Thursday, November 30, 2023  |


From the Archive: Klitschko vs. The Legends

Fighters Network


(Editor’s Note: This feature was originally published in the December 2012 issue of THE RING Magazine.)

For those who are tired of watching Wladimir Klitschko dust off his competition, THE RING is offering a temporary balm this month. No, we haven’t finally talked him into fighting his brother Vitali. But we are reviving an old journalistic chestnut and matching him against some legendary figures from boxing’s past.

“Dream bout” articles are tricky. Would Klitschko and these phantoms of yore go 15 rounds or 12?  Do they use up-to-date gloves or old-style gloves with unattached thumbs?  Is the referee from this era or an old time ref who allows the fight to continue through blood and multiple knockdowns? But even if the bouts take place under some sort of “unified rules of boxing eras,” matching THE RING heavyweight champion against the legends is difficult for other reasons. For one, even Klitschko’s keenest admirers agree that he has ruled over a poor era for heavyweights. They’d also admit that his chin would probably fail him in a shootout. Still, some think Klitschko might do well against the men who preceded him on the throne.

“It sounds like sacrilege but I think Wladimir would beat many of the old-time heavyweight greats,” said veteran boxing journalist Graham Houston, who has covered boxing since 1960. “Klitschko, to use the modern term, would be a bad style match-up. He’s just too big.”

On the other hand, ESPN’s Teddy Atlas is among those who don’t feel Klitschko’s style or size count for much. The Klitschko who suffered some embarrassing losses early in his career is the real Klitschko, according to Atlas, “and that guy doesn’t have the character to compete with the great fighters of the past.”

We told you this wouldn’t be easy.

Along with Atlas and Houston, THE RING asked HBO’s Larry Merchant, Showtime’s Steve Farhood  and veteran promoter Don Chargin for their take on Klitschko vs. 10 heavyweight “greats.”


Louis destroyed many oversized opponents. Klitschko is more athletic than the big men of Louis’ day, but if Louis could hit you, he could knock you out. Louis sometimes had trouble with clever boxers, but he usually knocked them out, too. Louis was dropped many times in his career, but they were usually flash knockdowns that momentarily gave his opponents a brief moment of optimism before he dismantled them. In the end, a Louis-Klitschko bout features a fighter with a dubious jaw against perhaps the greatest puncher of all time. Louis was quicker on the inside, and a great finisher. It might take Louis a few rounds to find the range, but the moment he had Klitschko hurt, he would have unloaded the kitchen sink on him.

Verdict: Louis, KO 7


“The Brockton Blockbuster” seemed to have superhuman strength for such a small man. He was a vicious body puncher, threw looping overhand rights and had a left hook that many fighters would envy, all of which combined to help him win all of his 49 professional contests. He was also a fiend for conditioning and fought as if he feared the promoter would hold his paycheck if he lost. True, Marciano was prone to cuts, but Klitschko is a thumper, not a cutter. Our guess is that a Marciano-Klitschko bout would be ugly, with Klitschko trying to smother Marciano, and Marciano gallantly trying to land something. If the referee didn’t disqualify Klitschko for excessive holding – which might have happened had these two fought in the 1940s or 50s – Klitschko could probably go the full route and take more rounds, illustrating that a win is not necessarily a triumph.

Verdict: Klitschko, decision


Not only was Patterson quick as a cat, he was a better than average puncher. Also, he made boxing history by becoming the first man to win the heavyweight title twice.  Still, he was small and prone to self-doubt. The man who was so in awe of Sonny Liston might also have been intimidated by Klitschko’s massive structure. Patterson might have been so baffled by the mammoth presence in front of him that Klitschko could take his time and nail Patterson with long range shots. You can bet on Patterson hitting the canvas a few times in this one, gamely taking punches until the referee put an end to it.

Verdict: Klitschko, KO 5


Liston had a brutal left jab and an intimidating presence. For a big man, he was fast on his feet and was quite good at cutting the ring down and cornering opponents. A fierce, aggressive predator, Liston wouldn’t allow Klitschko to simply stand in front of him and parry with his jab. Liston would force Klitschko to fight. Klitschko isn’t exactly fleet-footed, so he wouldn’t be able to avoid Liston as Muhammad Ali did in their two (highly suspicious) bouts. And once Klitschko felt Liston’s power, he would come unglued. Plus, if Klitschko managed to get his way for a while, how long would it be before some nasty foreign substance mysteriously appeared on Liston’s gloves? Strange things happened when Liston fought.  But in his prime no one escaped his gargantuan punches.

Verdict:  Liston, KO 6


“The Greatest” wouldn’t have had an easy time with Klitschko. Ali was the fastest heavyweight in history, with hand speed that would have baffled Klitschko, but one of Ali’s failings was that he took opponents lightly and wasn’t always in peak condition. This would give Klitschko a chance to make the bout close. Once Klitschko realized Ali didn’t have the heaviest of punches, he might open up more than usual. But even if Klitschko connected with some good punches, Ali was incredibly durable. Ali was also a great ring thinker – few were better than he was at outsmarting and outscoring an opponent. Klitschko might win some rounds, and he’d do better than anyone might imagine, but it wouldn’t be enough.  Thinking he might be behind on points, Ali would come on strong during the last few rounds, land some crackling right leads over Klitschko’s lazy left, leaving the big man a little buzzed and wobbly, and bringing the fans to their feet with a dramatic finish.

