On Saturday, November 28th Wladimir Klitschko will defend his heavyweight throne, and the various belts littered at its foot. It's a situation he's faced many times before, but Tyson Fury is unique. Klitschko has typically towered over his opposition from a lofty 6'6" vantage point; Fury is an even taller 6'9". Klitschko is used to touching his opponents well before they can touch him, using his impressive 81" reach; Fury's wingspan is 85". Klitschko is also used to tying up his opponents in short range, where most of them wait for the referee to create separation; Fury is an excellent in-fighter who knows how to use his frame in close as well as on the outside.
It's hard to pick against Klitschko despite these factors, however. Few boxers on earth can claim Wladimir's breadth of experience, and only one other boxer in history has ever sat atop the heavyweight division for longer (if you consider Wlad's first IBF title anywhere near equivalent to Joe Louis' undisputed crown, that is). Fury will have to fight the smartest fight of his career in order to net the win. He'll need a carefully layered strategy to upset the king. He'll need to do this:
3. Use lateral movement
2. Counter the jab
1. Create space and work inside
Let's run through these three keys in order of least importance to most. First up, footwork.
3. USE LATERAL MOVEMENT
Tyson Fury is probably sick of hearing that he's talented "for a big man," but the cliche rings true when it comes to his footwork and movement. Fury is a terrifically big man, and he's remarkably light on his feet considering that fact. He is also a solid puncher, but nowhere near as talented in terms of power as Klitschko. Thus, it behooves Fury to use lateral movement to keep the champion from planting his feet and unloading power shots.
Though most of Wlad's diminutive challengers have opted to pressure him, Fury wouldn't be the first to move and box. Bryant Jennings recently employed a movement-heavy strategy and competed quite well with the big man despite his relative inexperience. Ten years ago Klitschko fought a competitive (and sadly, short) bout with DaVarryl Williamson, who did his best to stay out of the champ's line of fire.
Williamson did more than avoid undue punishment, in fact. He used his constant, back-and-forth movement to keep Klitschko from comfortably planting his feet, forcing him to overcommit and give up his massive reach advantage. When Klitschko went for his trademark straight right in the fourth round, Williamson side-stepped it and drove home a counter that put Klitschko down.
Wladimir Klitschko may be particularly vulnerable to counters of this kind. Since joining forces with Emanuel Steward in 2003, he has fought out of a long, bladed stance. Though this positioning extends Klitschko's body and enhances his reach advantage, it leaves him vulnerable to attacks from either side; just as a square stance makes one easier to tip over from the front, a bladed stance compromises sideways balance. By stepping to Klitschko's right, Williamson was able to send his punch across that weak plane, and send Klitschko to the canvas.
Fury doesn't move as "athletically" as Williamson and Jennings--he doesn't tend to bounce around on his toes or spring suddenly out of harm's way--but his footwork is no less effective. Fury's steps and pivots are a little more deliberate than his lighter counterparts--more considered, and smaller. As a result, he is more often in position to continue punching immediately after making a defensive move.
And unlike Jennings and Williamson, Fury won't have to take away Klitschko's reach advantage before countering him off of those angles. Wherever he pivots, Wladimir will be a backhand jab away.
2. COUNTER THE JAB
So much of effective strategizing is based on the premise of either taking away the opponent's advantages, or competing with him in his comfort zone. The idea is to chip away at the opponent's confidence by punishing his favorite tactics and laying claim to his favorite ranges and styles of fighting.
If there is one tool Wladimir Klitschko relies on more than any other, it's his jab. Whether a constant, probing presence or a head-snapping thunderbolt, nearly everything Klitschko does in the ring is based around the action of his left hand. He controls the range, dissuades counter attacks, does damage, and sets up power shots--all with his left hand, which is surely the most educated in the heavyweight division.
Kubrat Pulev surprised many by touching Klitschko with his jab when the two fought in November of 2014. Despite suffering two knockdowns in the first round, Pulev managed to make the fight fairly competitive simply by jabbing with Klitschko, something most of the Ukrainian's opponents cannot do simply for lack of reach.
In that fight, Pulev's overall problems were many. He rarely took the initiative with his footwork, standing still in front of Klitschko and waiting for him to move before adjusting his own feet. He had virtually no head movement, which made him particularly susceptible to the left hook that Klitschko began playing off the threat of his jab. But by merely matching Klitschko's reach and being willing to work in the champion's wheelhouse, Pulev forced Klitschko to adjust his tactics.
