Wladimir Klitschko is a lot of things, including heavyweight champion. Also, technically, he's a doctor, with a Ph.D. in sports science.
But the most notable thing about Klitschko is the way he's been received by boxing fans the world over. Overseas, the Ukrainian champion is beloved. His fights in Germany routinely draw crowds that dwarf every non-Cowboys Stadium show in the United States. He receives buckets of money for TV rights to his fights. He is respected and even beloved.
But in the U.S., Klitschko has never quite taken as a star attraction. His fights draw interest simply because if you say something is for "the world heavyweight championship," at least some fans (and non-fans) will pay attention, but whereas Klitschko was once a regular feature on HBO, Saturday's fight with David Haye will mark the first time that Wladimir is available on U.S. TV since 2008.
And that's because while he's become an improved, sometimes impenetrable, and dominant fighter, with one of the greatest, heaviest jabs in heavyweight history, and power in both hands, he's not exciting. He's not a risk taker. He's not often much fun to watch. And since he's started peaking, his fights are predictable, a mix of the fact that Wladimir is so good and the heavyweight field around him is so outclassed by his ability.
Since his 2004 loss to Lamon Brewster, Wladimir has been near untouchable. Comeback wins over DaVarryl Williamson and (TD-5) and Eliseo Castillo (TKO-4) put him into a big fight with then-unbeaten "Nigerian Nightmare" Samuel Peter. Peter floored Klitschko three times in the fight, but Wladimir largely controlled the fight otherwise, and won on unanimous scores.
After that, the Klitschko reign started. Going back to 2006, let's take a look at what "Dr. Steel Hammer" has done as he's taken over the heavyweight division, and we'll just split it into two easy, black-and-white categories: Good and Bad.
On April 22, 2006, Klitschko got his shot at IBF titlist Chris Byrd, one of the last Americans to capture a major title in the division. Byrd was never a star, and never became a hugely respected "champion," but he was a good fighter. Of course, he was all wrong for Wladimir -- who had already beaten Byrd convincingly in 2000 -- because he just didn't have the size or power to make Klitschko uncomfortable. For titlists of the era, Byrd was probably the best for Wladimir to re-make his name against, and he emphatically slaughtered Byrd in the fight, with the seventh round stoppage merciful. [YouTube]
Unbeaten American Calvin Brock was Klitschko's first title challenger. Brock actually had some success against Klitschko and cut him, which sent Wladimir into a bloodied, urgent rage. The knockout was amazing and brutal. [YouTube]
The win over Tony Thompson on July 12, 2008, was a solid one. I know many think little of Thompson's skill, and I don't think he's a heavyweight who would translate to a good era of the division, but he's still a top 10 guy in the division these days, and he managed to give Wladimir a couple of difficult moments. And I really do just mean a couple -- but for once, I put that 95% on Klitschko being good, instead of the usual 60-40 split of Wladimir being good and the other guy not so much. [YouTube]
David Haye originally signed to fight Klitschko in June 2009, but bailed on the fight after the collapse of his TV network in the UK, claiming an injury. His replacement was Ruslan Chagaev, and as Chagaev was rated No. 3 at the time (with Wladimir and brother Vitali 1-2) by Ring Magazine, the fight was sanctioned for the vacant legitimate championship of the world. Chagaev looked like his gears were turning trying to find openings, but he just couldn't do anything with Klitschko, who cruised to a RTD-9 win. [YouTube]
On March 10, 2007, almost a year after stomping Byrd, Wladimir made his second defense of the IBF belt against Ray Austin. The truth is, Austin had no real business in the ring with Wladimir, but at the time his height did make him an interesting prospect as an opponent at the very least. Ah, how ridiculous that seems now. In most ways, this should go into the Bad category, and I'm putting it here, but it was pretty awesome that Klitschko ran over Austin without ever throwing a right hand. [YouTube]
Klitschko rematched Lamon Brewster on July 7, 2007, and the fight was a sham. I know some feel that erasing demons or whatever the hell is useful, and maybe it is, but this is the reality: Brewster had been wrecked thanks to his war with Sergei Liakhovich in April 2006, and hadn't fought since that loss. After the Liakhovich fight, Brewster had to undergo surgery for a detached retina. It was painful watching him go through the motions hoping for a miracle home run punch against Klitschko, and his trainer Buddy McGirt stopped the fight after the sixth awful round. [YouTube]
