Alongside his brother Wladimir, Vitali Klitschko dominated the heavyweight division for the better part of a decade, among the highest earners and main attractions of the sport in a transitional period that saw the departures of giants Lennox Lewis and Mike Tyson, prior to the rise of Tyson Fury, Deontay Wilder and Anthony Joshua.
After excelling in both amateur boxing and kickboxing, Klitschko went to professional boxing at age 25, and just before he turned 28 in 1999, captured the WBO heavyweight title against Herbie Hide.
Throughout the rest of his career, he would only face defeat against two opponents, Chris Byrd and Lennox Lewis. After retiring in 2004 as WBC titleholder and returning in 2008 to immediately re-take that crown, he concluded his career in 2012 with a record of 45-2 (41 KO).
Klitschko was an unorthodox fighter who mastered several facets of the boxing game. Standing at 6’7”, he towered over nearly all of his opponents with an accompanying 7-foot wingspan. He was muscle bound, but maintained fluidity. Klitschko was a patient offensive fighter who forced fighters to fight at his pace, and was a threat to knock anybody out.
Let’s examine the good and the bad that Klitschko brought to the table, as we delve into his championship fights against Hide, Lewis, Corrie Sanders, and Shannon Briggs.
Unbelievable Right Hand
Klitschko’s greatest strength was his deceptive right hand. He would keep it locked and loaded at his chin and was always ready to fire. In all four fights, it was his punch of choice.
Particularly against Briggs, he dominated the former champion for all 36 minutes by showing his jab and then letting off the right. He threw it in such a way where it wasn’t level enough to be considered a conventional straight right, but was not high enough to be deemed an overhand. It was down-turning and precise.
Fighters knew it was coming, similar to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s skyhook in basketball, yet none of the four opponents could do anything about it. His right hand helped him outpoint Lewis before the fight was controversially stopped in Lewis’ favor.
His ability to time his right hand is up there with the best of the heavyweights in boxing history.
An Adaptable Defense
Klitschko’s greatest defensive strengths came with his legs. He exhibited a sound retreat, and was able to lean back to evade punches, and was adroit at slipping punches to his right.
Outside of slipping, Klitschko had almost no horizontal movement. This hampered his ability to defend against the cross. When they came, he resorted to clinching or retreating. Sanders was relentless in his attack in the first few rounds of their fight. He let his hands go and was able to tag Klitschko upstairs on many occasions as he won two of the first three rounds on my card.
In fact, his defense against Sanders was perhaps his best, most probably because he had no other choice than to remain agile against the onslaught. Against Lewis, he got caught with uppercuts and barrages that contributed to two nasty gashes above and below his left eye.
He came into his bout against Hide as a 7/4 favorite, yet if it were not for superior offense, his defense would not have saved him. His head movement sufficed, but his ability to get from point A to point B while moving side-to-side he did not implement into his prowess.
Not His Cup of Tea
You wouldn’t see Klitschko throw feints or uppercuts. He was a very straightforward fighter with few elements of chicanery to his repertoire. As a taller fighter, one would think he’d have the upper hand in catching fighters whenever they got low, but did not utilize that tactic.
As previously mentioned, Sanders was the most active fighter that Klitschko fought relative to the sample size in question, but Lewis was the most skilled. When the two titans fought for the lineal undisputed heavyweight championship in 2003, Lewis was able to tag Klitschko with a variety of punches that he did not reciprocate.
Vitali’s jab was present, but he did not let it off the way other jab-heavy legends have. It was mainly used to set up his menacing right hand. When he fought Briggs, he kept his jab hand down, perhaps as a sign of disrespect towards Briggs. This could be seen in other Klitschko fights as well, just not as frequently as in this matchup.
His left cross was precise, but not thrown with regularity. This worked to his advantage. Since his right garnered a lot of focus, fighters became more on guard, which allowed him to sneak in his left hooks when opportune, scoring points on the cards.
Much like his brother, the elder Klitschko’s stance evolved through the years. Early on, he favored a closer stance with an upright posture. Once he faced Lewis, he opted to widen his stance and get low.
For comparison’s sake, his brother Wladimir began his career with an identical stance to his brother, although the former was more fluid in the shoulders. Clearly, their upbringing instilled in them both a uniform boxing style. However, unlike his brother, Vitali remained flatfooted for much of his career. Wladimir became much more bouncy on his feet in his advanced age, especially when he fought Joshua, but Vitali stuck to what he knew best.
Klitschko’s right hand makes him a threat against any heavyweight in history. The question is, would it keep aggressive fighters at bay before their oncoming rounds of punches close the distance? Klitschko did not throw barrages. It was rare to see him let off more than three or four punches at a time. While his patience worked to his benefit, it would help him against some pantheon greats, and hurt him against others.
Klitschko had a great heart, able to take a punch and was not chinny. His imposing frame would be a matchup problem for many shorter fighters. As a pugilist, he excelled at several aspects of the boxing game. He was a fixture in heavyweight boxing for the entirety of the 2000s, and the greater “story” of boxing cannot be told without his name included.