All eyes are on boxing right now, but almost none of them are looking at Wladimir Klitschko. That’s a shame.
Never mind Klitschko's being the heavyweight champion of the world, the most storied and prestigious designation in all of sports.
Never mind his historically impressive run at being exactly that, one that has seen Klitschko enjoy a 21-fight win streak since 2004.
Never mind that the 39-year-old has held some version of the heavyweight championship since way back in 2008 and defended it 17 consecutive times, the third-most in the division’s history.
And while Klitschko’s total of 24 title-bout wins is second only to Joe Louis’ 26, the mainstream sports world remains solely obsessed with Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao, the fight's dueling promoters, the so-called ticket snafu and all the other debris floating around the well-chronicled debacle like confetti.
Klitschko is boxing’s best-kept secret: the most dominant fighter of the last 10 years, one with a movie star fiancee, a new baby girl with the aforementioned starlet, Hayden Panettiere, a doctoral degree, an Olympic gold medal and a famous older brother (Vitali) who was once heavyweight champion himself and is now one of the major political figures in the world.
In short, Klitschko is unlike any other human being on the planet. The Sweet Science's Michael Woods calls the man an "exemplary role model," and he's right.
Tell your friends to lay off the Mayweather-Pacquiao stuff for a few hours this week so they can pay attention to what’s going on in the media capital of the world instead of something happening over a week from now in a desert.
Klitschko defends his Transnational, Ring Magazine, WBO, WBA and IBF heavyweight championships against undefeated challenger Bryant Jennings on Saturday, April 25 at Madison Square Garden in New York City.
The live telecast begins at 10 p.m. ET on HBO. The best part? If you already have the channel, unlike the following week's superfight, it won’t cost you a dime.
But maybe it should.
While Klitschko isn’t appreciated by the American sporting audience to the level his accomplishments might otherwise warrant, the exceptionally intelligent fighter from Kiev, Ukraine, boasts an international fame. Klitschko regularly fills soccer stadiums with thousands of fight fans there to see him defend his titles in places like Germany and Switzerland.
As a case in point, over 45,000 people crammed their way into Hamburg's Imtech Arena in 2011 to see Klitschko’s 12-round decision win over David Haye. By comparison, Mayweather and Pacquiao will fight in front of a paltry 15,000 or so people at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas.
So if Mayweather and Pacquiao are kings of the sport, Klitschko is likewise royalty and wears his crown dutifully by acknowledging its full weight.
“I am aware of where I am, who I am and what responsibilities I have also because [of my position],” said Klitschko. “It’s exciting. It’s pressure as well because of my responsibilities, but I cannot complain. It’s great to be champion.”
Part of Klitschko’s responsibilities, he believes, is to bring attention to real-world issues that have the potential to affect everyone on the planet. He considers the burden of it a privilege.
“Somebody said that sport has nothing to do with politics, but it’s not true. Unfortunately, or even fortunately maybe, we are all depending on each other. We are all reflecting each other. I’m talking about the economy, which sport is part of: The world economy is part of politics.”
Klitschko believes he, as the heavyweight champion of the world, can help unify people who would otherwise be divided.
“Sport has a chance to change the world, and these are not my words but the words of Nelson Mandela, that sport has the power to change the world.”
Seemingly wounded by it, Klitschko said he and his brother’s fights were broadcast in Russia for over 15 years, but that it suddenly ended because of political disagreements.
“Since we openly said our opinion about Ukraine and were involved in the demonstrations there…Klitschko fights got cut out of Russian television. They were cut out because it does not fit their propaganda, which is ridiculous because sport, as I said, should unite people.”
Despite having a brother heavily involved in politics (Vitali is the mayor of Kiev), Klitschko has strong words about the current political landscape he sees in the world today.
“Politicians are trying to divide people to hate each other, kill each other, divide with blood, because now what’s happened is that Ukraine and Russia…and the war there where the aggressor is not the Ukrainians but very obviously Russia. … I think that the responsibility of sport is so great and important because it has to help unite nations and not divide nations.”
If you are sick of seeing TMZ reports about volatile fighters such as Adrien Broner or reading ignorant and/or probably racist (and since deleted and apologized for) tweets from boxers like Sergey Kovalev, Klitschko is just the man to behold.
Such a man is he that Jonathan Banks, Klitschko’s trainer, calls working with Klitschko the highlight of his life.
“He’s just a nice dude, a genuine person,” said Banks. “He shoots straightforward. If he has something on his mind, he’ll tell you what it is.”
Banks, who took over after the late Emanuel Steward died in 2012, said Klitschko was like family to him.
“He’s like a brother, a best-friend type of guy. He’s just a first-class guy. This has been the best era of my life.”
HBO executives like him, too.
While he has suffered in the past for his perhaps overly cautious but nonetheless dominant style of fighting, Peter Nelson, VP of programming for HBO Sports, hailed the longtime champion as “one of the brightest lights the heavyweight division has ever known.”
Nelson, a former writer for Vanity Fair, has a way with words. He knows how to spin stories toward his employer's preferences. There’s no way Nelson would say anything that wouldn’t promote the fighter or his next fight. It's his job.
But Nelson’s admiration of Klitschko seemed at the same time something quite genuine.
“He’s one of the quintessential ambassadors of the sport.”
Still, Klitschko’s star power in America seems mostly tied around his association with his famous fiancee. Any Google search on the champion’s name is sure to render thousands of results about his and Panettiere’s personal lives, including paparazzi-snapped pictures and poorly sourced rumors about the two’s on-again, off-again marriage plans.
And even in the boxing world, Klitschko’s popularity has lagged behind that of his contemporaries, most notably Mayweather and Pacquiao. While the three men are clearly the most consistent and dominant fighters of the last 10 years, Klitschko isn’t nearly appreciated on the same level by fans, media or even historians.
But Nelson believes Klitschko might be on the cusp of changing all that.
“I think there’s an appreciation that accrues over time. Boxing fans are some of the most critical of any sports fans. They truly want all fighters to prove their mettle before they are going to be heralded or granted the respect that many fighters feel they’ve already earned. I think there’s a gradual club building that recognizes (Klitschko as) one of the great talents that’s ever existed in the division.”
At age 39, though, Klitschko seems to be running out of time. At least that’s what I thought before I asked him about it last week.
“That’s what you guys think, that it’s a hard way to make a living!” Klitschko said with a laugh. ”There’s nothing better than beating people up for a living and getting paid for it. You’re probably jealous of it because you can’t do that.”
Klitschko said he’s asked the same question over and over again in almost every interview he gives, but that this was the only time he ever really thought about it. He said his camp was filled with young people, that it, in turn, helped him feel younger, and that his diverse interests outside the sport, including everything from windsurfing to politics, help him stay fresh.
“This switching on and off of boxing is definitely healthy, and it makes me come back to the sport and makes me feel excited about training camp. So as I said, don’t be jealous that I do the job of beating up people for a living and getting paid for it! It’s exciting, and I really care about it.”
But perhaps Klitschko’s most telling statement was this:
“It’s great that I have a stage, and that my stage is being a champion. It’s important, and I can point toward problems in society, and people hear it.”
It’s truly a luxury to have such a positive role model in a position of power, one who exudes infinite good and noble qualities while simultaneously recognizing his ability to impact others’ lives in a positive manner. Boxing needs more of that.
But it’d be so much better if more people were paying attention to it.
It's not just that Klitschko deserves it—it's that we do, too.
Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained firsthand.