A NEW RESPECT FOR WLADIMIR KLITSCHKO
The horrors taking place in war-torn Ukraine are a tragic reminder that there’s a much bigger world outside of boxing’s often-insular community and there are way more important things than the next big fight or whatever hardcore fans are obsessing about via social media this week.
As this issue went to press, more than 1,800 Ukrainian citizens had been killed since Russia’s invasion began on February 24. Tens of millions have been displaced from their homes or forced to flee Ukraine.
War. Exodus. Mass loss of life. That’s as real as it gets. As tough as boxing is, it’s still just a sport, and it’s more about business and entertainment on the world-class professional level.
Klitschko was an elite-level competitor who had a great championship run, but what he’s doing now is what makes me realize that he’s cut from the same cloth as Louis and Ali.
However, history has shown us that boxing is sometimes connected to much larger issues. Sometimes the graduates and denizens of our favorite bloodsport can inspire the world at large with their bravery outside of the ring. That’s what we’re witnessing with the bold stand retired heavyweight champions Vitali and Wladimir Klitschko have made against Vladimir Putin’s tyranny.
Several other active Ukrainian boxers, including pound-for-pound-rated Oleksander Usyk and Vasiliy Lomachenko, are also doing their part to help defend their country while bolstering morale among Ukraine’s citizens and military.
But no other Ukrainian boxer or sports figure has called as much attention to the atrocities happening in his country or the need for foreign aid as much as Wladimir Klitschko, who has stuck by his older brother, the mayor of Kyiv (Ukraine’s capital) since 2014, while dedicating his celebrity status and social media to rallying international support.
Vitali, the champion-turned-politician, is obviously a huge symbol of national pride and a wartime leader second only to Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, but Wladimir’s influence transcends politics.
The younger Klitschko, a 1996 Olympic gold medalist, is the more talented, charismatic and accomplished of the heavyweight brothers. His two title reigns – a two-year WBO run at the start of the 2000s that included five defenses, and much longer unified-belt dominance during the late 2000s and the first half of the 2010s – placed his name among the all-time great heavyweight champions, at least in terms of stats.
Some historians and boxing journalists began comparing Wladimir with Joe Louis toward the end of his second title reign, which spanned from 2006 to 2015. Once Klitschko’s heavyweight monarchy surpassed seven years, only the great Brown Bomber had a longer uniterrupted reign. And once Wladimir surpassed 20 title defenses (over his two reigns), which he accomplished with a fifth-round stoppage of Alex Leapai in 2014, the name of Muhammad Ali – who made 19 defenses over his two reigns in the 1960s and ’70s – was added to the mix.
I won’t lie, it bugged the shit out of me at the time. It was boxing blasphemy! Louis fought when there was one world championship; Wladdy occupied the four-belt era. And come on, the challengers that Klitschko faced can’t compare with Ali’s dance partners during the heavyweight division’s Golden Age. I said all of that, I wrote all of that, and I meant every word – at the time.
Looking back on his resume now, I can admit that I was being harsh. Wladimir – who started both reigns by beating an undersized but stylistic nightmare in Chris Byrd – had a hell of a run, especially the second time around with Emanuel Steward-enhanced technique. He scored rematch knockouts of hard-punching Lamon Brewster and Samuel Peter; outclassed two unbeaten Olympic medalists, Sultan Ibragimov and Alexander Povetkin; and turned back the challenge of dangerous standouts like David Haye and Tony Thompson (twice).
Klitschko earned the Ring Magazine championship with his 2009 stoppage of unbeaten former world amateur champion Ruslan Chagaev and defended it 11 times before his upset loss to Tyson Fury in November 2015. In all, Wladimir made 23 title defenses over his two reigns, a total second only to Louis’ record of 25.
Klitschko was an elite-level competitor who had a great championship run, but what he’s doing now is what makes me realize that he’s cut from the same cloth as Louis and Ali. He possesses their character and courage; the same duty and honor to his country as Louis embodied during World War II; the same commitment to his values and social justice that Ali personified during America’s Civil Rights Movement.
Ali risked physical attacks outside of the ring for his political and religious beliefs; he was willing to give up his career and freedom for his faith. The Klitschko brothers are willing to give up their lives in defense of their country and culture, and in doing so they’ve become worldwide symbols of democracy and freedom, just as Louis was during the late 1930s and early 1940s. Their mentor, Max Schmeling, would be proud.
At the start of this year, I had originally planned for this issue of The Ring to be a special edition showcasing the International Boxing Hall of Fame classes of 2020, 2021 and 2022, which will all be inducted in the same ceremony in Canastota, New York, in June (when this issue will be on sale). There are more than enough popular and respected champions represented in those induction classes – including Roy Jones Jr., Bernard Hopkins, James Toney, Floyd Mayweather Jr., Juan Manuel Marquez, Shane Mosley and Miguel Cotto – to fill 80 glossy pages of a magazine I figured would sell like hot cakes during induction weekend.
Wladimir Klitschko is one of those popular and respected inductees. My hope and prayer is that all of the madness ravaging Ukraine at press time will have ended before June and Wladimir can be there in Canastota to take his rightful place among the legends, as his brother did in 2018. But I know that even if the war ended today, the work of rebuilding Ukraine would just be getting started and Wladimir would want to be directly involved, still at his brother’s side.
His absence at this year’s Hall of Fame induction will be a stark reminder of what is really important in life, and hopefully it will inspire us to do what we can to not only support Ukraine but to also strengthen our commitment to our own communities and values.
To find out how you can support Ukraine during its time of need, visit Wladimir Klitschko’s Instagram account @klitschko and follow the link in his bio. https://zez.am/act.now.by.klitschko