Is Wladimir Klitchsko an All-Time Great Heavyweight?

Lyle FitzsimmonsFeatured ColumnistApril 26, 2014

Ukraine's Wladimir Klitschko celebrates after defeating Italy's Francesco Pianeta during the heavyweight world championship fight in Mannheim, Germany, Saturday, May 4, 2013.   Klitschko retained his WBA and IBF heavyweight boxing titles with a sixth-round knockout of Pianeta on Saturday.(AP Photo/Daniel Maurer)
Daniel Maurer

It’ll probably come only after he’s been laid in a box and buried.

Or at the very least, it will be five years after he hangs up the gloves and takes a midsummer trip to Canastota.

Either way, it seems unfairly clear that the level of appreciation warranted by what consensus heavyweight champion Wladimir Klitschko has achieved in the ring won’t arrive until long after he’s through grinding a series of gloved he-men into a heap of lumpy-faced, semi-conscious mulch.

When that acclaim finally does arrive, we’ll all suddenly recall precisely what we’d been blessed with.

While he possesses neither the sublime artistry of a Muhammad Ali nor the must-see tumult of a Mike Tyson, what the multi-lingual Ph.D. recipient from Kiev has brought to the table during a eight-year run as the world’s best big man is a skill set unlike anyone else who’s plied his trade in a 20-foot x 20-foot square.

At 6’6”, he towers over nearly anyone with even a fleeting historical claim to a heavyweight belt, and when his sneaky hand speed and pristine conditioning are factored into the equation alongside sheer size, the field of former champions within his high-end peer group is narrowed significantly.

Before 1964, when a champion weighing upward of 200 was more anomaly than expectation, Klitschko would have run roughshod over overmatched foes entering the ring to encounter a man standing a head taller, scaling 50 pounds heavier and punching far harder than nearly anything they’d ever seen.

Think Primo Carnera but with an overflowing athletic tool box.

Meanwhile, in the 50 years since size has mattered, it’s only a small handful of successful big men who could have viably attempted—let alone completed—the obstacle course of challenges a well-schooled 38-year-old Klitschko presents to would-be title suitors a full decade after his last defeat.

A peak Ali and Holmes? Yes. An on-their-best-night Bowe and Foreman? Maybe.

Anyone else, regardless of circumstance? Not so much.

Australian challenger Alex Leapai, who weighed in a shade heavier and spent his pre-fight days promising title-change mayhem, was little more than a fleshy speed bump on Saturday in Germany as Klitschko rolled up defense No. 16 of his IBF and IBO championships via fifth-round TKO.

Considering Leapai arrived as the WBO’s top contender, the fortunes for Nos. 2-10 appear bleak, too.

Still, while some choose to deny Klitschko a historical due because of the limits of his challengers, they do so while conveniently ignoring the fact that the majority of Joe Louis’ record 25 defenses came against guys propped up as crash-test dummies for cameos in the champion’s “Bum of the Month” club.

And the only other man to enjoy as many successes as Klitschko—late '70s to mid-’80s kingpin Holmes—had his share of breathers among 20 straight title-keeping wins as well, melding no-hopers like Scott Frank, Lucien Rodriguez and Tex Cobb in with the Earnie Shavers and Carl Williams of the world.

Just because the division’s mediocre nature has gone global, it’s through no fault of Klitschko, who’s never been close to relinquishing his grasp whether faced with the dubious likes of Mariusz Wach or the eight current or former champions—seven heavyweight, one cruiserweight—he’s beaten since 2006.

Louis was nearly dethroned by Billy Conn. Holmes was dropped in a heap by Renaldo Snipes. But Klitschko, since hammering then-champ Chris Byrd into bloody submission in their rematch, has beaten every subsequent foe with a prolonged, comprehensive dominance unseen in the division’s history.

“Every fighter finds someone whose style he cannot contend with,” HBO’s Jim Lampley said that night, eight years and four days before Saturday. “In 19 rounds against Wladimir Klitschko, Chris Byrd barely scratched in the box score. He’s never had that kind of difficulty against anybody else.”

Saluting Klitschko’s greatness before it’s gone would do the rest of us a lot good, too.