SOMETIMES Wladimir Klitschko must feel like a benevolent king observing wryly the foibles of his subjects and pretenders alike. As the imperious leader of the heavyweight division enjoys the new contentment of fatherhood, he can cast a bemused eye at the parade of unlikely challengers lining up to face him.
Small and limited fellow Ukrainian Vyacheslav Glazkov recently captured a contentious decision over Steve Cunningham to secure the IBF mandatory slot, while strong but raw Australian Lucas Browne will soon meet WBA ‘regular’ champion Ruslan Chagaev, an Uzbek Wladimir dealt with handily back in 2009. Only WBO No. 1 Tyson Fury and new WBC ruler Deontay Wilder present more plausible threats, but even those two young, ambitious, undefeated fighters would start significant underdogs in a two-horse race with the thoroughbred Klitschko, who celebrated his 39th birthday this year and remains ensconced in a glorious prime that looks like never ending.
While Klitschko surely longs for sterner tests than Kubrat Pulev, who was vanquished in five rounds – maybe even yearns for the days of David Haye and his provocative t-shirts – it is the champion’s duty to talk up his uninspiring future foes, thus creating interest where there may be little and ever-greater fortunes when his earning potential could start to dip. Klitschko will likely always sell out huge venues in Germany where an educated audience appreciate his prowess, even if the shallow well of sellable rivals ultimately runs dry, but globally the market for his brand of pugilism is more likely to fluctuate.
“The heavyweight division has always had ups and downs at different times,” he reasons, taking his time but proceeding in fluent English. “On the European side, people didn’t complain about it because we filled out stadiums – Vitali [his brother] and my fights were like seven or eight stadiums in a row sold out and the TV ratings were great – but in the US people were saying heavyweight boxing is bad so there’s no interest or nothing was happening, even though Vitali was fighting in 2009 against Chris Arreola on HBO. It’s all questionable. There was a lot of talk about the Klitschkos’ ‘boring dominance’, you name it, always something was wrong. But now I’m happy to have more people being involved at heavyweight, more names, exciting young fighters like Deontay Wilder became champion, Bryant Jennings and your countryman Tyson Fury. It all works well with timing. I’m still young enough to compete and show to my young competitors that age doesn’t mean much; actually it’s more of an advantage than a disadvantage. In Europe the hype was high, in the US it was low but now the US picked up.”
Any unification showdown with Wilder would probably be staged Stateside also. Additionally, a Fury fight could generate big bucks in Britain, so Wladimir should maintain the family stock of nappies and wet wipes for some time to come, but it’s perhaps telling that he is looking even further ahead and waxing lyrical about the potential of one Anthony Joshua, the 13-fight pro who succeeded him as Olympic super-heavyweight gold medallist by 16 years. This illustrates Klitschko’s belief in his own longevity but also perhaps an underlying fear that the marketable match-ups could soon grow thin.
“I believe the future belongs to Anthony Joshua,” he tells me, with apparent sincerity. “I haven’t seen an athlete as athletic, as big, as fast, as talented as Anthony and if he’s going to continue the way he is, developing himself, the future belongs to him. That’s my prediction and trust me, I know what I’m talking about.”
Klitschko is an authority on boxing although his sentiments regarding Joshua are of course laced with self-interest. He appears far more cordial towards the British prospect than Wilder, even though both men have previously joined Klitschko in camp. Chagaev and Tony Thompson are two of the other men to spar with the king – Fury trained alongside Wladimir but the pair never opposed each other – only to be found severely lacking when they went at it for real. The pattern is easy to discern, at least for this cynical hack: Klitschko gets an intimate portrait of a potential future rival, but this is characterised as an opportunity for said fighter to learn from the champion. If Klitschko should also gain a psychological advantage through what occurs in the sparring ring, all the better. Lennox Lewis wrote words to that effect in this publication only recently. Wladimir, to his credit, refuses to dodge or deny the implication, but chooses to view the situation from another angle.