The fight with Sultan Ibragimov on February 23, 2008, was such an awful embarrassment that Klitschko has not returned to fight on U.S. soil since. OK, so it's probably more that the heavyweight division is much more popular and notable in Europe, and that Wladimir can make more money fighting there, and that he doesn't need the U.S. to be one of the best-paid fighters in the world, but I like to think that the heinous non-fight that was Klitschko vs Ibragimov has at least a little bit to do with it, even if it's that Klitschko never wants to feel so sick to his stomach again, in front of a crowd that won't adore him for a routine win over an opponent that wants nothing to do with him. This fight sucked so bad that Ibragimov never fought again. I have to give the HBO producers credit here: The highlight video is actually watchable, which took serious work. [YouTube]
Veteran and former champ Hasim Rahman shouldn't have been fighting Wladimir in December 2008, but he did as a short-notice replacement for mandatory challenger Alexander Povetkin, the former Russian amateur standout who would later duck out of a fight with Wladimir in 2010 as he and Teddy Atlas continued to deflate any pro career he ever had. Rahman was no challenge at this stage, and just didn't have a surprising fight in him. He just sort of got ran over, got his money, and went back to his twilight days after this last major fight hurrah. To date, this was Klitschko's last fight on HBO. [YouTube]
On the surface, I'd put Klitschko's March 2010 win over Eddie Chambers in the Good column, since Eddie's still one of the better heavyweights out there, but he was custom-made for Klitschko in every way and Wladimir's performance was so lackluster that it enraged trainer Emanuel Steward, which in turn enraged Klitschko, who knocked out Chambers in the 12th round. The fight was a sleepwalk. [YouTube]
Following back-to-back losses to Vitali Klitschko and Eddie Chambers, Samuel Peter got back in the game with four straight wins over mediocre opponents, which netted him a rematch with Wladimir, who was desperate for a compelling opponent and had been the last fighter to seriously challenge the champ. But those days were gone by the time they rematched in September 2010. Klitschko had his way with Peter and even walked through some clean shots. He knocked him out in 10 of a fight that just wasn't enjoyable to watch, and featured a retread opponent nobody saw as a serious challenger anymore. The only good thing I can really say is that even exhausted and defeated, Peter kept swinging for the fences, but he was grossly overmatched by the "new" Wladimir. [YouTube]
Good or Bad?
So it's four good and six bad in my opinion -- but that doesn't mean I'm saying that Wladimir Klitschko has been "bad for boxing," or "bad for the heavyweight division."
Rather, I think the class shown -- in and out of the ring -- by Wladimir and his brother Vitali has been the only thing keeping this Godawful division circling the drain instead of just plain dead. Without them, who is there? Everyone put in front of them, they have walked through with relative ease since Wladimir got rolling in '06 and Vitali returned to the ring in '08.
David Haye and Tomasz Adamek have come up from the lower weights to inject just a little bit of life into the heavyweight ranks beyond the brothers. Haye gets Wladimir, Adamek gets Vitali. If neither is successful, then what?
This is why these fights matter. The Klitschkos may not have thrilled you over the years, and maybe you think they're 0-for-whatever in making good fights over the recent years, but they've been the only consistently good fighters in the division. Haye and Adamek are, perhaps, the last good shots, because there's nobody else in the division who isn't proven as not good enough, or who is advanced enough as a prospect to fight the Klitschkos at a point where the prospect is truly ready, or who actually has the sand to go through it (here's lookin' at you, Povetkin).
Haye may not be your ideal challenger, but he's the best it's going to get. No matter what happens in this fight, it will go in the Good column. This is it for Haye's mouth -- time to put up or shut up. And this could be it for Wladimir as far as having fights that truly captivate the boxing world, even on paper.