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What makes Vitali Klitschko so hard to beat?

23
Sep

Few of the onlookers who watched Vitali Klitschko joke around and shake out during a late Wednesday morning open workout at Muscle Beach in Venice, Calif., realized they were looking at the most formidable heavyweight in the world.

To most curious bystanders who watched him skip rope, do push ups and shadow box, he’s just a very tall, very fit middle-aged guy with a thick Russian accent.

Fans of Chris Arreola, the L.A.-born heavyweight contender who will challenge Klitschko for the Ukranian’s heavyweight title at Staples Center on Saturday, know better. They know Klitschko is no joke.

As much as they love Arreola and want to see him become the first heavyweight of Mexican descent to win a major title, they’re having a hard time envisioning just how he’ll pull off what would be a tremendous upset.

Klitschko’s not unbeatable, but he’s pretty damn close to it. Of his 39 professional opponents, only two have had their hands raised after facing him: former titleholder Chris Byrd and former champ Lennox Lewis.

Byrd frustrated Klitschko when the two fought in Germany 8¾ years ago, but the smaller man was trailing on the scorecards before he became the beneficiary of a technical stoppage due to a shoulder injury that kept the giant beltholder on his stool after the ninth round.

Lewis went blow for blow with Klitschko in a rousing six-round battle of big men at Staples Center in 2003. Lewis, who was twice rocked, beat his giant challenger to the jab, causing severe cuts and lacerations around Klitschko’s eye that ultimately forced the ringside physician to halt the fight in the champ’s favor. Klitschko was up by two points on all three judges scorecards at the time.

A bad shoulder injury and gruesome cuts. Those are the only things that have defeated Klitschko in the ring.

He’s never been down or even visibly hurt (rocked or wobbled) in 39 professional fights. He’s never been down on the scorecards. Of the 37 opponents he’s defeated, 36 have been stopped.

What makes Klitschko (37-2, 36 knockouts) so hard to beat?

I asked him after his open workout. He’s not saying.

“That’s a good question to ask Chris Arreola after our fight,” he offered.

I know his height (6-foot-7) is a big part of what makes him difficult to fight. You don’t have to be possessed by the ghost of Eddie Futch to figure that out.

But there’s more to it.

I asked HBO commentator Larry Merchant, who attended Wednesday’s open workout, and the cable network’s longtime boxing analyst did what he does best — put things in perspective.

“It’s more than his height,” said Merchant, who will work Saturday’s show. “Yes, he knows how to use his height, but he’s also so strong that he can hurt you with arm punches. So he doesn’t have to risk getting in range to land. He doesn’t have to lean in or step in with his punches.

“And he’s patient. He’s fine with keeping his opponent at arms length until his power grinds them down. He’s awkward, which makes it difficult for opponents to time him, and he’s also very tough. If you can catch him with a good shot, chances are that he can take your best shot.”

Height and reach, which Klitschko uses both offensively and defensively. Phenomenal strength and power, which can wear down the toughest opponent. And a rock-sold chin, which can absorb any lucky shot that might get through. That's what Arreola must deal with Saturday.

“There’s one more thing I’ve noticed bout Vitali,” Merchant added. “He has a real intuition in the ring that tells him where his opponent is and what he has to do to keep out of range while keeping his opponent in range.”

Huh? On top of being a skilled giant, Klitschko’s some kind of mind reader?

I called Merchant’s HBO co-commentator Emanuel Steward, who trains heavyweight champ Wladimir Klitschko, to get his take on what makes his fighter’s older brother so hard to beat and the Hall of Fame trainer also brought up the 38-year-old titleholder’s sixth sense in the ring.

“I remember watching Vitali train when both brothers were training in L.A.,” said Steward, who also trained Lewis. “I watched him spar and I noticed that he gets a feeling of when a punch is about to come and he moves out of position just as this is happening, and at the same time he throws a punch while he’s moving.

“I thought to myself, 'No wonder he’s so difficult.' I had never noticed this before. When Lennox fought him, I thought his height would be a problem but I knew that Lennox had handled taller fighters before so I wasn’t worried about it.

“After that fight, Lennox told me ‘I know he looked easy on the films but he’s tough to fight.’ Vitali has subtle movement and that intuition and a gangly way of punching that just makes him very, very difficult to beat.”

Steward also mentioned a psychological advantage that Klitschko often imposes on his opponents.

“He’s not known for this because he’s a gentleman, just like his brother, but Vitali is a very intimidating man,” Steward said. “He intimidates his opponents at the press conferences and at the weigh-ins. I’ve seen him do it to his brother’s opponents when we’re in Germany. Just his upright posture, the size of his body and the intensity in his eyes when he looks down on a man makes an impression. He’s always by his brother’s side when Wladimir fights and I’m telling you I can feel it from Vitali. He’s an intimidator.”

Veteran trainer Jesse Reid, who’s looking after the Wild Card gym while Freddie Roach trains Manny Pacquiao in the Philippines, doesn’t think Klitschko will need any intuition or intimidation to beat Arreola.

He believes Klitschko’s style and superb conditioning is what confounds and ultimately defeats his opponents.

