Klitschko v Fury: Has Wladimir really killed heavyweight boxing?

By Ben DirsBBC Sport
Wladimir Klitschko
Wladimir Klitschko has won 64 of his 67 fights and has not lost since 2004

With Wladimir Klitschko defending his WBA, IBF and WBO heavyweight titles against Manchester's Tyson Fury in Dusseldorf on Saturday, BBC Sport assesses the impact of the Ukrainian champion.

For those who view Wladimir Klitschko as the man who killed heavyweight boxing, the village of Going is an ideal resting place. No chaos here. No stinking nook crawling with gym rats under rattling railway tracks. Just champagne and chocolates, fluffy dressing gowns and blissful calm in the pure Alpine air.

It is here, nestled between Austria's Kitzbuhel Alps and the Wilder Kaiser mountains, that Klitschko hones his act. Some call it boring. But Klitschko is onto something when he tells us: "My world looks different to yours."

For roughly four decades, between Ingemar Johansson losing the world heavyweight crown in 1960external-link and the emergence of Wladimir and his older brother Vitali in the early 2000s, the public thought it knew what a heavyweight world champion looked like: almost always black and almost always American. Unless it was the movies.

Never mind that Wladimir was an Olympic champion, with 140 amateur fights to his name, he wasn't 'right' for plenty of reasons. Wrong colour. Wrong nation. Too urbane. Too intelligent. Too clean. Too boring. When was the last time Wladimir threatened to eat somebody's children?external-link

Given the dark side of Mike Tyson's reign - including rape and cannibalismexternal-link - you might have thought boxing fans would welcome something purer. But as Tyson says: "We live in a bizarre world - nobody likes the nice guy, people like to see the schmuck win." Sports fans went wild for Tyson when he was precision engineering, but it seemed like every neck in the world was craning for a view when he was careering off the tracks.

Klitschko's luxurious training camp in the Austrian village of Going, beneath the Kitzbuhel Alps

Urbanity and boxing have always made strange bedfellows. Gene Tunney,external-link a heavyweight world champion in the 1920s, was lampooned for his apparent erudition. After losing to Tunney, the great Harry Greb said: "Is it true, as people say, that Gene reads books?" Bad enough losing, but losing to an intellectual? The shame of it.

Not only did Tunney read books, he lectured on Shakespeare, married a wealthy socialite and preached scientific boxing. As such, the American public never really forgave him for dethroning the chaotic and marauding Jack Dempsey.

The 39-year-old Klitschko, whose brother is now mayor of Kiev, speaks four languages, has a PhD, plays chess and prefers order to chaos.

"I like to take care of the tiny details," says Klitschko, who proves it by spending a full hour having his hands wrapped at his media workout in the hotel tennis centre, while middle-aged guests bunt balls to each other behind a partition. "It's those tiny details that bring everything together. Chaos means emotions and emotions are a downside."

Having spurned the advances of maniacal American promoter Don King, the Klitschko brothers instead moved to Germany from their native Ukraine in 1996. And as the heavyweight scene waned in the United States, it began to blossom in far-flung Europe.

In 2000, Wladimir beat American Chris Byrd to win the WBO belt that Vitali had lost to Byrd after injuring a shoulder six months earlier.

Wladimir and Vitali Klitschko
Wladimir's older brother Vitali (right) retired from boxing in 2013 and is now the mayor of Kiev

But with the rise of the Klitschkos - Vitali covered himself in glory in losing to Britain's Lennox Lewis in 2003,external-link before winning the WBC title the following year - a now familiar narrative took root.

The Klitschkos, the story went, had only risen because there was no real resistance. Evander Holyfield was past it, Tyson was a husk, Riddick Bowe was long since gone, Lewis retired in 2004. But the Klitschkos could only whup what was put in front of them.

Even the great Joe Louis, who made 25 world title defences between 1937 and 1948, suffered from the same problem, if you can call it that - a succession of his opponents were given the collective nickname 'The Bum of the Month Club'.external-link

"Wladimir won't be properly appreciated until after he's left the sport," says his trainer and anchor Johnathon Banks, who took over when the venerable Emanuel Steward passed away in 2012 but has been working with Klitschko since 2004.

"It was the same with Joe Louis and Larry Holmes [who made 20 successful title defences between 1978 and 1985]. Wladimir has been champion for nine years, appeared in 27 world title fights, made 23 world title defences. Eventually, records start speaking for themselves and you can't ignore them.

"Once he leaves, the belts will be handed around like turkeys on Thanksgiving Day and no-one will know who the champion is from one week to the next. Then, maybe, Wladimir will start getting the credit he deserves."

