The Retirement of Vitali Klitschko and its impact on the Heavyweight Division
10.11.05 - By Paul Ruby: Like so many things in life, boxing’s heavyweight division is cyclical. Periods of intense excitement come and go and ebb and flow into doldrums of boredom and back. The days of Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier flowed into the Larry Holmes era, which was characterized by a lack of competition for a dominant champion. As Holmes passed his prime, heavyweight fans were left wishing for a dominant fighter to emerge. Boxing fans were left with a few years of abysmal fights while they waited for a young Mike Tyson to emerge; years where the heavyweight division’s marquee names were Tony Tucker, Trevor Berbick, and a series of others who have been all but forgotten just two decades later.
Article posted on 10.11.2005
Similarly, boxing fans have sought a dominant heavyweight since the retirement of the sport’s last true champion, Lennox Lewis. Vitali Klitschko could not and did not ever truly establish himself as one of boxing’s great champions, but he established himself of the top heavyweight on the planet for over two years, and that is quite an accomplishment.
Klitschko was not a perfect fighter, but he was a very good one and a role model outside of the ring. In this article, we shall address his retirement and then look at him through a historical lens to ascertain what his legacy should be.
For better or worse, Vitali Klitschko will be remembered for his valiant effort against Lennox Lewis in June, 2003. Vitali showed not only that he was not afraid of Lewis, but also that he possessed considerable skills, even in the face of his era’s most skilled technician. Unfortunately, his fans will focus too much on his effort and probably ignore the many questions that surround his performance. First, Lennox Lewis thought he was fighting Kirk Johnson until Johnson pulled out a few weeks prior with a pectoral tear. Obviously, the game-plan for fighting Kirk Johnson is different than that for fighting Vitali Klitschko. Johnson is a boxer who works behind a solid jab, but Lewis’ monumental height advantage would all but nullify this strength. As we saw when Johnson fought Klitschko six months later, it became clear that Johnson would never find success against a taller fighter with an above-average jab.
Additionally, Lewis showed up for that fight at 256 pounds – the heaviest of his career. It was obvious to most that Lewis was not in peak condition. As a consequence, it is probably more fair to compare Klitschko’s performance to another time when Lewis did not prepare properly for a fight – when he was knocked out by Hasim Rahman in South Africa. Lewis arrived in the ring at 253 pounds for that fight – the only other time he exceeded 250 pounds in his professional career. Additionally, Lewis gave himself less than a week to let his body adjust to the altitude of Johannesburg. My point is simple – Klitschko’s effort against Lewis was a truly special one and few if any other heavyweights today could accomplish a similar feat even on Lewis’ worst day, but that performance cannot be over-rated. Vitali Klitschko competed with, but did not beat, the best heavyweight of his era when that fighter was not at his best. Klitschko fought that night in Los Angeles like no other fighter today could fight, but he can be given too much credit on the strength of just eighteen minutes of work.
Of course, Klitschko will also be remembered for dominating his fights subsequent to his loss to Lennox Lewis. In his three fights between the loss to Lewis and his recent retirement, I scored one total round for his opponent – round three of the Corrie Sanders fight for Sanders. So, what does this all mean? What will Klitschko’s legacy be? In my opinion, Klitschko will be remembered as the third great heavyweight of the new breed of heavyweights – the giants. Klitschko lacks the skills or accomplishments of Riddick Bowe and Lennox Lewis, but, like them, he is indicative of the new breed of dominant heavyweights. All three of these men illustrate that size and skill will defeat simple skill nearly every time. It is unclear how this will impact boxing and the heavyweight division, but it is obvious that advances in medicine and sport science have helped the heavyweight division evolve into one where skilled big men are the most dominant, effective, and commercially viable commodity on the planet.
It is likely that Klitschko will be remembered as a quandary, because so many ‘what ifs?’ surround his career. What if he hadn’t missed the Olympics? What if he hadn’t quit against Byrd? What if he didn’t get cut against Lewis? What if he didn’t retire before fighting Rahman?
Sadly, those are questions that can never be answered. Personally, I will remember Klitschko most his devastating downhill jab, his patience and composure in the ring, and his ability to prepare almost immaculately for every fight. Although injuries have hurt Klitschko’s career and reputation, it is hard to argue that Vitali did not enter the ring each time in perfect physical shape and armed with a stout, resolute gameplan. It is a shame we did not get to see that gameplan for more rounds against Lewis.
Personally, I believe that when Lewis retired, a part of Vitali retired as well. Klitschko so desperately wanted that rematch, and I do not believe he ever recovered from not getting it. You see, Lewis was the thing that stood between Klitschko and history – defeating Lewis would have been his retribution for quitting against Byrd and missing the 1996 Atlanta Games. Vitali wanted to show the world that fans and critics had given him a bum rap on those two events by beating the man no one thought he could. To Klitschko, it was immaterial if Lewis was in perfect or imperfect condition – Klitschko wanted a win, and he became obsessed with it. Sadly, Vitali Klitschko never got that vindication, it broke his heart, and I strongly believe he never recovered.
A final note that warrants mentioning is the amount of money Vitali Klitschko left on the table – at least $8 million and probably closer to $10 million. It would have been easy for him to throw a brace on his leg and either quit or get stopped in five rounds, but he opted against that. Vitali has too much respect for this sport and for its fans than to subject them to that. Vitali Klitschko fought with courage throughout his career, but he encountered some bad breaks. He was an imperfect fighter, but he was a very good fighter and a role model outside of the ring. Life is not an all-or-nothing proposition, and neither is boxing. Simply because Klitschko failed to defeat Lennox Lewis does not mean his career was a failure – a person who gives his all to something might not be a winner, but he cannot be a failure. Vitali Klitschko gave his all to boxing, and it is time to close that chapter. Vitali Klitschko left eight figures on the table because he would not disrespect his fans, himself, or the history of boxing. He may not have been the perfect boxer, but his departure from the sport shows that he is one of the true role models left in a brutal game.
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