Tuesday, March 6, 2007


There’s an old saying that you’ve probably heard that goes something like this: "If that was going to happen, it would have happened already."

So it is with IBF Heavyweight titlist Wladimir Klitschko who is preparing to face Cleveland’s Ray "The Rainman" Austin Saturday night in Mannheim, Germany. While Klitschko has been ranked at or near the top of the heavyweight division for several years and while many thought that he might be "the one" to pull the heavyweight division up by the laces on its boxing shoes, it just hasn’t happened.

He had a stellar amateur boxing career and capped it off by winning a gold medal representing the Ukraine at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta. He obtained a Doctorate in Sports Science from the University of Kiev, won his first twenty-four pro fights, appeared in the remake of the movie "Ocean’s Eleven" and has earned millions of dollars in boxing purses. He has also won two heavyweight title belts while simultaneously serving as a humanitarian ambassador for the United Nations. For most people that would be a great career, for Wladimir Klitschko and the fickle public, it still hasn’t been enough.

Despite the fact that three of his last four opponents have been undefeated with a collective record of 110 wins versus only 2 losses, despite the fact that he knocked out the universally recognized top heavyweight in the world in Chris Byrd and decisioned the number one contender in Samuel Peter and despite the fact that he has lost only three times in 50 fights with 42 knockouts – it still hasn’t been enough.

The knock on Wladimir Klitschko, who is still only 30 years old, is that he lacks heart and that he can’t take a shot on the chin. The critics, of which there are many, say that when the going gets tough, "Dr. Steelhammer" doesn’t get going. His three losses have all been by knockout - and therein lies the rub. He was winning all of those fights when everything inexplicably unraveled.

The first time we saw a chink in Klitschko’s armor was against a 32-year old trialhorse named Ross Purritty who at the time had a record of 24-13-1. Klitschko was winning going away and then he ran out of gas and had to give up the fight in the eleventh round.

Klitschko would regroup from that loss, win his next 16 fights with 15 knockouts and along the way he would hold the European Heavyweight Championship as well as the lightly regarded WBO heavyweight title defending it five times over the next two and half years. Then he ran into a southpaw, South African named Corrie Sanders and he was embarassed, humiliated and brutalized before being knocked out in less than two rounds.

Despite the loss to a heavy underdog, a loss which many figured he would never recover from, Klitschko never gave up on himself. "In a way, I feel I have to thank Corrie Sanders for winning our fight. I was having too much success in my sports life. I was Olympic champion and I held the WBO heavyweight title. Everything was just falling in my hands and I became bored with the sport. Then I lost and I began to look at it differently. For me, losing created a new love for the sport. Maybe I realized exactly what I could be throwing away. If I’d kept winning, I know I wouldn’t have the attitude, the drive and the hunger that I have know."

He would rebound from the Sanders loss with a couple of knockout wins, but then disaster struck again in a fight with Lamon Brewster. Klitschko was winning the fight handily, landing everything he threw and Brewster appeared on the edge of defeat at the end of the fourth round. But then somehow, the Klitschko balloon burst and he collapsed to the floor at the end of the fifth round, utterly deflated. He was so spent and limp that he was unable to rise under his own power or walk unaided to his corner.

It was a perplexing loss and Klitschko still struggles to explain what happened that night. "I won four rounds of the fight against Brewster, and it just wasn’t me that night. It wasn’t Wladimir Klitschko fighting Lamon Brewster. It was Wladimir Klitschko fighting Wladimir Klitschko. I was fighting myself just to get through the rounds" claims Klitschko. "Personally, I believe there was something wrong with my health. I really believe this. There can be no other explanation. I had my health checked from top to bottom because I didn’t want the question hanging over me. Fortunately, I have nothing wrong with me. I’m a healthy person, thank God. I can go 12 rounds. I showed this against Samuel Peter. Three times I was able to get up off the floor. So something happened that night against Brewster, something I cannot explain, but I know that something happened. Why did I fight like that? I leave it in the past. Better to allow my fists to do the talking from now on."