Physically, Pulev was an unusual opponent, with a quarter-inch reach advantage over Klitschko. As mentioned in the introduction, Fury enjoys a much more significant edge in that department. By using his lateral movement and countering Klitschko's jabs with his own, Fury has a very real opportunity to work his way into the fight--and into Klitschko's head. The more effectively Fury can assert his dominance at range, the better his chances of winning the fight. And it all starts with taking away the jab.
1. CREATE SPACE AND WORK INSIDE
The problem with fighting Klitschko is that, thanks to his tremendous power, he always has a chance to hurt his opponent at range. Which means that no matter how many 1s, 2s, and 3s an opponent slips, blocks, or parries, a single punch could slip through at any time and turn the whole fight around. Most have responded to this problem by trying to bypass Klitschko's long-distance weapons, stepping into the pocket to work inside his reach. That's where Klitschko's most unpopular tactic comes into play.
It's well known that Klitschko views the clinch as a "safe zone." You could even say that the heavyweight champ is notorious for his punch n' clutch tactics, tying up smaller opponents the moment they come close enough to punch.
Here you can watch (or not--I wouldn't make you) the many clinches of the very first round of Klitschko-Povetkin. When Klitschko attacks and lands, he clinches up. When he attacks and misses, he lays his weight across the back and neck of Povetkin in an effort to wear him out and restrain him. When Povetkin attacks, Klitschko quickly reaches out and wraps him up, either laying heavily on him or overhooking his arms. No matter what the circumstance, Klitschko is always ready to neutralize his opponents in this way, making it so that there is only room and time for his own offense.
The truth is, most of Klitschko's opponents have been pretty dismal in-fighters. Povetkin repeatedly failed to keep his feet under his upper body as he came in, leaning forward and giving Klitschko every opportunity to press him down. Pulev had no idea how to maneuver his feet and look for angles, leaving him with no option but rabbit punching. Jennings was strong, but didn't know how to pummel his arms free or create space for power punches. Most of Klitschko's opponents get clinched, struggle vainly for a few moments, and then wait for the reset--exactly what Klitschko wants them to do.
Tyson Fury is a different specimen. Like Riddick Bowe before him, Fury is a tall man who knows exactly how to use his height inside. When necessary he bends at the hip to get head position, driving his forehead into his opponent's cheek in order to create space and find an angle. When the opponent fights for leverage and lowers his own body, Fury will stand up tall and bring short uppercuts up the center. When the other man fails to adjust, Fury will drive him back and land punches as he struggles to keep his balance.
Fury will be the first challenger in a long time with a real understanding of close-quarters fighting, and that is a huge advantage. If he can use his head and forearms to frame and create distance whenever Klitschko looks to clinch, he will have the opportunity to do lasting damage in the one place that Klitschko considers absolutely safe. If strategizing is all about planting small insecurities in the mind of the opponent, then there can be no tactic more important to Fury's success than this. While he will be in immense danger at all times, Fury has the tools to execute an efficient, proactive gameplan--no waiting for the big punch, no struggling to close the distance, no smothering in close.
Often, fights are decided by something more than technique and tactics. Confidence, courage, determination--these can carry a boxer to victory even in the face of a truly dire stylistic matchup. To Tyson Fury's benefit, this isn't a dire stylistic matchup, and though the opponent is far and away the best he will have ever faced, Fury's confidence can't be doubted. In his own words: "Real, true champions get back up off the floor and win. Fakes don't. Wladimir didn't, did he?"
Harsh as Fury's phrasing may be, there is a kernel of truth hidden within. Fury has been knocked down before, true. Steve Cunningham is nobody's idea of a dynamite puncher, but even he was able to sit the big Traveller down on the canvas. But the same is true of Klitschko. And while it's been a long, long time since anyone dropped Wladimir, most of his knockdowns have presaged an imminent end to the fight.
Fury has a frame unlike any of Klitschko's previous challengers. Better, he has the confidence and schooling to use it. It may be the perfect combination to finally unseat the man who has ruled the heavyweight division for the last decade. Everyone's invincible until they lose.
For more on Klitschko-Fury, as well as last weekend's excellent Canelo-Cotto, check out the latest episode of Heavy Hands, the only podcast dedicated to the finer points of face-punching.