“He’s awkward and he’s got great stamina,” Reid said. “It’s as simple as that. He won’t wear down like his brother has a few times. Vitali doesn’t wear down. He wears you down. I think he was on his way to wearing Lennox Lewis down when they fought. Lewis was on top of his game but couldn’t hurt him or tire him out.

“How’s Arreola going to do it? I don’t think Chris is fast enough to counter what he’s going to get hit with all night. I think the only way to stop Klitschko is to do it on cuts like Lewis did, but how many heavyweights out there right now have ability like Lennox Lewis?”

EVERYBODY HATES CHRIS

Reid gives Arreloa no shot to beat Klitschko.

“Klitschko’s just going to bust him all up,” said Reid, who has trained 18 world titleholders, including Orlando Canizales, Johnny Tapia and Roger Mayweather. “He’s either going to stop Chris or he’s going to beat him all to hell on his way to a unanimous decision. Chris gets hit too much.”

That sentiment is shared by almost every boxing writer and trainer I’ve spoken to about this fight.

However, Merchant doesn’t share that opinion. The 78-year-old journalist has the utmost respect for both Klitschko brothers but he says he’s been waiting two years for Arreola to fight one of them.

Why? The old man likes what he sees in Arreola.

“He’s not like all those other American heavyweights who started boxing at 19 or 21 or 25 because they failed at some other sport,” Merchant said. “He’s an athlete who’s been in the gym since he was a child. He’s got balance and he knows how to put punches together.”

I watched Arreola tee off on the mitts held by his trainer, Henry Ramirez, as Merchant said this.

I liked the quickness I saw in Arreola’s hands and feet as he got off with an up-jab followed by four-punch body-head combinations.

I liked how Arreola dipped low when he let his punches fly.

“He learned how to throw the combinations we’re seeing now when he was an amateur middleweight,” Merchant continued. “These other guys we’ve seen lately learned how to throw the jab and the right hand in their twenties and they never had the balance to do much more than that. Chris throws combinations and he has the balance to land the third and fourth punch.

“Now, the question is, can he get inside to do so?”

Steward isn’t sure, but like Merchant, he doesn’t count the 28-year-old Riverside, Calif., resident out.

“All logic favors Klitschko, but I think Arreola will bring a strong desire to win, and I don’t think Vitali has had to deal with that in a long time,” he said. “It’s not going to be like it’s been for him in Germany. The crowd won’t be 100 percent for him, and Chris is coming to win.

“Arreola has got that tough Mexican-American Southern Californian mindset, like Fernando Vargas. It’s almost gangster. It’s this mentality where you’re not going to let another man punk you or push you around no matter how big or strong or skilled he may be.”

Steward says the mind and spirit of a fighter can help create miracles in the ring.

“A fighter’s emotional state and desire to win counts so much in boxing,” he said. “I know because I’ve been in the other corner when the guy who supposedly had no shot to win simply would not be denied on that particular night. Iran Barkley beat Thomas Hearns. Sean O’Grady beat Hilmer Kenty. Lamon Brewster beat Wladimir Klitschko. You can see it in them when they have it. I saw it in O’Grady the night he fought Kenty, and I was like ‘Oh Lord, why tonight?’

“It happens in boxing. I have to assume that Chris is going to feed off that L.A. crowd and all the Mexican-Americans and Mexicans who are going to be cheering him on. I trained a big underdog when Oliver McCall fought Lewis. I had Oliver so worked up and emotional that it didn’t even matter that we were in England and had everything going against us. I can see Chris being a lot like McCall.

“Klitschko hasn’t fought that kind of fighter in a long time. Kirk Johnson gave him nothing. Samuel Peter did nothing. That Cuban [Juan Carlos Gomez] didn’t seem to have any desire. The last time Vitali has fought someone with real desire, someone who refused to lose, was Lennox.”

THE BROTHERS

I’ve heard that an Arreola victory on Saturday will give the heavyweight division and the sport the jolt it needs in America.

I’ve stated that myself in so many ways, but after watching how well the Klitschko brothers worked the crowd at Muscle Beach and then related to the people they met on the basketball courts and the Venice boardwalk, I’m not so sure.

Both brothers engaged the audience, most of whom had no clue who they were, like professional entertainers. They held the attention of the onlookers and made many laugh. And English is what? Their fourth language? I was impressed.

My theory is that if they had been developed in America instead of Germany, they would be huge crossover stars in the U.S. right now.

It’s not too late for Wladimir to make an impression, unfortunately (for U.S. fans) his next fight — probably against Arreola’s promotional stablemate Eddie Chambers — will most likely be in Germany.

I know that economics pretty much mandate that most Klitschko fights take place there, but imagine if Wladimir’s title defenses against Tony Thompson and Hasim Rahman took place in the D.C.-Maryland area? What if the Chambers fight took place in Philly? What if he fought Kevin Johnson in New Jersey or Atlanta, with all the pre-fight promotional events like the one I witnessed on Wednesday?

I know the champ has the personality to crossover. All he’d have to do is deliver entertainment in the ring.

THE BIG WEIGH-IN

The Klitschko-Arreola weigh-in takes place at 3 p.m. Thursday at Star Plaza across from Staples Center. It’s open to the public.

Doug Fischer’s column appears every Thursday. He can be reached at [email protected]

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