WLADIMIR KLITSCHKO is the last person you expect to punch himself in the face. The Ukrainian is a polished former champion, who rarely made a mistake in the heat of battle and was meticulous in his preparation. But it happened before the opening bell had even chimed moments ahead of his first bout with cutman Jacob “Stitch” Duran in 2004.
An inauspicious moment at the worst time, when Klitschko needed to rebuild his confidence and his career. “My first fight with him was with DaVarryl Williamson at Caesars Palace. He had just come back from losing his world title to Lamon Brewster. So I’m there in the dressing room, he’s warming up,” Duran recalls. “He hits himself and he gets a nose bleed. I’m outside watching the fights and they say Stitch come work on Wladimir… I go in there and cutman 101 I stop the bleeding and he continues and we go into the fight.”
The two already had a long association. “I’ve been with him the longest. But it started, I’m saying December 1991, Vitali says ’92. When the Soviet Union first broke up we took a team of American boxers and kickboxers to Kiev to fight their guys. I had a kickboxer, that’s when I was in kickboxing,” Stitch said. “We went over there and I saw the Klitschkos for the first time. They were young guys but they were iconic already. There were posters of them on the walls of the streets. Back then, they were super-men. So I saw them. I never really said ‘Hi’ but years later they’re training at Top Rank gym here in Las Vegas and I walk in and I start talking to them. Nobody knew who was who, they looked alike. They were young and I’m telling them about my journey to Kiev and the guys who were there.”
The very first time he was in a corner with Wladimir Klitschko was on the set of the film Ocean’s Eleven when he, like Klitschko, was playing himself. Legendary trainer Emanuel Steward would approach Duran and ask him to come on board the team. He remembered, “Wladimir told me later on that he had told Emanuel, ‘I want the guy that was the cutman in the movie, call him.’ Emanuel said, ‘I already did’.”
The trust was tested early on in that first fight together. “He didn’t look very good. In my opinion he wasn’t world champion calibre at that point, even though he was winning the fight with DaVarryl Williamson. The jab is keeping it going, I think in the fourth round he gets dropped,” Stitch said. “In the fifth round he gets a head butt, he gets a big old nasty cut, I’m looking at it and when I sit him down, I’ve already made my evaluation. Going into the fifth round, it’s an unintentional headbutt and they stop it because of the injury then it goes to the scorecards. Knowing he got dropped in the fourth round, I still knew he had one, two and three.”
He made his decision and prompted the doctor to call a halt. He was proved right. “If he would have lost then I would have been out of job,” Stitch said. The doctor even called him the next day to let him know: “The plastic surgeon says if you hadn’t stopped the fight when you did, it would have damaged some optical nerves and would have created double vision.”
“So that was the start of my relationship with Wladimir.” He reminded Klitschko of their roots in the changing room at Wembley stadium as Wladimir waited for his climatic battle with Anthony Joshua. Back when they’d been on Ocean’s Eleven together he’d got Wladimir and Vitali sign the cornerman jacket he’d worn. Years later in London he ironed it up and produced it from his bag as they prepared for the fight. “Their eyes just light up, wow. Saturday in the dressing room for the fight. There’s different things in psychology that I use that I’m very, very good at and that was one of them. But I told Wladimir, ‘I brought this because this was our beginning and I’m with you.’ So those are the moments, Vitali’s there. I know at this point I bring psychology and security. That’s my job with Wladimir.”
Vitali, in Stitch’s words, is “still very Russian,” gruff and taciturn, sparing with his words. “Of the two, he’s the beast.” But even Vitali was moved. After the fight when saying their goodbyes, he, for the first time, said, ‘Stitch, I love you, man’.” Duran continued, “To me it was especially touching because you can hear it from Wladimir but to hear it from Vitali… It’s been an honour to work with both of these guys, mind blowing.”
“I see so many different corners and camps. I’ve seen the A level stuff and these guys are A level hands down,” Stitch continued. “They’re the best and when it comes to fighting they’re the best, when it comes to preparation.”
After losing tamely to Tyson Fury, being out of action for 18 months at 41 years of age, Klitschko had made a bold decision to take on Joshua at Wembley Stadium. “I’m sure the media thought the same thing, damn that’s going right into the hornet’s nest,” Stitch said. But he added, “He don’t make mistakes twice. That’s knowing Wladimir. He makes a mistake, he’s going to correct it.”
Sitting with Klitschko ahead of the weigh-in, Duran had told him, “Don’t worry about nothing tomorrow. I’m going to take care of you like you’re my son.”
