How Vitali Klitschko Became a Great Boxing Heavyweight Without Anyone Noticing

Kelsey McCarsonFeatured ColumnistDecember 29, 2014

The elder Klitschko never got his due.
The elder Klitschko never got his due.Steve Grayson/Getty Images

Vitali Klitschko was virtually unbeatable as a prizefighter. It’s a shame hardly anyone really noticed.

His awkward style, granite chin and long reach put him in a physical class few heavyweights have ever achieved, and his 87.23 percent knockout ratio, No. 2 all time behind Rocky Marciano’s 87.76 percent, will remain among the highest in the division’s history for years to come.

Yet it’s entirely possible that Klitschko, perhaps the best boxing heavyweight of the last 35 years, will end up the lesser appreciated of boxing’s most accomplished heavyweight sibling pair—a man who might ultimately be better remembered for his political achievements than what he accomplished inside a boxing ring.

No, it’s not that you should feel sorry for Klitschko, mayor of Kiev, Ukraine, and older brother to current Transnational Rankings, The Ring Magazine, WBA, WBO and IBF heavyweight champion Wladimir Klitschko.

Only Marciano (right) has a higher KO ratio among heavyweight champions.
Only Marciano (right) has a higher KO ratio among heavyweight champions.Associated Press

Rather, it’s that you might fully recognize the recently retired boxer from Ukraine as one of the most outstanding heavyweights ever.

K2 Promotions’ Tom Loeffler, who promoted both Klitschko brothers during their outstanding championship careers, told Bleacher Report he believes the dominant champion never fully got his due, especially among American fight fans.

“Vitali is really one of the most underappreciated athletes ever. It’s unfortunate. He was one of the most dominant fighters of this era—maybe ever. He never really lost a round in a fight.”

Klitschko finished his career with only two losses.

In the third defense of his WBO heavyweight title in April 2000, Klitschko won virtually every round against Chris Byrd before suffering a shoulder injury that prevented him from continuing the fight.

Many in the boxing media unfairly labeled him a quitter afterward and fans soon followed suit.  

“He was winning every round of the fight and unfortunately had the injury which started early in the fight and just kept getting worse. By Round 10, the pain was so excruciating that he couldn’t continue. He received a lot of criticism for that fight.”

Klitschko was dominating Byrd when a shoulder injury forced the stoppage.
Klitschko was dominating Byrd when a shoulder injury forced the stoppage.ROBERTO PFEIL/Associated Press

Three years later, Klitschko took four out of six rounds from WBC and lineal heavyweight champion Lennox Lewis before suffering a gruesome cut over his left eye. Despite appearing to be on his way to a career-defining win, the fight was halted at the end of Round 6.

While Klitschko suffered a loss on his official record, his performance earned him a win among his fiercest critics, especially those who questioned his dedication to prizefighting after the loss to Byrd.

“I think definitely he erased any type of criticism with the Lewis fight where he clearly wanted to continue and was winning on all the scorecards. He was up four rounds to two against the most dominant heavyweight champion of recent times.”

Klitschko surprised everyone by taking the fight right to Lewis. He strafed the equally giant heavyweight with hard right hands for much of the action-packed slugfest. He was focused, determined and seemed on the verge of succeeding Lewis as the division’s champion.

“You could see Lewis was totally exhausted after the sixth round, and Vitali was always the type of fighter who got stronger as the fight went on. We feel confident that he would have beaten Lewis had the doctor allowed the fight to go on.”

Klitschko gave Lewis all he could handle before being stopped on cuts.
Klitschko gave Lewis all he could handle before being stopped on cuts.REED SAXON/Associated Press

But referee Lou Moret halted the fight on the advice of ringside physician Dr. Paul Wallace, and Lewis chose to retire rather than agreeing to a lucrative rematch with Klitschko.

“You can’t second-guess doctors, but Vitali wanted to continue, and we all feel he would have won the fight had he been allowed to continue.”

After Lewis retired, Klitschko established himself as the premier heavyweight in boxing. He stopped Kirk Johnson, Corrie Sanders and Danny Williams in succession to set up a showdown with former heavyweight champion Hasim Rahman, a huge promotion that was slated for pay-per-view in the United States in 2005.

“It was a PPV fight over here. It would have been huge fight. But that was really the fight that led to his break from boxing.”

The bout never happened. At age 34, Klitschko was forced to pull out because of torn ligaments in his right knee. He announced his retirement a week before the fight was scheduled to happen in Las Vegas and was out of boxing for the next three years.