“In a certain way, I see that there is a repetition of the history,” he begins in cautious fashion, similar to the feeling-out process he typically favours in the early rounds of title defences. “I know that Muhammad Ali had Larry Holmes as a sparring partner and other guys. I don’t want to draw these parallels because Holmes beat Ali in a fight. I think it’s great experience for the young fighters and great competition for me in the ring. I want to be the best in the ring while I’m fighting so I need the best sparring partners. I’ve already had a sparring partner in Tony Thompson, who was later twice my opponent. Francesco Pianeta and Ruslan Chagaev were also my sparring partners. I’ve been there, done this experience and I’m not afraid to fight these guys at all. I’m not afraid to let them know how I prepare. My future opponents can watch me while I’m working out. One thing is a sparring session but another one is to be across the ring from me on fight night, because I’m a different animal then. I’m dominant in a fight and my sparring partners know I’m dominant in sparring as well; you could probably ask them better. I don’t know, I’ve never had troubles or problems where I got beat up or my sparring partners were too strong.”
I’m happy to take that as a qualified confirmation, but it’s unlikely Wladimir would concur. As my allotted 30-minute slot whizzes by, it occurs to me that our conversation is remarkably, albeit metaphorically, similar to a sparring session. I probe carefully, Wladimir defends himself in composed manner, shooting out the odd jab in response, but on the occasions when over-reach – and there are a few – I am punished immediately and conclusively for my temerity. My suggestion that the Floyd Mayweather-Manny Pacquiao megafight will steal much of the thunder from Klitschko’s first fight on American soil for seven years meets reasoned resistance; Wladimir believes the match will benefit boxing as a whole, plus early indications are that the MSG show will sell out. My contention that Wilder’s rise has made heavyweight boxing more exciting, more viable in the US, and furthermore that Klitschko might not be fighting both in the States and on HBO, if it weren’t for the WBC boss, is rebuffed not once, but twice.
“It’s all about the demand, and demand is better and that’s why I’m there,” Klitschko insists regarding his American return. “It’s obviously great to switch the places. I’ve been fighting in Europe for many years now and I’ve had great success, I’m so appreciative to all the fans and I know, for them, it’s great to see me fighting in New York because they’re travelling over there. It’s gonna be end of May, warm, nice and New York is a really exciting city. For me, it was just a question of demand.”
But surely Wilder and his impressive WBC strap-winning victory over previous holder Bermane Stiverne in January were instrumental in increasing that demand; that a US citizen now owns a portion of the world heavyweight title logically stimulates greater interest in the division as a whole on their shores. This time I have some success and the experienced champion at least concedes space before countering adeptly.
“Absolutely, yes, I’m happy that Wilder won the fight,” Klitschko admits, albeit answering a different, unasked question. “He’s younger than Stiverne, he has an amazing record and I think he’s going to create a lot of interest. He’s a marketable athlete. He looks like an athlete – not kinda heavy and chunky. His age and boxing record creates definitely interest and attention from the US side in the heavyweight division.
“It’s good that he fought Stiverne. I mean, people criticise about a lot of things; I’m getting criticised all over the place for my style of my dominance. Even when you’re dominant as I am you’re getting ‘boring’, which is ridiculous. I think he is a little underestimated, Deontay Wilder, I think he can really do it. I’m not talking about Anthony Joshua because he’s not a champion yet but I think Deontay has the qualities of a champion.”
It’s notable that Klitschko’s initial praise of Wilder is limited to the younger man’s physique and his startling record of 32 early finishes from 33 victories. His reluctance to afford Wilder too much credit is perhaps indicative of how distant he perceives their eventual meeting to be. When pushed further, however, Wladimir again gives ground, but I am aware that these moments are fleeting.
“I had him in my camp for Mariusz Wach in 2012,” Klitschko recalls. “That was the camp during which [his trainer] Emanuel [Steward] unfortunately passed away. We sparred for three weeks. Absolutely talented and ambitious athlete with great speed and punching power. With age he has improved and has showed he can fight for 12 rounds and not just five. I can only say positive things about Deontay and I’m actually a fan of his record because not many heavyweight fighters or boxers in general have created such an amazing knockout percentage.
