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What are we to make of the Klitschkos?

19
Mar

You look at their size and think, “Imposing.” You look at their records and think, “Impressive.” You watch them fight and think, “Effective, but boring.” You look at their opposition and think, “Ugh.”

So what are we to make of the abilities of reigning heavyweight kings Vitali and Wladimir Klitschko of Ukraine?

Well, let's break it down into three categories and see where we land: pluses, minuses and conclusion.

PLUSES

First, there's their size.

Vitali, who defends his WBC title on Saturday in Germany, is 6 feet, 7 inches and fights at around 250 pounds; Wladimir is 6-6 and around 245. By boxing standards, they're enormous. And the fact they're rock solid, the result of hard work, makes them even more imposing.

Chris Byrd, the 6-foot-tall natural cruiserweight who fought them both, still marvels at their stature.

“It's a major key in their success,” he said. “And not just their size, but the way they use it. They're talented big guys. You can get a guy who is 6-10 with the longest reach in the world. If he doesn't know how to use that advantage, it won't do him any good.

“(The Klitschkos) keep their distance, they use their reach and height. They're good big men. And, as they say, a good big man beats a good smaller man.”

And with mammoth size sometimes comes mammoth power, which seems to be the case here.

Vitali (37-2, 36 knockouts), who stopped Juan Carlos Gomez on Saturday, has one of the greatest knockout ratios of all time. Wladimir (52-3, 46 KOs) lags behind somewhat but his right hand might be the most potent punch since George Foreman's first go around in the 1970s.

“Wladimir hits very hard, harder than (Mike) Tyson,” said trainer Freddie Roach, who has worked with both brothers and Tyson.

They also live cleanly and work extremely hard, harder than the vast majority of their opponents, according to Byrd.

Roach offered an anecdote of their running habits to illustrate their dedication to training.

“At one point, they ran 12 800-meter [roughly a half mile] sprints, each under 3 minutes, with a minute rest between each one,” Roach said. “I timed every one and every one was under 3 minutes. I never saw a heavyweight do anything even close to that. They work their asses off. To be able to do that, two 250-pound guys – whew.

“They're two of the best athletes I've ever trained.”

They also know how to box.

The brothers cut their teeth in the old Eastern European amateur boxing machine. Wladimir reportedly had 140 amateur fights (losing only six) and won the super heavyweight gold medal at the 1996 Olympics. Vitali had 210 fights (with 15 losses) and was a kickboxing world champion.

Wladimir also has 55 pro fights, Vitali 38. Add it all up and you get 443 fights. That's plenty of time to learn the fundamentals and gain a firm grasp of strategy.

They use their size and strength to its full advantage, generally keeping their opponents at a safe distance while using their long, powerful arms to inflict damage. It's a simple game plan that has worked over and over again in their careers.

“They're smart fighters,” Byrd said. “I've been sparring with Vitali (for the Gomez fight). He's smarter than I thought, even smarter than I remembered from our fight (in 2000). He thinks things through. So does Wladimir. The big guys know how to fight.”

The most-obvious plus is their consistency. The brothers have a remarkable combined record of 88-5 (81 knockouts).

Television analyst Larry Merchant suggested that Vitali might never have been behind in a professional fight. He was well ahead on points against Byrd when he retired because of a shoulder injury and was leading Lennox Lewis when the fight was stopped because of a cut.

And while Wladimir has been stopped three times against mediocre opponents, raising questions about his chin and toughness, he seems to have gotten past that strange period. He has won 10 in a row under Emanuel Steward's tutelage.

They've also been at the top of the sport for a very long time. Wladimir won his first major title in 2000 and currently holds the IBF and WBO belts. Vitali won his first title in 1999, took off four years because of injuries and then returned with a spectacular KO victory over Sam Peter in October to win the WBC belt.

At the moment, they look almost untouchable.

“Honestly, who's gonna beat 'em?” Byrd said.

MINUSES

Trainer and television analyst Teddy Atlas can point to the Klitschkos' technical flaws.

For example, they stand straight up and often throw only one punch at a time; they look for the big right hand and don't throw combinations. They also pull straight back when they should go to either side. And they keep their hands down more than they should.

However, Atlas and many others have more of a problem with their style than their technique: Neither of them is inclined to fight aggressively. They stay on the outside, win, collect their paychecks and go home, which often leaves fans unsatisfied after their fights.

