on the planet. He holds all major title belts except two: the one his upcoming opponent, David Haye, wears, and the one Vitali came back to collect in 2008.
More importantly, though, Wladimir Klitsckho is “the Man”. Because of his reinvention, his systematic destruction of all challengers and his unifying title winning efforts, no man on earth can rightfully claim the title of world heavyweight champion other than Wladimir Klitsckho. Not even Vitali.
So this Saturday, July 2 in Hamburg, Germany, Wladimir Klitsckho will be faced with his biggest challenge. It is the biggest fight the division has seen in this new millennium and perhaps his most formidable opponent. This time, the fight is being televised on HBO. There is certain crispness in the air, an electricity, a yearning to witness the event – even in America.
Greatness can take many forms. Some spark immediately, burning bright and fast. Others are like stars in the sky – they were always there as far as we know and have no foreseeable end to them. Still others, like perhaps Wladimir Klitsckho, get started off slowly. They take time to develop. They are honed slowly, formed over long periods of time hidden deep where no one hardly notices. Yet when they are complete, it becomes quite clear in hindsight what they always were.
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