“The injuries were unfortunate. If he hadn’t had those, I think his star would have been a lot higher that it was.”

As dominant as Klitschko was up to that point, it’d be difficult to make a case for him as one of the better heavyweight champions in history had his fighting career ended there. But Klitschko returned to boxing three years later against WBC titleholder Samuel Peter in exceptional form.

“Really at that time, he had no intention of coming back. But after four years out of the ring, his body started healing and he felt better than he even did before. That’s when he came back and knocked out Peter rather than taking a tuneup fight. He dominated every round.”

Sam Peter was never the same fighter after getting knocked out by Klitschko.
Sam Peter was never the same fighter after getting knocked out by Klitschko.Herbert Knosowski/Associated Press

Klitschko didn’t skip a beat in his second career. He was just as destructive as ever and showed virtually no ring rust from the long layoff.

From 2008 to 2012, he defended his WBC title nine times before hanging up the gloves for good in December 2013 at age 42.

“That was a very impressive comeback after such a long layoff.”

Unlike Wladimir Klitschko, Vitali never seemed to be anything other than completely in control of every one of his fights during that time frame. There was never a scary moment for the champion, even when an injury forced him to essentially fight one-handed against Dereck Chisora in 2012.

While Wladimir’s career will be defined by more and better opportunities with fewer injuries, Vitali’s career hallmark was his unwavering destructiveness to anyone put in front of him. Vitali didn’t just defeat opponents. He ruined them.

The common argument against Klitschko being an all-time great heavyweight is most often presented in two forms.

The first is entirely aesthetic in nature. Critics point to Klitschko’s herky-jerky style and less-than-fluid punching motion as some kind of proof that his dominance over opposition is somehow made less noteworthy by it.

The logic behind such a view is silly. No fighter is better or worse because his style is more or less appealing to the eye. What matters are results, and Klitschko’s are some of the best ever.

Klitschko won 45 of 47 professional prizefights and 41 of them by knockout. He held the WBC heavyweight title from 2003 to 2004 and again from 2008 to 2012.

The record books will show Klitschko as one of the most dominant champions in boxing history. His two losses were to world champions because of cuts and injury, and his statistical dominance over contemporary opposition is as good as anyone ever.

The second argument holds more merit. Other than Lewis and his brother, Wladimir, heavyweights of Klitschko’s era were less than noteworthy in comparison to some other eras, particularly heavyweights competing in the 1970s and 1990s.

In short, there was little competition for Klitschko to prove his mettle against after Lewis retired. The two brothers agreed to never fight each other and so Klitschko’s best wins came against decent but not great heavyweight contenders.

But the same could be said for numerous heavyweight champions of the past. Joe Louis reigned over his subpar contemporaries during a 12-year title run from 1937 to 1949.

Mike Tyson’s run to becoming the youngest and most feared heavyweight champion was built on him blasting out no-hopers and palookas quickly and decisively in the early 1980s.

Even Lewis feasted on past-their-prime versions of Tyson and Evander Holyfield to augment the nondescript names on his record, a resume that doesn’t even include bouts against contemporary titleholders Byrd and John Ruiz.

Was Tyson's competition that much better?
Was Tyson's competition that much better?Douglas C. Pizac/Associated Press

But Loeffler supposes Klitschko would have fared much better among American fight fans anyway had economics and the absence of a marketable American heavyweight contender not conspired with Klitschko’s numerous back and shoulder injuries to keep him off of America’s radar.

“There was never a big American heavyweight that would be a compelling fight over here. The economics just made sense for [Klitschko] to fight with the German television deal [he and his brother] signed. They sell out soccer stadiums over there. The only person that has come close to that kind of thing is when [Manny] Pacquiao fought in Dallas where the Cowboys play. But the Klitschkos fight regularly in front of 30,000- to 40,000-seat arenas. It’s hard to match those economics here.”

Still, Loeffler suspects Klitschko might become more appreciated for his excellence as a heavyweight boxer as time marches on and his Ukrainian political exploits become more recognizable to an increasingly global-minded audience.

“Just look at what he’s doing in the Ukraine. He’s made enough money in boxing that he wouldn’t have to put himself in any of that stuff. But he does, and it’s a really dangerous position to be in.”

Loeffler paused for a moment, and he seemed to drift into his own mind for a bit. It was clear in the silence that at least one American will always hold Klitschko in as high regard as he deserves, even if it is his former promoter, Loeffler.

“I was always impressed with him, not only as a boxer but as a person.”

Kelsey McCarson is a boxing writer for Bleacher Report and The Sweet Science. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained firsthand.

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