Verdict: Ali, decision


Frazier was a fighting machine, wading into opponents, battering their bodies and winging left hooks at their heads. But because his style was all forward motion, he had trouble with big, heavy-handed fighters. Hence, Klitschko might land some bombs and maybe even drop Joe a couple of times. But Klitschko’s habit of waiting for the perfect moment to strike would be disastrous against Frazier. “Smokin’ Joe” would regroup and start battling Klitschko down the stretch. By the late rounds, Frazier would be gaining steam, hitting the target hard and often.

Verdict: Frazier, decision


Whether it was the young intimidator who tried to blow down everything that stood in his way or the wily veteran who became a star again in his 40s, Foreman would give Klitschko nightmares. Foreman could take a punch and would walk through Klitschko’s jabs until he could land one of his bludgeoning punches. If Klitschko tried to hold him, Foreman would shove him off. In Foreman’s younger days he suffered from stamina problems and was troubled by smart boxers, but even the immature version of Foreman would connect with enough haymakers to melt Klitschko.

Verdict: Foreman, KO 10


Holmes had a brilliant jab, a deadly-accurate right hand and amazing recuperative powers. He had a nasty attitude, too, and would employ some dirty stuff to help gain a mental edge. Holmes was a rarity, in that he was a bully who had the skill and toughness to back up his bullying. Klitschko’s size and conditioning would make the bout interesting, but Holmes’ jab would neutralize Klitschko’s. Master technician Holmes would also find a way to defuse Klitschko’s right. Given Wlad’s cautious nature, Holmes would outwork him.

Verdict: Holmes, decision


At times, Tyson was a brilliant and exacting knockout artist. At others, he was a reckless slob. Either way, a fighter had to be consistently aggressive to beat him, which isn’t something we see from Klitschko, who is miserly with his right hand. A bout with Klitschko would’ve been similar to Tyson’s dull 12-rounder with James “Bonecrusher” Smith, who opted to clinch with Tyson rather than fight. Tyson had a tendency to doze off when opponents were tying him up, but as he did against Smith, Tyson would damage Klitschko enough on the inside to impress the judges. The result might be different if we were discussing the later period Tyson, the one who struggled and ran out of gas against Kevin McBride. But that’s not the Tyson people think about when matching him in dream bouts. The vintage Tyson, the firebrand who threw hooks and uppercuts like he was hoping to tear a man’s head off, would have intimidated Klitschko into freezing up. Klitschko is at his best when he is certain the coast is clear. Where Tyson was concerned, an overly cautious fighter like Klitchko wasn’t going to have much success.

Verdict: Tyson, decision


Lewis was nearly Klitschko’s size, and like Klitschko, he liked to break an opponent down before putting him away. There are other similarities – both are cerebral fighters, both like working behind a jab to set up their right hand and both hired Emanuel Steward after suffering knockout losses. Lewis’ losses came when he underestimated an opponent and was caught napping. But Lewis would be ready for Klitschko. He would test Klitschko in a chess match for a few rounds before turning up the aggression and finally answering the question of how many pile-driving right hands it takes to topple a giant Ukrainian.

Verdict:  Lewis, KO 10

Our panel’s general consensus, with slight variations, was that Klitschko’s size might bother the old-timers, but his methodical style might not be enough to win. The panel wasn’t unanimous regarding Marciano, Frazier, and Tyson.  Some thought Klitschko would stop them. Some wouldn’t choose. Chargin, who has promoted boxing since 1951, insisted the fighters of previous eras had too much fire inside them. Still, Chargin felt Klitschko “belongs right in there” with yesterday’s great heavyweights. Farhood concurred.

“To dismiss him because of the era he fights in is foolish and short-sighted,” said Farhood, who felt Klitschko would lose to Ali, Holmes, Foreman and Lewis but knock out many of the smaller champions of the past.

Atlas, though, isn’t climbing into any time machine with Klitschko.

“I don’t care how big he is,” Atlas said. “I don’t think he would have done particularly well in any era. He’s a weak guy mentally. He falls apart. He doesn’t take risks. The great fighters of previous eras wouldn’t allow him to get away with the things he gets away with today. He pulls straight back, he flaps his jab around; he is practically asking to be knocked out. He gets away with this behavior because today’s heavyweights don’t have the character necessary to win.

“For whatever reason, today’s heavyweights do not put the pedal to the metal. But the best fighters of previous eras would take advantage of Klitschko’s weaknesses. I know a lot of people disagree with me, but a lot of people are morons.”

Klitschko might never convince everybody, although time has a way of changing our perceptions of a fighter. For instance, Lewis’ stature has grown since his retirement. Merchant believes Klitschko’s might, too. But despite approving of Klitschko, Merchant hesitated to daydream with us.

“I don’t know. I’m just not good at it,” Merchant said. “There’s no way to compare. People used to write these same articles about Tyson. But Tyson lost big fights in his own era. How could we match him against the best of another era and expect great things? People use the argument that fighters from the past are too small, but if Jack Dempsey were around now, maybe he would have a different look and weigh 220. My general feeling is that great fighters from the past would be great now, and vice versa.”

Then is Klitschko great?

“I am parsimonious when it comes to calling someone great,” Merchant said. “But someone who is dominant for a long time deserves high marks. There are different standards of greatness. Some fighters are great for a short, explosive time, and others may earn our admiration over an extended period. Klitschko is a phenomenon that hasn’t been known in the history of the sport. Maybe he doesn’t provide us with classic melodrama, but to be considered the best in your time is high praise; greatness is another story.

Klitschko’s significance will always be the subject of debate, but his not faring well in our fantasy mission is not a comment on his abilities. It is just proof, once again, that no opponent is as hard-hitting or irrepressible as someone else’s version of “the good old days.”


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