The era of the Klitschko brothers dominating boxing's former glory division appears to be over, as Vitali Klitschko's focus has shifted from the sweet science to the volatile political scene in Ukraine. Now, younger brother Wladimir stands alone atop the heavyweight mountain.
This year, Wladimir finally dispatched Alexander Povetkin in a dominant but truly miserable performance. That fight was five years in the making, twice bailed on by Povetkin, and once we finally got it, it lived down to the worst expectations and fears. That said, as he approaches age 38, Wladimir seems no more vulnerable now than he has since he finally found his true groove about seven years ago. He's barely so much as lost a round in that time, and he appears no closer to falling now than he has been at any point since he demolished Chris Byrd in 2006.
The last batch of potential threats have been dealt with. Since 2006, we've seen Wladimir or Vitali dispose of supposed contenders Povetkin, David Haye, Chris Arreola, Sultan Ibragimov, Ruslan Chagaev, Odlanier Solis, Samuel Peter, Dereck Chisora, Kevin Johnson, Eddie Chambers, and Tomasz Adamek.
There is, however, a new crop of potential foes cautiously treading water around Wladimir. Here are five guys that could wind up as the next big hope to meet the end of Wladimir's jab.
Pulev (19-0, 10 KO) is the most talented of the bunch, or at least the most well-rounded. The 6'4", 32-year-old Bulgarian was an accomplished amateur, much like Povetkin and Solis, with a couple fairly impressive wins, and some nice performances against "giants" like Alexander Ustinov and Alexander Dimitrenko. Pulev, though, is a pretty straightforward, mostly basic talent, much like Povetkin in particular. While style-wise they're not the same fighter, both of them bring about the same things to the table. They're not prone to making bad mistakes, which means they'll likely slog through 12 rounds while being unable to figure out how to do anything to Wladimir. We already saw it with Povetkin, and as good as Pulev might be, a similar fight should be the expectation if and when he cashes in his mandatory title shot.
The loudest of the lot, Fury (21-0, 15 KO) saw his career stalled in 2013 because he bothered to sign up for a fight with David Haye that was first postponed due to a training camp cut, and then outright canceled, with Haye's career reportedly in jeopardy due to a shoulder injury. To say that Fury doesn't much buy Haye's reasons would be a bit of an understatement, but that chapter of Fury's career, such as it were, is now in the past. Fury talks a lot (a lot) and gets himself in trouble with is mouth, but so far he's been able to back it up in the ring. He's no longer the uncoordinated, reckless brawler who got too excited and punched himself in the face throwing an uppercut. Fury still occasionally gets a bit ahead of himself, and he can be put on the canvas, but he's got a real fighter's spirit and to beat him, it looks as though you're going to have to truly outfight him. He's got the size at 6'9", 250 pounds, but does he have the skill to trouble Wladimir, or even the one-punch power to change the complexion of a fight? That's the real question.
At 35, Stiverne (23-1-1, 20 KO) is the old man of this bunch. The Haitian-born Stiverne wasn't impressive when he got an HBO shot in 2011 against Ray Austin on one of Don King's crappy events, but he changed the tune of many when he completely destroyed Chris Arreola this past April in his return to the big network. 6'2" with an 80-inch reach, Stiverne has more compact power than Fury, but may have a harder time being a physical match for Klitschko. If nothing else, Fury can lean on Wladimir when they get in close, as Wladimir isn't exactly against a good old-fashioned hug, and use his weight to tire Klitschko. Stiverne mostly has to fight his way in and fight when he gets there, and we've seen plenty of decent heavyweights try and fail at that. For now, it would appear Stiverne's focus will be on a mandatory rematch with Arreola for the now-vacant WBC belt, which Vitali has given up.
American fight fans have been dying for a real heavyweight contender for years now, and not much has come up. Those same fans have every reason to believe that Alabama's Wilder (30-0, 30 KO) is another paper-thin promoter creation, a 2008 bronze medalist in Beijing who came into the pro ranks skinny and raw, and has packed on muscle and some technique to go with the Mack truck power in his right hand. The 6'7" Wilder has fought mostly exceptionally easy competition, but as I've said before, a lot of that was truly strategic. Wilder had a lot to learn when he turned pro, and he and his team accepted that and brought him along slowly. They've accepted any hype put behind them, but at the same time, they have not been against fighting on off-TV undercards in an attempt to develop not only Wilder's skills, but his body. In his pro debut five years ago, Wilder weighed 207 pounds. When he knocked out Nicolai Firtha in October, he tipped the scales at 224. That weighed has fluctuated up to about 230 over his journey, but it has been put on carefully. Wilder has been groomed, developed, and nurtured, and now it may be time to let the Doberman off the leash and find out what he's got at the higher levels. He's got the power to knock out anybody. Anybody. How he deals with real return fire is the question.
One of the "Irish Cubans," Perez (20-0, 12 KO) is a 6'1" southpaw just starting to make his mark as a pro. The 28-year-old has a more awkward, true boxing style than most of his peers, and his November win over Magomed Abdusalamov was not only 10 rounds of brutality, but it was also a good win. Perez might not have the size or the tools to be a real challenge to Klitschko, but he's talented.
In order, most likely to beat Klitschko:
- None of them. Well, let's be serious.
- Kubrat Pulev. Most talented, smartest fighter.
- Deontay Wilder. That one-punch power is so legit that he's got by far the best puncher's chance of the bunch.
- Tyson Fury. I do think he could find himself with a late-rounds opportunity if he can wear down Wladimir's arms by laying on him. Wladimir's a big, strong dude, but Fury's really good at wearing opponents out with this tactic.
- Bermane Stiverne. He can punch a little.
- Mike Perez. Not a good enough puncher for me to even see the outside shot of him winning. Otherwise, just another 6'1" guy for Wladimir to jab all night and hug every four seconds.