He was still upright when the referee signalled his end. As Anthony Joshua launched himself at Wladimir Klitschko late in the eleventh round of their battle at Wembley Stadium, the fading 41-year-old did his best to stave off perdition. He didn’t succeed, though not because Klitschko wilted under duress; a swift, perhaps overanxious referee determined that conscience could not permit further punishment and he wedged himself between the two giants. Joshua, Britain’s rare monarch to have earned his status through deed, strutted back to his corner, hips quacking languorously, in full control of the small city that had assembled at Wembley. Klitschko, meanwhile, could do nothing but take refuge in grace.
And he did, as Klitschko has at each step of his career. He congratulated the victor, thanked the English crowd for its support, made no excuse for his loss and resisted lamenting whether, had the referee only been less compassionate, he could have fought on. That Klitschko behaved with such decency is no surprise to those intimate with his career, but equally predictable was the crowd’s favourable response.
Mobs are magnanimous when the loser exhibits class, because its members can relish a two-part prostration: first the enemy loses, ideally after absorbing maximum physical trauma; second, he thanks them for providing the stage upon which his own bloodletting could be possible. The total submissiveness of this interaction allows the fans, who only moments earlier had bayed for his destruction, to recognize the fighter’s humanity and bask in collective, self-congratulatory sentiment over the bond formed with the beaten man.
So in loss, Klitschko won, a result that seems undoubtedly true, however unlikely it is that any fighter enters boxing to seek public validation through getting bested. But while it’s naturally a compliment to suggest someone has gained respect, it is also, in this instance, a slight, if one considers that it had only been gained through a result contrary to his objective.
That it took a loss to foment regard highlights the apathy with which Klitschko has always been seen. But against Joshua, after having been pasted in the fifth round to square the knockdown count in the sixth, Klitschko didn’t fight behind a curtain of fear; he boxed, for once, free of ennui, as if the danger AJ posed had made him braver by necessity. But Klitschko’s newfound courage was not, alas, enough, as his reticence to finish Joshua in the bout’s middle proved he’d yet to free himself from mental bonds that had long leashed his instincts to destroy: this was a tactical error, allowing AJ to survive, which the Ukrainian admitted to during the fight’s autopsy.
After the bout, a swollen-eyed Klitschko conducted his own postmortem from a press conference podium. He did so in his usual even manner, showing the fine analytical capacities which facilitated his impressive education. Listening to Klitschko speak, one is left to ponder how this intelligence has impacted his career; it doubtlessly helped his apprenticeship in boxing, helping him to master the variety of skills that make him a rare complete heavyweight, but this glut of consciousness is also what may remind him, each time he enters the ring, that a single unseen punch could reintroduce him to the horror first experienced versus Ross Purrity in Kiev.
Klitschko’s perceived fragility, twinned with the flaccid era over which he reigned, had always precluded his acceptance. While he’s been a model of comportment beyond the ring, carrying himself with the regal self-possession of a statesman (which, it must be said, can equally alienate him from those who prefer their heroes less polished) seldom has he thrilled inside it. Klitschko has no win in which he dominated a man of historical importance, only a string of successful title defenses over foes whom no boxing anthology will enshrine in print. Save for his defeats, much of it was forgettable, and the inconsequence of those he bested should ensure none of these wins appear better with time.
Given the unlikelihood that Klitschko beats Joshua in a rematch, what might his future in boxing be? He may continue to fight successfully for as long as he wishes, for the sport’s shallow talent pool will at least allow that, but with Joshua’s ascendance and the probability he will continue to improve, there is little reason to believe Klitschko will regain his titles. If this is true, how may Wladimir be remembered?
However cruel, history may relegate him to a thread linking the generation that concluded with Lennox Lewis’ retirement and the one started by Anthony Joshua. In those intervening years, there were no heavyweight matches of lasting import; that is, until November 28, 2015, when Tyson Fury removed Wladimir of his titles only to then fall off a metaphorical cliff. As a boxer, people will recall Klitschko’s vaunted punching power, fine skills and superb conditioning, and grouse over a style that coursed from tepid to fetid, concluding their remarks with sentences that begin by “If only…”
They will also, naturally, recall his questionable chin, which betrayed him three times early in his career, after which Klitschko spent a decade insulating it. However imposing, he rarely looked convinced of himself in the ring, a quality other champions were at least better at feigning. It always seemed as though Klitschko had built his temple on a shaky foundation, one that would surely topple whenever a strong breeze circumvented his jab.
But against Joshua, a man rightfully considered the most difficult opponent of his career, Wladimir demonstrated a mettle he’d been accused of lacking. It made no impact on the final result, but after his anemic performance versus Fury, which calcified the doubts of critics, this surge in public estimation must have felt gratifying. At Wembley Klitschko ‘showed his heart,’ which proved sturdy enough for him to remain competitive even if he wasn’t obdurate enough to win. This result had a two-fold benefit, because Britain’s prodigal son was legitimized by so precarious a victory, and Wladimir, for once, had given fans a portal into his fighting soul, which proved more substantive than imagined.
It is harsh to trivialize Klitschko’s career by situating it as a bridge between the last noteworthy era and Joshua’s new dawn, but it’s equally difficult to envisage his accomplishments, however consistently he delivered them, taking on greater value with time. But this analysis may be meaningful only to us observers, whose external judgements bring us no closer to the personal realities of those who make boxing’s history. Klitschko can be proud of a long and distinguished career, whose subjective value is known to him alone, and equally satisfied with his decorous behaviour. In front of a microphone, rather than in a ring, is the public circumstance in which Wladimir always looked strongest, and it was his burden that his physical resources could not be employed with equal confidence to his intellectual ones.
Let us attempt to conclude, then, with an observation and some questions. Versus Ross Puritty, Corrie Sanders and Lamon Brewster, Wladimir Klitschko was dispatched within the distance. It’s arguable that both he and the public never divested themselves of these early traumas, which Klitschko later positioned as formative trials and fans saw as truth of his frailty. But in none of these defeats was he conclusively knocked out. Each loss ended by external intervention, and however sad the sight of a flailing heavyweight is, he at least tried to battle on.
If these fights birthed his fragile reputation, his defeat to Joshua somehow restored it. Resisting neat summarization, Wladimir’s legacy will spawn a rare diversity of reaction: from fandom to respectful salutation, indifference, hostility and dismissal. His greatest triumph before the English-speaking boxing mob, whose respect is relative to a boxer’s aptitude for harm, resulted in defeat. Is this, then, the truest commentary on his career: that Klitschko’s best effort versus a man of equal physical stature still saw him beaten? Does that invalidate his earlier deeds, in which he ruled a division without anyone who approached Anthony Joshua’s ability?
Decisive commentary is difficult. One could become mawkish and find beauty in his loss to Joshua; easier, still, would be to cite Wladimir’s unerring conduct as his greatest success. Neither of these are satisfactory. Wladimir Klitschko’s career, at once impressive and unsatisfying, was made on professionalism, consistency and well-managed risk. He showed himself conquerable in hard circumstances and strong in favourable ones, behaving with an imperial air not usually found in boxers. This doubtless esteemed Klitschko to those in search of chivalry, and alienated him from fans who see only plasticity in a man’s shine. As a prizefighter, the loudest cheer he received outside of Germany occurred when Wladimir thanked the Wembley crowd for attending his destruction.
When he exited the ring in London, losing for the second time in two fights, Klitschko had conclusively ceded the division. He had done so going out on his feet. His reputation, having ascended in loss, was once more upright. In that, perhaps, Wladimir can find momentary satisfaction. — Eliott McCormick