Klitschko’s consistency will be his legacy
NEW YORK — Wladimir Klitschko had to lose before he was finally accepted by most boxing fans.
Now that he’s retiring, maybe it’s time to fully appreciate the former heavyweight champion who never seemed to get his due.
Klitschko was as dominant as he was boring, holding pieces of the heavyweight title for the better part of a decade in a reign not seen since the days of Joe Louis. His fights weren’t always works of art, but they were the work of an expert who understood how to control space and distance in the ring.
American boxing fans never warmed to him, but he could fill soccer stadiums in Germany, where fans didn’t complain about his cautious style and reveled in his ability to dominate an opponent from the first bell to the last.
His brother Vitali — now the mayor of Kiev — came first and between them the two Ukrainians raised in the old Soviet athletic system pretty much dispatched anyone in their path.
Vitali came within a bad cut of beating Lennox Lewis in 2003, and Wladimir didn’t lose for 11 years after being knocked out by Lamon Brewster in 2004.
Outside the ring there was a lot to like about both of them. They hold advanced college degrees, speak four languages and never talk trash about their opponents or anyone else.
In the early 2000s they were trying to establish themselves in the US, even as the heavyweight division was teetering on life support. The brothers were always engaging with the media, telling jokes and eager to discuss just about anything — in multiple languages.
They were unpretentious and made it clear right away they would never fight each other because they promised their mother they wouldn’t.
That they also sucked up most of the air of a heavyweight division with few contenders was a regrettable legacy.
Wladimir could have fought more in the US, but the defensive style he developed with the late trainer Emanuel Steward after being knocked out by Brewster was never going to be pleasing to boxing fans who like their heavyweights to trade punches.
The champ himself admitted before his final fight — a KO loss to Anthony Joshua in April — that he had been boring even while beating everyone who was put in front of him.
Ironic, then, that in his last fight Klitschko not only put on the show of his career but won a lot of new fans doing it.
Among them were the 90,000 people packed into Wembley Stadium in London who came to cheer for the fearsome English slugger but left with new respect for Klitschko.
He had Joshua down in that fight and appeared on his way to a win before Joshua stopped him in the 11th round in a wild slugfest.
The fight was a classic, so good that there were plans for a Las Vegas rematch in November.
That’s not going to happen now, but it’s not necessarily a bad thing.
At age 41, Klitschko is ancient by heavyweight standards, and he’s made more than enough money to lead a comfortable life with his fiancée, American actress Hayden Panettiere, and their young daughter.
There’s no reason to risk taking a beating in a rematch with Joshua.
After winning an Olympic gold medal at the 1996 Atlanta Games and 64 of his 69 professional fights, there’s also nothing really left to prove in the ring, even against a young fighter he had on the canvas before losing.
Klitschko is hanging up his gloves at a time when the heavyweight division is suddenly resurgent.
There’s Joshua and unbeat- en American champion Deontay Wilder seemingly on a collision course with each other, as well as a number of other promising heavyweights working their way up the food chain.
He’s also leaving with two straight losses, after losing his titles to Tyson Fury in 2015 before being stopped by Joshua.
But Klitschko is bowing out with newfound respect from boxing fans who saw him reach deep to nearly topple Joshua in a fight that did more for his image than any of the 68 before it.
He ended up having a great career, though he’ ll likely not be mentioned among the alltime greats. That’s the price he will pay for his cautionary style and lack of quality opponents.
Still, the last thing most boxers do is retire when they should.
Klitschko is one of the few smart enough to leave the same way he always fought — on his own terms.
Wladimir Klitschko celebrates with his belts after winning a 2011 heavyweight title unification bout against David Haye in Hamburg, Germany.