When they were in the ring together on the field at Wembley, moments before the first round would start, he recalled, “Come fight time, before Michael Buffer was doing the introductions, 90,000 people and it’s just him and I and I’m putting the Vaseline on him and he says, ‘You can call me son,’ It just gave me chills right here. What I did to generate that, I took that nervousness out of him. I said go out and do it man. Whatever happens, I’m going to take care of you. That was a special, special moment.”
Just like their first fight together Stitch played a crucial role, in what proved to their last fight. After Joshua knocked him down in the fifth round, Wladimir was badly cut. The full extent of the injury only became apparent after the contest. Duran managed to staunch the bleeding. With his whole focus on the area round his fighter’s eyes Stitch saw it straightaway. “The average corner isn’t going to see that little drop. I pick it up like this,” he said. “It was big, deep cut, I call it a UFC cut but I’ve worked on those many, many times I knew, boom, now I’ve got to man up. I told Johnathon [Banks, his trainer] I’m going in.”
He noted, “What’s the number one thing for being a good cutman? Keep your composure, man.”
Klitschko, untroubled by that cut, staged a remarkable comeback, dropping Joshua himself in the next round. “What made that whole night great was that moment right there, that was the start, that kindled everything from that point to the end,” Duran said. “That definitely showed courage to do what he did.
“I think if Wladimir looks at it I think he’ll realise that would have been the time to get that inner strength and go for it and throw a barrage of punches… That would have been a good opportunity but that didn’t happen.”
To Klitschko’s corner the fight seemed in the balance going into the 11th and defining round. “If I was a coach, in round 10 I would have said now you need 10, 11 and 12. You’ve got to win these three rounds. That would have been my advice to him at that point. Because I look at it in worst case scenarios, if it’s a close fight, it’s going to go to him. To make a difference you’ve got to finish strong. Johnathon did that. So we were in the same frame of mind and we passed that on to Wladimir,” Stitch said.
But Joshua “came out like a bull. It was that type of thing. It was two gladiators crashing together. He came out strong and he changed the tempo of the whole fight, that’s what he did. When you change the whole tempo, you’ve got to readjust yourself. So good coaching.
“Robert [McCracken] sent out the right directions. Some guys will say in the 12th round you’ve got to go for it. Three minutes is not enough, six minutes is better than three minutes.”
It was Joshua’s devastating uppercut that triggered the ending. “It was a hell of an uppercut but he’s the one who got in that position,” Duran warned. “That right there made Joshua the champion, kept his titles. It was a great shot. But it could have been Wladimir. It was just a matter of seconds.”
Joshua dropped Klitchko twice in that 11th round before attacking him on the ropes to prompt the referee to finish the fight. “When somebody’s back is against the ropes, it’s not a good position because you can’t go anywhere. Anthony Joshua throws a lot of combinations. He throws punches in volumes, if the first and second don’t hit you, even the third, you’ve got that fourth one coming. Two out of the four hit you, that’s a pretty good percentage. He understands that. He understands it’s a combat sport,” Stitch noted. “That’s the ultimate victory to knock somebody out. Anthony Joshua did that.
“The experience he got out of it, is just going to make him so much better. He’s been to the top. Even though he’s a champion, this is the ultimate… The baton couldn’t have been passed to anybody better than Anthony Joshua. I think the fans realise that, everybody does. If you’re going to continue the legacy of boxing in the heavyweight division, do it with a guy like him. I think it’s going to be great for the sport. He’s on the right road and I think as long as he keeps that same personality that he has there and don’t get too big and get to that point that destroys great fighters, if he stays focused for the duration that he’s in the game, he’s going to do good. And I think he will. And that has so much to do with who’s with him. Knowing Robert, he’s a perfectionist, he’s a humble guy. I think they’ll feed off each other. I think they’ll do fine.”
But Klitschko does take immense pride from the fight and being cheered out by the Wembley crowd. “When I was flying to Reno, I sent Wladimir an email and I told him how proud I was of him, the way he fought and what he accomplished. So he gets back to me and he thanks me and he says, ‘You know what it was great to get the respect that I got from the fans in London’,” Duran revealed. “I have to agree with him. That was a very, very special moment.
“Props to the people in the UK, they came forward and they made the Rocky movie into real life.”
And Stitch should know. “I’ve been in two Rocky movies but I saw a real live Rocky movie at Wembley Stadium. And both the guys were Rocky!
“You couldn’t have scripted it any better.”