After he lost to Brewster, the boxing intelligentsia all but gave up on the young Klitschko. Many figured he had gone as far as he was going to go and that whenever he was faced with adversity or pressure he would crumble. But, he never gave up on himself and his hall of fame trainer Emanuel Steward, who had similarly rescued Lennox Lewis from the throes of despair, saw something in the younger Klitschko and he never gave up on him either.

"You see, I never lost my confidence. Never", says the handsome, boyish faced, Klitschko. "The feeling outside – I understand this – was that, psychologically, Wladimir Klitschko was broken. I had no chin. I had no balls, as Larry Merchant famously put it. But my opinion was always the same and within the Klitschko camp it was the same. Emanuel Steward, my trainer, never lost belief in my ability as a fighter and I’m very thankful to him for this. Everybody else had their doubts and most thought I could not come back from the devastation of the Brewster defeat. But not Manny Steward, not my brother, not Bernard Boente (his manager) and not me."

Again, Klitschko would regroup and win three straight fights. He beat the undefeated, top-rated and dangerous punching Samuel Peter by decision despite being knocked down three times. He lifted the IBF title from Chris Byrd with a crushing knockout in seven rounds and then defended the title in Madison Square Garden with a one-punch knockout over the highly rated and undefeated Calvin Brock.

After 50 fights, and after having resurrected himself once again, Klitschko now has the powers that be in boxing speaking in cautious, hushed whispers that he might be "the one".

His trainer, Emanuel Steward sings the praises of his young charge and tells anybody that asks that he thinks Klitschko could become one of the best big men the world has seen – ever.

About Saturday’s fight with Austin, the esteemed Steward has this to say, "After one minute of the first round everything will change for Ray Austin when he realizes who he is in the ring with. Wladimir is on a different level and at age 30, he’s already entering his 51st fight. Ray Austin is running into the growth and progression of Wlad. Those watching the fight are going to be lucky enough to see the emergence of one of the greatest heavyweights ever - Wladimir Klitschko."

Austin, who began his career fighting in the streets of East Cleveland, Ohio and has spent time in prison for dealing drugs and petty crimes enters the fight with a record of 24-3-4 (16)KO. He had no organized amateur experience except for his street fights in alleys and school yards. At age 36, this will be Austin’s first, and likely last shot at a heavyweight title.

At the press conference on Monday, Austin, who most give no chance to win, chimed in with the obligatory pre-fight remarks. "The things I’ve been through in my life make it easy for me to step into the ring to fight. You’ve got to go through what you got to go through in life to get where you’re at. I don’t come to lose. I come to win. Klitschko has a soft heart and a weak chin and I’m going to knock him out. This is going to be a beautiful thing for me and shocking for others. I’m going to bring the belt back to America. I’m ready to rumble! I’m gonna make some rain fall on Klitschko come Saturday night."

Austin alluded to his nickname, "The Rainman", and added, "It was raining when we arrived in Germany. That’s an omen. Some rain is going to fall on Klitschko real soon. I’ve got a plan. Now it’s time to execute it."

For Wladimir Klitschko, it seems as though he has finally been able to relax outside the ring. The somewhat caustic comments of Austin didn’t seem to bother him too much. He is becoming more relaxed outside the ring as he matures which is leading to him being more relaxed inside the ring.

In his loss against Brewster it seemed that he was nearly hyperventilating and he possessed so much nervous energy that he burnt himself out after four rounds of high volume punching. He has shown an inability to relax in the ring and even in his last fight with Calvin Brock he didn’t really settle down until the fifth round.

Whatever the outcome on Saturday night against Ray Austin it seems Wladimir Klitschko will be able to deal with it well if things don’t go his way. "Life is interesting", he smiles. "You lose something, but you win something. Something happens."

It’s just part of being Wladimir Klitschko.

Material was used in this piece from the November 2006 issue of The Ring magazine.

March 2007

No comments: