Yes, you read that title correctly, and don't bother, I'll say it for you: "Easier said than done."
It's been ten years since Wladimir Klitschko's last defeat, and eight since he won his IBF heavyweight title in a 7th round knockout over Chris Byrd. The younger Klitschko brother's heavyweight reign is second in length only to that of Joe Louis, and despite his notoriously weak chin, he's gone nine years without suffering a single knockdown. It's safe to say that Klitschko is in a league of his own. Most of his mandatory title challengers are met with a collective sigh from boxing fans, and who can blame them? After such a long period of dominance (not all of it very exciting), it's hard to imagine anyone taking Klitschko's belt. Alex Leapai (30-4-3, 23 KOs), who will step up to face the heavyweight king tomorrow, is no different at first glance.
Then again, no bet is ever truly safe, especially in the heavyweight division, where history can be made with a single punch. Klitschko is quite savvy when it comes to protecting his fragile chin, but if there's one thing Alex Leapai has, it's an abundance of examples from Klitschko's previous opponents, including about 61 examples of what not to do.
Today, we're going to look at some of those examples, learn from both the successes and the failures, and put together a gameplan. This is how to topple a giant.
1. USE BOTH HIPS
One of the most common mistakes orthodox fighters make against Wladimir Klitschko is relying too heavily on their right hip, by which I mean slipping and pulling only to their right side. Studying Klitschko, one quickly discovers that he loves to time this defensive movement with his right hand. Let's take Klitschko's first fight with Samuel Peter as an example (link to full video).
Wlad spent the first minute and a half of the bout throwing nothing but jabs and the occasional left hook, using his long left hand to keep Peter from closing the gap and forcing reactions out of the Nigerian. He didn't throw a single right hand until he was sure that he could catch Peter with it.
Klitschko chose his moment carefully, and wisely. The very first time that Peter shifted to his right hip without simultaneously throwing a punch, Klitschko pounced. This is because a slip to the right leaves one completely vulnerable to the right hand of the opponent; the only way to go right and reliably avoid the other fighter's cross is to roll under it, and Klitschko masterfully prevents the likelihood of this maneuver from Peter by obstructing his line of sight with a flashing jab just before connecting with the right. From Peter's position in this GIF, Klitschko would have caught him no matter what he did. Pulling back would have only put him slightly farther along the path of the right hand, and attempting to shift to his left hip, to slip to the outside of the cross, would have run his head into the punch.
Almost every one of Klitschko's right-handed knockouts occur just after a jab, and while the opponent's head is over his right hip. He is superb at timing his opponents, hitting them the moment they reach the full extent of their slipping motion, when there is virtually no chance of moving out of the way (GIF 1, GIF 2, GIF 3). In essence, Wladimir wants you to slip his jab to the right.
Granted, when an opponent moves the other way, they put themselves at risk for the left hook, and Klitschko takes advantage of that, too.
This was thrown shortly after that first right hand, timed for the moment that Peter began to shift to his left hip which, just as with the right hand and the right hip, opens one's head for a left-handed shot to the temple.
Make no mistake, Klitschko is incredibly good at this. His opponents all have a huge distance to cover to get inside on him, and he does a masterful job of hitting them while they attempt to close that gap.There is a reason that very few people have been able to get around Klitschko's jab--an attempt to do so could very likely result in a knockout.
The answer is to use both hips equally, taking away Klitschko's opportunities to time the movement and throw appropriate punches.
It's also crucial to move forward and punch immediately off of slips. You'll notice that, in both of the examples above, Peter was hit while standing in place and moving his head well outside of his own range--not advancing, not firing back, just shifting back and forth. Wladimir Klitschko is a sniper. He has no trouble finding a moving target with his long arms--what tends to trouble him is aggression and pressure. Like Ali with Norton and Frasier, the tall rangy Klitschko is vulnerable to being swarmed.
Of his three losses, the most applicable one for study is Klitschko's last, a TKO at the hands of Lamon Brewster. This was the only loss Klitschko suffered after making Manny Steward his head trainer, and the one that best represents a win over the current iteration of the heavyweight champ.
Here, Klitschko tags Brewster with a pair of his trademark 1-2s, and Brewster quickly reestablishes his jab, and after that a 1-2 of his own. This is an essential aspect of beating a dominant, controlling fighter like Klitschko--it must be a fight.
That sounds simple, but under Steward's tutelage Wlad developed an excellent sense for tactical fighting. After Samuel Peter dropped Klitschko with a rabbit punch in the fifth round of their first encounter, George Foreman summed up the new Wladimir Klitschko approach perfectly: "Show him you can fight now. . . Don't worry about that skill and boxing anymore--this boy doesn't respect that." Every puncher thinks he can put one good shot on Wlad's jaw, but few of them realize that Klitschko can not only box, but fight back. Yes, Steward taught him to hold his opponents, but he also taught him to make his opponents fear him, and that might be Klitschko's greatest weapon.
He is not, however, a fighter by nature. No matter how far he has come along in terms of toughness and guile, Klitschko will always be an outboxer at heart. He fights back tactically, to let his opponents know that he can, but when Lamon Brewster pushed hard enough, and refused to let Klitschko's power dissuade him, he was able to bring out the same Wladimir that was broken down by Corrie Sanders and Ross Puritty.
In the GIF above, Brewster doesn't just throw reckless punches. Note that he uses a jab to step into range for his powerful short shots, and keeps his feet under him the entire time, up until the point where he knows that he has the Ukrainian badly hurt. He also throws a combination of punches, going both to the body and the head. Klitschko's instinct is to stand tall and lean away from punches, but at a certain distance that actually makes him more susceptible to being hurt by a punch that does land.
The one thing that Brewster does not do is forgetting to...
3. BEND YOUR KNEES
This was the biggest mistake Alexander Povetkin made against Klitschko in the champion's last fight, which was widely decried as a boring clinch-fest--which it was. His many, swear-filled demands for aggression aside, Emmanuel Steward sure taught Klitschko how to lay on a shorter man, and he'll do it at the slightest opportunity. The opportunity in question is an opponent who bends forward at the waist and leads with his head, as Povetkin did over, and over, and over again.
Here, Povetkin makes the same mistake twice in a row, trying to bob under Klitschko's punches but doing so by bending his back, instead of shortening himself at the hips and knees. By bending forward Povetkin does two things: 1) he puts his head right under the armpit of Klitschko, giving the tall man an easy opportunity to tie him up and tire him out; 2) he puts his head over his own left foot, meaning that once Klitschko does put his weight on him, he has no leverage to keep himself upright.
To have any hope of doing damage once inside, Alex Leapai will have to keep his head between his feet. Leaning forward at all is a recipe for disaster, as Klitschko's active lead hand gives him endless opportunities to turn a punching movement into a tie-up.
It's apparent that Klitschko's recent opponents have all made the same mistakes. Alex Leapai has an opportunity to learn from their mistakes, and he'd be remiss to fight Klitschko the same way heavyweights have been fighting him for almost ten years now. With enough pressure, it's still possible to turn the dominant post-Steward version of Klitschko into the awkward, uncomfortable fighter of old--one just needs to get past the many layers of defense he and Steward developed to avoid this.
Again, easier said than done.
For more analysis, as well as fighter and trainer interviews, check out Heavy Hands, the only podcast dedicated to the finer points of face punching. On this week's new episode, Connor answers listener questions with boxing trainer Luis Monda.