Joe Louis (centre left) and Max Schmeling (centre right) at the weigh-in before their world title in 1938
Opponents of Joe Louis, who fought Klitschko's hero Max Schmeling (centre right) twice, were often lampooned

Wladimir claims not to care whether people think he is boring or not. But based on his feats in the ring, the accusation is curious anyway. For 'boring', read 'too good', just like so many other great champions.

He has won 64 of his 67 professional fights, 53 by knockout. Shocking defeats by Corrie Sanders in 2003,external-link which brought his first heavyweight reign to an end, and Lamon Brewster in 2004 persuaded Wladimir to become more cautious, but he has never stopped bouncing opponents off the canvas.

As between the ropes, what constitutes being boring beyond the ropes is a personal thing. Tyson Fury thinks dressing as Batman, headbutting melons and comparing gay people to paedophiles makes him "the most colourful and charismatic heavyweight since Muhammad Ali". While you won't find many who agree with him, there are those who think Fury is a breath of fresh air for the division.

"I don't act crazy or swear, so I'm thankful to all these British heavyweights for doing all the crazy stuff they do," says Klitschko, who had to put up with plenty of nonsense from David Haye before he beat him in 2011 and was spat at by Dereck Chisora before Chisora lost to Vitali in 2012.

"I'm aware of my role. It would have looked bad if I'd let my fists fly and finished Dereck Chisora before my brother beat him. It took a lot of strength not to respond to that and I felt mentally sick for a couple of days. But I was tough enough to hold myself back. I know there are people looking up to me."

Actually, Klitschko was doing just fine without all these pesky Brits. His fights take place in football stadiums - he will face Fury in Dusseldorf's Esprit Arena, which holds 54,000 - and attract an average of 10 million viewers on German TV. So when people claim Klitschko has not captured the public's imagination, they are being selective.

Wladimir Klitschko and Tyson Fury
Fury has accused Klitschko of being a "devil worshipper" - Klitschko says Fury "makes me sick"

German Bernd Boente is the cool hand on the Klitschko tiller, a picture of European refinement - tan, ice-white teeth and hair - and a clear window on how boxing works in his country.

"German fans aren't the same as fans in Britain or America - they like their boxers to be polite and humble," says Boente, who worked in the media before becoming the Klitschkos' manager in 2000.

"There's no interest in Wladimir in the US because there are no opponents for him over there. And if you fill soccer stadiums and have 16 million watching you on TV, as he did for the Haye fight, you couldn't care less about the US."

Boente is engaging company, regaling us with tales about the rock band Kiss, his beloved Bayern Munich and one absolute pearler involving a tent in Dubai, a hawk that crash-landed and ended up with a broken beak and, obviously, Chris Eubank.

Klitschko, on the other hand, prefers to keep his distance. A hotel news conference that is advertised as a round-table for UK journalists turns out to be a less intimate affair, with Klitschko fielding questions from across the room and kicking things off with a 10-minute monologue, you suspect to eat up time.

When Klitschko is asked to perform a trick - his love of magic led Fury, a devout Christian, to call him a "devil-worshipper" - at first it looks like he wants to. But he hesitates, looks at Boente for guidance and the moment passes. When one journalist suggests he might be a control freak, Klitschko wholeheartedly agrees. At least with the control bit.

I'm a modern-day Muhammad Ali - Fury

Klitschko does open up about his friendship with German heavyweight great Max Schmeling, who took part in a pair of monumental fights against Louis on the eve of the Second World War - "it's my link with history, I'm carrying those experiences with me, experiences you can't buy in a shop" - but is keen to move on when asked how those defeats by Sanders and Brewster affected him.

On why he is still putting himself through all this physical and mental turmoil after all these years when he has millions in the bank and a baby by a Hollywood actress, Klitschko makes his choice sound oh so logical.

"I can do many things; my life is not only boxing," says Klitschko, who also has numerous business and charitable interests. "But the thing I do best is boxing, and beating up people for a living is most enjoyable.

"Boxing is the best education in the world, better than Harvard. It's provided me with excitement, allowed me to travel, sample different cultures, learn different languages. I haven't reached the peak of the mountain - I know I can get better. But a lot of guys want to be where I am, which keeps me motivated and is why I'm still the ultimate professional."

Watching Klitschko spar with a conveyor belt of giants, fight footage of Fury showing on screens positioned around the ring, it is difficult to disagree. And surely it's a good thing: if Klitschko is supposed to have killed heavyweight boxing, just think how dead it would be without him.

Listen to the Klitschko v Fury world title fight live on BBC Radio 5 live from 21:30 GMT on Saturday, 28 November.


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