25.04.04 – By Janne Romppainen: You knocked him out with a wrong punch”, as goes the old boxing joke about a victorious fighter and his trainer talking to each other after the fight. In these days, it seems that the anecdote has become very true in the minds of many boxing journalists. Despite thinking about who wins fights they too often concentrate on how they won their fights. In boxing a more suitable advice than the above-mentioned would be one that a boss gives to his employer: “Don’t care how you do it, just get the damn job done”
I am referring to the huge criticism that the newly-crowned WBC heavyweight champion of the world Vitaly Klitschko has faced because of his personal style of fighting. According to some he seems to do just about everything wrong. The boxing traditionalists say that he holds his left hand too low and pulls straight back from punches. You can’t do that if you want to be successful, they say, you will get caught and knocked out. Klitschko also throws his punches often with only his arms. That is not the way to do it, say the traditionalists again, you have to deliver your punches with full body leverage behind them. Klitschko doesn’t move too well either. With that kind of footwork you can’t be a good champion, the aficionados cry.
Somehow, all this reminds me of the harsh bashing that young Cassius Clay had to receive when he was a rising young hopeful with a perfect record. He also did everything wrong in terms of boxing technique books. He held his both hands on his waist and amateurishly pulled his head back when somebody tried to hit him. As soon as he would face a real fighter, thought the traditionalists of his day, he would get blasted out because of those obvious errors. Ali wasn’t a big puncher and he didn’t even put his body behind his shots. Those kind of slaps would not hold the strongest fighters of him, it was thought. Clay danced around the ring. “Tough guys don’t dance”, it was said. Clay also hardly ever went to body with his punches. Again, strictly against every traditional advice. Early in his title reign Clay wasn’t even considered to be a top-15 heavyweight of the history, while now the same man is widely considered to be the most perfect heavyweight ever.
Now I can see of course that there is an obvious difference between Klitschko and Clay in terms of their fighting styles, but that is not the point. They both have unique style that has gotten heavily criticised, yet they both have been successful. Clay paid up for his ‘errors’ with his magnificent reflexes, great speed, footwork and ring intelligence. Vitaly Klitschko wins his fights despite those ‘shortcomings’ with his size, reach, strength and good chin. Is there really much difference?
The truth is: it doesn’t matter where you hold your hands, that is not asked after the fight. It matters that you either will not get hit or if you do, you need to be able to take it. Vitaly Klitschko does not get hit a lot. He stays away behind his long reach, slips punches well with his reflexes and handles himself well under pressure. Even in the fights where has been caught, he has survived well. So what if his left hand is low?
It is just the same thing with arm-punching: if your shots are enough to stop your opponents, you always land more of them than your foe and you can throw them from start to finish, deliver them just like you want. Klitschko’s natural strength gives his shots the needed authority just like Clay made up for power with his sizzling combinations. As long as the style feels good for the fighter in question and it brings him results, there is nothing wrong with it.
When we compare the attitudes to the unique styles with other sports, there is one notable difference. In high jump for example the was in 1960s a man called Dick Fosbury who invented a whole new style of jumping, the ‘flop’. He was also ridiculed at first: who an earth would try to jump backwards? The mockers were silenced when Fosbury won the Olympic Gold medal in Mexico City in 1968. The results spoke for themselves. Another example: sprinter Michael Johnson had a weird style of running. He ran as if he was sitting in an invisible chair, leaning back with his bottom low. It seemed ludicrous, but it was effective: Johnson made world records that are still in their own class. You simply couldn’t argue with the numbers.
In boxing it is different because there is no time or inches measured. Vitaly Klitschko is the number one heavyweight in the world with a near-perfect record of 34-2 with his only two losses being due injuries. Out of his victims he has stopped all but one. One would think that you couldn’t argue with these results either. Think again. The explanation that has been given by many is that the division is now the weakest ever and that is why Klitschko is the champion. Just like it was said back in Clay’s early days, when Sonny Liston was considered to be his only notable foe, if only there was other good fighters, they would sure exploit his weaknesses. Many say that if Ali, Holmes, Tyson or Foreman was now around, they would certainly knock Vitaly Klitschko out because he can’t box. The very same reason was given in the sixties by many when they told why Jeffiers, Dempsey, Louis or Marciano would have certainly whipped Ali…
Now it might even be true that the division is at low-point, but one has to wonder what more should Klitschko do to get his deserved props? How can you tell that he wasn’t a good champion if he never loses? Because winning is all that counts, it doesn’t matter whether you look like Pernell Whitaker or Bozo the Clown doing it. You can win your fights with your size, with your speed, whatever, again, that is secondary. If you beat all your opponents inside the distance, there is very little to complain about.
Vitaly Klitschko’s true skills will be tested in future. Whether he will be a long-serving champion or he loses his title in his next defence, that remains to be seen. After five years or so we know a lot more about whether he will be ranked among the good crop of champions or will he be another alphabet boy in boxing histories. Whatever happens, I say he, or anyone else for the matter, should not be deemed neither good nor poor because of the style that he fights. Let the results decide it.