Objectivity and The End of Vitali Klitschko

10.11.05 - By Gabriel DeCrease: Vitali Klitschko’s retirement can hardly be called sudden, or shocking. The writing was already on the wall when Dr. Ironfist announced on November 5th that he had again suffered a serious training injury, and would have to postpone his WBC title fight with Hasim Rahman for the fourth time.. In spite of the fact that fans, critics, experts, and fellow fighters have been bracing themselves for Klitschko’s withdrawal from the sport since this tiresome battery of injuries went into overdrive, the decision has sent shockwaves through the boxing community. Since his retirement was made official in a public statement, the matter has been given an inordinate amount of press, and almost all of it has been driven by personal opinion and taken little time to present and objectively examine the facts of the situation.

It is almost impossible to promise a fair and unbiased assessment, but I hope to take steps in my analysis toward a neutral position where readers can be informed without being simultaneously coerced. This is a difficult task since; in this case, the facts are primarily biased, as they have been delivered to the public by Klitschko, Rahman, and a host of other people involved in the now-defunct title bout.

Vitali has retired from the ring, and vacated his title. There is no disputing that. So the boxing world has stopped asking what if? And has proceeded to start asking why? Vitali said his decision came regretfully at the end of a long and wretched string of unfortunate injuries. Vitali was quoted as saying, “The decision to retire from professional sports was a very difficult one, one of the hardest I have ever had to make. I love boxing and am proud to be the WBC and Ring [Magazine] heavyweight champion.”

Hasim Rahman, and his infamous promoter Don King tell a different story. They have both claimed on numerous occasions, beginning many months ago after Klitschko’s first injury-related postponement, that Vitali was using dubious, and perhaps bogus, injuries as a means to avoid fighting Rahman. Recently King proclaimed, “Anyone could tell that Vitali did not want to fight Rock. This is why I lobbied for Rock’s last fight to be for the WBC interim heavyweight title. The moment Vitali cancelled his scheduled mandatory defense scheduled for November 12, he vacated his title and Rahman immediately assumed his crown according to the rules and regulations of the WBC.” Interpretations of the WBC’s bylaws are varied, but the fact remains that the sanctioning body did not fully strip Vitali of the title with the intention of giving it to Rahman until Klitschko formally announced his retirement. Rahman had, until that point, been briefly given the title of interim champion after outpointing Monte Barrett.

It is hard to determine the nature and severity of Dr. Ironfist’s injuries because all the press and the public know is what they are told by Klitschko’s press team and the WBC.

But assuming that the Ukranian ex-champion’s accounts are accurate, the injury bonanza unfolded in this fashion:

After agreeing in February to meet Rahman, the mandatory challenger for Vitali’s WBC title, in a fight scheduled for April 30th, 2005, Klitschko suffered a thigh injury in training camp. The fight was subsequently rescheduled for June 18th, 2005.

The June bout was cancelled after Klitschko’s injury did not respond properly to treatment and apparently spread to his back. The date of the fight was reset for July 23rd.

After undergoing corrective back surgery, Klitschko began his recovery and made a date with Rahman for November 12th, 2005. And that fight was recently canned by a knee injury Vitali suffered during sparring exercises. The fight was, clearly, never rescheduled as Klitschko has chosen to retire from boxing.

It is entirely possible that Vitali’s injuries have been, in every instance, as legitimate as they have been unfortunate. If one wants to look for direct causality, it is not hard to find. Vitali fought 37 fights as a professional before his scheduled meeting with The Rock, and the resulting ring-ware, coupled with the fact that he was 34-years-old at the moment of his retirement, could easily have left Vitali in a somewhat fragile state in which his body could no longer withstand the intensity of training as it once did. The history of boxing is littered with tragic tales of fighters that got old over night, as they say. Perhaps, Vitali Klitschko is one of them. It is hard not to be misled by his late emergence as the leader of the heavyweight division, but Klitschko had a full career that spanned a number of years before he burst onto the international stage. Vitaly was also a kickboxing champion before he threw his ushanka into the boxing ring. Kickboxing, for obvious reasons, puts a tremendous amount of stress on the knees and ankles. Repetitive kicking and the subsequent impact of landing those kicks may well have weakened Vitali’s knees prematurely.

In the name of fairness and balance, it should be noted that it is, conversely, not hard to make a case against the authenticity of Klitschko’s injuries. The Ukranian quit on his stool, while leading, after a shoulder injury he suffered in his 2000 fight with then WBO champion Chris Byrd. Many fighters have pushed on in similar situations and won championships in impressive fashion despite their maladies. Vitali Klitschko did not. In that moment, he demonstrated that he does not like to fight when he is at any deficit in health or conditioning. This is something Klitschko has said publicly time-and-again as he has explained his repeated injury-related withdrawals. And this recent debacle only serves to support that fact. Maybe Vitali could, technically, have been cleared to fight Rahman, but he might not have felt up to par. He might not have been as quick as he had been before, or his mobility or range of motion might have been inhibited. When it became clear that he was likely never going to be all of his former-fighting-self again, he may have embellished the severity of one or more of his injuries. It will be nearly impossible to determine the absolute truth of the matter.

One of the main nerves of the debate being waged in the wake of Vitali’s retirement is the question of whether or not Hasim Rahman retired Klitschko. That question, as stated above, is hard to answer without veering into an opinionated tirade. But the reality is this: Klitschko never fought The Rock, and whether that was by choice or out of necessity, it is an insubstantial claim to say that one has retired a man without ever trading punches with him. Though Vitali did fight Lennox Lewis in what turned out to be the last fight of the Briton’s career, and it is equally hard to say that Vitali retired The Lion. Lewis was almost 40-years-old when he fought Klitschko, and had spoken several times of retiring before he ever signed to fight the Ukranian challenger. Lewis was slowing down and coming to the natural end of his career anyhow. Klitschko was leading, and put forth a strong, big-hearted effort against Lennox—and on very short notice at that. Vitali’s performance made his career, but it is not so clear whether or not it ended that of Lennox Lewis. Accordingly, the proposed fight with Hasim Rahman was one that led to a host of problems for VItali that, one way or another, could not be resolved. It marked the end of Vitali’s career, but does not necessarily automatically make that end the product of Rahman’s dangerousness as a fighter. Rahman’s legacy is his own to make as he steps into the ring throughout the remainder of his career.

Now that Vitali is gone, Don King wears the heavyweight crown and holds all the jewels that adorn it in the palm of his hand. That is also a fact. King says that he will take this opportunity to arrange a unification tournament that will yield an undisputed heavyweight champion. The players in this tragic comedy—oops, there I go losing my objective stance. I mean to say, the fighters involved in this tournament of sorts will be Chris Byrd, Lamon Brewster, Hasim Rahman, and John Ruiz, that is if Ruiz gets by the freakishly-large and now highly-ranked Nicolay Valuev on December 17th.

It is my sincere hope that the preceding article has been informative, and without too much bias or slanted editorializing, as I sought to combine and synthesize the facts of many other articles on the matter while filtering out the passion that is native to the voice of the dedicated boxing fan.

Article posted on 10.11.2005

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