Vitali and Wladimir Klitschko, the two brothers from Ukraine have between them dominated heavyweight boxing since Lennox Lewis’ retirement in 2003, almost 7 years ago. So why aren’t they universally appreciated and respected, recognizable global stars and household names?
Everyone has heard of Mike Tyson and most people have heard of Evander Holyfield and Lennox Lewis, but only sports fans know who Vitali Klitschko and Vladimir Klitschko are, outside of Ukraine and Germany.
Often in the past, dominant heavyweight boxing champions have been among the best known and most respected athletes in the world.
Wladimir Klitschko won the WBO version of the heavyweight championship in 2000 and made an impressive 4 defenses before losing it to Corrie Sanders in 2003. Right after this Vitali challenged Lennox Lewis for the WBC heavyweight crown in a fight exhausting in which he had the misfortune to be arrested. cuts when he was ahead in points after 6 rounds.
Lennox decided to retire rather than take the rematch and after that Vitali won the WBC heavyweight title and was recognized as the dominant force at heavyweight. Due to injuries, Klitschko’s older brother retired in 2005, not to return until 2008, where he once again won the WBC title in impressive fashion against Samuel Peter and followed up with 3 convincing title defenses to date.
During Vitali’s retirement, Wladimir regained the heavyweight title (IBF version) as well as the WBO title in a unification match with Sultan Ibragimov along with 7 other defenses of his crown.
So since mid-2003, the only real argument over who is the best heavyweight in the world has been whether it’s Vitali or Wladimir.
Having two brothers as heavyweight champions is a novel situation, but in many ways for fans of the sport and the general public it seems to cause confusion. It’s hard for people to know who is who: if they know Klitschko is fighting, they don’t know who and they’re not sure if he’s older or younger or if he’s the one who fought Lennox Lewis. It probably doesn’t help many people that one is called Vitali and the other Wladimir, quite similar names, especially for people who are not used to Eastern European names.
Eastern Europeans dominating the heavyweight division is, of course, a relatively recent development and doesn’t appear to be a situation American sports fans in particular are used to yet. For many years, American boxers have dominated at heavyweight and there seems to be less interest in a division where there are few fighters who can compete at the elite level.
In the past, it seemed like the American media was always talking about finding the “Great White Hope” or building some fighter as such and when finally white boxers are dominant at heavyweight, it seems this mythical white hope should now be American too.
One could also argue that Wladimir Klitschko’s cautious style is what seems to alienate the broader sports and boxing audience. It’s true that he does have a tendency to fight behind his left jab and follow up with right hands, without much variety in the combination of his shots. He also has a tendency not to go in for the kill until his opponent has been methodically knocked down and mellowed out for several rounds. However, when he throws his shots freely, he displays devastating power and few can stand up to the force he generates.
He doesn’t take the risks that fight fans like to see, and while you can’t blame him for this, almost all of his fights are predictably one-sided and therefore perhaps not all that engaging to watch.
However, you can’t accuse Vitali of being cautious. While he is a very smart boxer, he will happily trade blows with opponents and is always looking to dominate every exchange and maintain superiority. He lets go of both hands and, as he boxes a strong left and right jab, he also mixes in a variety of other punches. In addition, he will also fight with his hands down, looking to swing out of striking range and parry with his gloves.
Perhaps the Klitschko brothers will only be truly appreciated by the general sports public until after they have retired or perhaps near retirement. This was largely the case for Lennox Lewis, who was never universally accepted until he defeated Mike Tyson in 2002. At 38, this may not be that far off for Vitali.
Some people may argue that the Klitschkos don’t generate the excitement or charisma of, say, Muhammad Ali, but who did? Tyson brought controversy and excitement and Holyfield became respected for beating Tyson and for his fighting spirit. Like Lennox Lewis, the Klitschkos are smart and respectful and perhaps don’t create the media-loved outside-of-the-ring headlines.
Although many people seem to complain about the state of the heavyweight division, imagine what it would be like without the Klitschko brothers dominating and adding stability. Who would be the fields? Eddie Chambers, Chris Arreola, Ruslan Chagaev, David Haye, Tony Thompson? Good fighters, but they’re never likely to put together a series of title defenses.
I suggest that we should appreciate the Klitschko brothers a little more and I hope that over time respect for them will grow and recognition will increase. It’s a shame though that this tends to happen towards the end of their careers rather than when fighters are at or near their prime.
I think history will show that the Klitschkos are strong and successful champions, and I think in years to come their names may come up in discussions comparing the greatest heavyweight champions of all time.