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Wladimir and Vitali Klitschko: Are They All Time Greats?

By Jeff Stoyanoff

Wladimir Klitschko, 55-3, 49 KO’s, scored another easy KO victory this past week this time over the completely overmatched Sam Peter, 34-3, 27 KO’s. I for one thought that Peter might pull off a mild surprise here and keep the fight close before finally succumbing to the bigger and technically superior Klitschko. But, I was mistaken as Wlad dominated from the outset before eventually finishing Peter in the 10th round. One would be tempted to believe that this is yet another example of the Klitschko’s beating another inferior opponent. A continuation of the belief that the Klitschko’s themselves are little more than average fighters in a remarkably soft era in the heavyweight division. Obviously, Samuel Peter is not going down in history as an all time great, but a look at the resume of many of the greats will yield a litany of fighters that were far less than special. The Klitschko’s don’t dominate simply because nobody can fight, but they also are not swimming in the deepest waters the division has ever seen. Are they all time greats? Who can ever say for sure, but I think there is a reason beyond mere level of competition that accounts for their startling dominance.

Recently, James Toney, a truly magnificent fighter, essentially made a fool of himself in a silly money grab as he opted to enter the cage to fight MMA legend Randy Couture in an MMA extravaganza. Sadly and most predictably, Toney was dispatched in a little over three minutes. The wind up on the event being the extraordinarily obvious revelation that when a boxer meets a fighter schooled in MMA that the rules determine the winner….shocking. But perhaps there is something here that might shed some light on the brothers Klitschko. Both Vitali and Wlad are highly cerebral and contemplative men; chess players who just happen to be able to beat the living crap out of you as well. I have always had the feeling that what the Klitschkos do not want is to be pressured by a volume puncher as that would disrupt them and take them out of their comfort zone of strategically and methodically dismantling their opponents one punch at a time. They are thinkers and that carries into the ring. If they have time to set up their shots they are nothing short of devastating. Those are the rules when a Klitschko fights and, thus far, their opponents are fighting by those rules. It is perhaps that dynamic as much as anything that produces the dominating results.

There can be no doubt that the Klitschkos are both exceptional athletes and when it comes to landing crisp, hard, accurate punches they are as good as it gets. In addition, both men use their height beautifully to control both the distance and pace in a fight. In other words, they both seem adept at stifling their opponent and reducing them to throw punches sporadically and one at a time. This dynamic suits them perfectly as when they are allowed to take their time and set up their shots then what could be vices instead become virtues. The younger Klitschko still seems to have trouble firing back when pressured. It’s still a chess game; the opponent moves and then you move. However, he has become so good at imposing his will that one can scarcely remember the last time he was pressed. Wladimir Klitschko seems to fight his fight every time out and that is bad news for his opponent….Mr. Toney meet Mr. Couture.

It is hard to say how the Wlad and Vitali will be remembered after they retire. Most likely the will have proponents and detractors and both sides will be right to a certain degree. It would seem that both men are consistently able to reduce their opponents into toothless kittens lobbing one shot at a time back at them as they systematically take them apart. Is that because neither man has ever faced a truly talented, volume punching heavyweight in his career? Sadly, the answer to that question is perhaps yes. Like it or not, the brothers have dominated in a bit of a weak era. But, are they both great fighters who were good enough to clean out the division? The pedigree of both men is hard to deny. They are both devastating offensive fighters with enormous power and uncanny accuracy. Vitali has a chin that should rank up there with the best the division has ever produced. And, Wlad while not having the whiskers of his brother, is still certainly game and compensates well with expert control of pace and distance. The answer to this question also seems to have a lot of yes in it. How can the answer to both questions be yes? That is what upsets our sensibilities as fans. But, if one looks at past greats, one can easily see that they also receive a yes on both questions.

Every great fighter has his greatness as well as the shadowy questions that would seek to denigrate his legacy. Joe Louis had the aptly named “Bum of the Month Club”. Rocky Marciano was thought to have dominated in another slow era. Jack Dempsey is often chastised for having lost to the one great heavy that he encountered in his career in Gene Tunney. This after opting not to fight the outstanding black fighters of his time; another criticism that devalues his career achievements in the eyes of many fans. And, of course, Muhammad Ali certainly has more than his share of great wins, but also had some losses and questionable wins. His early wins over Doug Jones and Henry Cooper were not without considerable drama. He struggled with Ken Norton mightily. And, even many of his great wins were hardly dominating such as his win over Ron Lyle where he was losing on the cards when he turned things around. And, of course, this is without even mentioning any of his poor performances which came later in his career when his skills had deteriorated noticeably. Ali has the wins, but also more losses; the deep era gives and takes in equal measure.

The point here is that all of that criticism could also accurately be construed as unduly harsh if not downright unfair. The men listed are truly great fighters perhaps among the best of all time regardless of weight class. The fact is, sensible criticism (I said that the criticism was harsh not completely ridiculous) is going to follow any fighter. Too dominant? Weak era. Strong opponents? Point to the lackluster performances. Some guys even get it at both ends, for example Wladimir Klitschko. Wlad is still chastised for his poor performances against Corrie Sanders and Lamon Brewster. Yet, now after improving his skills in many ways, he is ridiculed for feasting on weak opposition. Perhaps the brothers dominate because they are uniquely suited to dominate in the era of the new heavyweight, a bigger man who fights at a slower pace. But, that merely provides the context for the wins. How it is used only demonstrates the subjectivity of measuring greatness; it yields no real answers

Gene Tunney and the racism of the early 20th century for Dempsey, The Bum of the Month Club for Louis, past prime fighters and a weak era for Marciano, questionable wins and few bad losses for Ali. The context will always be there. Do the Klitschko’s force their opponents to fight their style by virtue of being truly special? Or, did they merely thrive because they never encountered that gifted fighter who could truly challenge them? The individual answers yield little truth, only bias because the truth as always is somewhere in the middle. Just as it has been for every great fighter that has ever laced up the gloves.

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