“They play it very safe,” Atlas said. “I'm not knocking them for playing it safe if that's what it takes to get to the promised land if they can get away with it. I just don't know if they should be acclaimed for it.”

This is a tricky discussion.

Boxing is a sport; some argue that the only object is to win. And the Klitschkos win. Others argue that boxing is more than that; it's also entertainment. Heavyweight champions are supposed to fight, not win chess matches.

And the Klitschkos pay a price for their reticence to mix it up. They've made a fortune but don't get a lot of respect for their fighting spirit and aren't well known outside Europe.

“It's nice to have a 'W,'” said boxing historian Bert Sugar. “It's also nice to have an 'E' for excitement or an 'I' for identification. They're beating guys who no one knows and they're not exciting while they're doing it. Put it together and what do you have? A lack of interest in them and the heavyweight division.

“Their lack of ability isn't as great as their lack of excitement.”

And do they get a free pass for that by the media?

Atlas said that Wladimir “does more clutching than Bonecrusher Smith did in the Tyson fight, more than Mitch Green did against Tyson. And those guys got assaulted by the media for doing that, they were torn apart. These guys shouldn't be praised for it.”

Their courage has also been questioned.

No one knows quite what to make of Wladimir's losses, in which he seemed to be both hurt and out of gas at the same time. Whatever it was, he certainly looked nothing like a warrior when things got rough. He just doesn't mix it up.

And while Vitali pulled out of the Byrd fight with what later was determined to be a serious shoulder injury, some fighters would've found a way to survive three more rounds, particularly with a big lead. On the other hand, his courageous performance against Lewis revealed the fighter in him.

“They've quit in fights,” Atlas said. “I give them credit for learning from that. I don't know if people are honest that they quit, though. They say they ran out of gas or were hurt. No, they gave up. They made a choice, they gave up.

“They fell apart, broke down. That's the bottom line.”

No one can question their records; those are indelible. Their level of opposition definitely can be questioned, though.

Neither Klitschko has beaten a heavyweight who officials would even allow to visit the Hall of Fame. That's not their fault but it's reality. How can we say that the Klitschkos are accomplished fighters if they don't beat accomplished fighters?

The best opponent either fighter has faced was Lennox Lewis, who Vitali fought in 2003. Again, to his credit, Vitali showed that fighting spirit that generally has been missing and was leading by two points when the fight was stopped but still lost.

Beyond that, they've faced a long string of never-have-beens. And that includes the fighters who have knocked out Wladimir – Ross Puritty, Corrie Sanders and Lamon Brewster. Such is the sadly barren state of the heavyweight division.

Their critics bristle if you even suggest that the Klitschkos could beat the best heavyweights of the past.

Larry Holmes? “Would've torn them apart,” former titleholder Michael Moorer said. Evander Holyfield? “Would've made them fight,” Atlas said. Riddick Bowe at his best? “Would've been too much for them,” Atlas said.

CONCLUSION

The Klitschkos must be pretty good. They win consistently. Rocky Marciano did the same thing against generally mediocre opposition and today is a revered Hall of Famer, as he should be.

At the same time, we'll probably never know exactly how good the Klitschkos are for lack of good competition. We can only speculate how they might've faired against the greatest heavyweights of the past, which is part of being a boxing fan.

In the end, though, it doesn't add up to much.

“You gotta be the best of your time,” Roach said. “And that's what they're doing. They're beating the guys in front of them. That's all they can do. You can't worry about what you would've done against someone else.”

The entertainment factor is different. In that regard, the Klitschkos clearly fail.

As Atlas and Sugar said, boxing is more than wins and losses. It's about fighting, about facing danger, about getting off the canvas and putting your opponent on the canvas and mostly about stirring the masses.

The Klitschkos are giants. Logic tells fans that giants should rip people apart, not play it safe and survive unscathed to do it again. They want to see the Vitali Klitschko who gave Lewis hell every time he and his brother step into the ring.

“Except for the Lewis fight, they've never been involved in the kind of dramas the greatest heavyweights have been indentified with,” Merchant said. “They use their size to dominate people. We haven't seen guys knocked down, get up, knock the other guy down, coming back from adversity and so on.

“I think there is a kind of indifferent acknowledgment that they are the best out there but reluctance to give them high marks or real respect for what they've achieved.”

Michael Rosenthal's column appears Wednesdays. He can be reached at [email protected]

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