Wladimir Klitschko gave us what we wanted. Last night at the O2 Arena in Hamburg, the Ukrainian heavyweight champion employed all of his considerable gifts in a fifth round elimination of Kubrat Pulev. The final blow, a left hook, was a punch Klitschko used continually to circumvent his opponent’s weak guard, and it left Pulev broken and concussed, lying impotently on his back as referee Tony Weeks counted him out. There was none of the tedium or clinching that have made so many Klitschko bouts unwatchable. Instead, he boxed with the ferocity of a bear, and it made for an awesome display of violence.
Few believed that Kubrat Pulev (20-1) would beat Wladimir Klitschko (63-3), but it was thought that he might at least be good enough to mount a challenge. Given how poor Wlad’s recent fights have been, I wrote this week of my wish to see Klitschko battle through some stormy waters, if only to entertain us. This is a selfish desire, since his primary objective is to win, not satiate our bloodlust, but it’s frustrating to watch a man armed with concussive power inhibit himself by boxing tepidly. Fortunately, yesterday’s fight was enjoyable, and it was precisely so because Wlad fully exercised his talents.
Wladimir Klitschko is a huge star in Germany, which explains why he mostly fights there rather than in the U.S. This perverts our North American sense of importance, but the fabulous, elegant atmosphere at the O2 and his hilariously ornate ring entrance reaffirmed Klitschko’s popularity in his adopted country. Stone faced and draped in a red satin robe that cascaded, Samurai-like, down his shoulders, Klitschko stepped into the ring clearly focused on not only besting Pulev, but battering him.
The first round began swiftly as both men immediately found each other in the center of the ring like two professional wrestlers who begin their match with a customary grapple. There was nothing staged about the first knockdown, however, as a wicked left hook dropped Pulev just over a minute in. He woozily rose to his feet and with theatrical flair balanced on one leg to indicate he was alright, but once the fight resumed he was immediately knocked down again. The first round forcibly confirmed what we already knew: power and skill were decidedly tilted in Wladimir’s favour.
The great footwork that Pulev said would be the difference never materialized, and rather than box around Klitschko he largely stood in front of him, where his weak guard was easily pierced. Pulev was only able to land rabbit punches to the back of Wlad’s head during clinches and he scored few flush power shots. He maintained his legs throughout the fight, though, and actually showed a decent chin, but there are only so many overhand rights a fighter can absorb from Wladimir Klitschko. Even the hardiest chin eventually succumbs.
With just over a minute left in the third round, Klitschko showed the battering ram power that makes sadists salivate. A short jab set up his power right, which he threw with every one of his 246 pounds. The punch didn’t drop Pulev, who miraculously stayed on his feet, but it pushed him back and opened a large gash underneath his right eye. It was a bold show of strength by a man whose physical prowess is too often neutered by his conservatism. Klitschko’s impressive physique, with its sculpted, knotted muscle, packs the power of a siege engine and you wish he made more liberal use of it. On this punch he did. Pulev managed to stay upright but it was only momentary; Klitschko then blasted him with a left hook and the challenger skidded on his backside across the ring and into the ropes.
To his credit, the thrice knocked-down Bulgarian continued to fight. At the beginning of the fourth round he even landed a right hand flush on Klitschko’s face, but it didn’t wobble Wladimir. Pulev does not possess the same amount of power, and though every punch he landed stirred a roar from his countrymen in attendance, they did little to harm a veteran champion who, out of necessity, is experienced in staving off onslaughts. With just under a minute left in the fifth, Klitschko found Pulev again with the left hook, flattening him. The knockout was made possible by the challenger’s hand positioning. As Lee Wylie pointed out to me, Pulev extended his rear hand in an attempt to parry Klitschko’s jab, which made him susceptible to the hook. When Klitschko feinted low at the end of the fifth, he lured Pulev’s rear hand forward and was able to land over the top, finishing him.
When he returned to consciousness, the Bulgarian attempted to raise himself but Tony Weeks wouldn’t allow it. It was an emphatic stoppage that threw the Hamburg crowd into a frenzy. Even Klitschko, who is always good-humoured but rarely exuberant after a win, pumped his fist as the referee administered the count. He is clearly aware of the criticisms, and while I’m not suggesting he deliberately fought in a way that would appease his critics, this performance appeared to do just that. When twinned, strength and skill create the most formidable combination, and Klitschko satisfied our fetish for the ruinous capacity of heavyweight power with a performance of savage beauty.
There is hardly anyone left for Wladimir Klitschko to fight. But, because he’s still in top physical shape and a demonstrably better boxer at 38 than he was at 28, his career isn’t set to end. His next opponent will likely be either Bermane Stiverne or Deontay Wilder, depending on who emerges victorious from their fight. That Klitschko fought so impressively on HBO will make this future bout more marketable, even if he’ll likely walk through either man. He is simply levels above every other heavyweight. Regardless, I hope that last night wasn’t the final time he fights like a pillager, rather than a PhD.
— Eliott McCormick