“It [a unification clash] absolutely can become a huge event. It depends how he is going to perform and how much interest he’s going to create. This fight will create a lot of attention. He’s on the way up. If that fight is gonna happen, hopefully sooner than later. I’ve heard a lot of talk – from Tyson Fury and Wilder, in this case – but unfortunately all the talk you have to kind of filter, because they’re not promoters and managers, the decision-making process is in the hands of the promoters. I can speak for myself because I’m my own promoter/manager, you can trust what I’m saying about me. These guys can say something, but can they deliver such fights for the fans? It’s not only their decision. But hopefully such an event, with Fury or Wilder, is going to happen sooner than later.”
Like Mayweather with Pacquiao, Klitschko is keen to distinguish himself from his lesser rivals as his own boss. Klitschko is clearly as savvy an operator in the boardroom as he is within the ropes. When the time comes to meet Wilder or Fury – whom he surprisingly describes as “quiet, funny – a regular guy” – you sense it will be on his terms. An honourable but rigid man, Wladimir only truly relaxes his guard and opens up on two subjects – the birth of his daughter and the passing of Steward, long-time trainer, trusted confidant and close personal friend. Wladimir has looked every bit as authoritative in competition since Manny died, recording five comprehensive wins, but it seems the loss of Steward is still keenly felt.
“I miss him every day,” he laments, offering his first instinctive reply of the chat. “It’s not about Emanuel being my coach, he was my friend and we had a very special relationship. He was fun to talk to, it doesn’t matter which topic. I got a lot of wisdom of life from Emanuel and in boxing he was an absolute genius. We didn’t even do much padwork or anything like coaches do. I trained myself, Emanuel was coming to do the fine-tuning. And you know what the fine-tuning was? We talked, we talked, we talked a lot. We talked more than we did padwork, for example. That was his way of training and guys that worked with him know exactly what I’m talking about. Emanuel was programming different ways than any other coach, it’s not physical programming but talking and delivering the message.”
With Emanuel alive in spirit and memory but sadly and irrevocably absent from the gym, his protégé, Johnathan Banks, has taken the reins – while still competing as an active heavyweight. It’s an anomaly and one Klitschko does not appear entirely supportive of. While Banks has experienced mixed fortunes as a fighter, his form as a coach, judging by Klitschko’s perennial excellence, has been exemplary. But will his bond with the boxer ever be as strong as the one he cultivated with Steward or is that simply asking too much?
“I always said that Johnathon is a talented coach that knows how to have an analytical mind for boxing,” Klitschko points out. “I know he’s trying to be a good fighter, he has a lot of knowledge but I’m sure he’s a better coach than a fighter and I’ve been saying it many, many times. I want to remind you of that and remind Johnathon too. Not many coaches out there are good and Johnathon has learned a lot of stuff from Emanuel. I know Johnathon as much as I knew Emanuel. Emanuel came with Johnathon and Johnathon is seven, eight years younger than I. He was my sparring partner for a very long time, He was around me, he knows how I function; there is no better coach for me than Johnathon. I do not train regularly like any other fighter and their coach. It’s creative co-working between coach and me. It’s not like is usually the case where the coach is telling the fighter what to do, I’m telling the coach what to do. The coach needs to just give me the guidance from the side, because you can see better from the side.”
While that assertion may well be valid, Klitschko has no intentions of moving to the sidelines himself any time soon. At 39, and with a dearth of challengers perceived to warrant the term, Klitschko is summarily presented with questions about his retirement date. Engaged to actress partner Hayden Panettiere and now a dad, Klitschko could be forgiven for eyeing a life outside of the sport and enjoying his hard-earned wealth with his young family.
“No, no, no,” he states, ducking one last fanciful haymaker, before uncorking that huge right hand. “That’s my job and I wanna be an example for my kids, and how can I be an example if I’m not doing what I’ve been doing for 25 years now. I’m enjoying myself and the boost of energy I’m getting from being a parent… my brother said one line and it’s true, because I’ve had a brief taste of it. He said as a father he punched harder.”
But once the structure of training and the thrill of competition is removed, what will remain, what will the archetypal modern heavyweight champion do?
“When the day comes… I will tell you,” he vows. “I’m not there yet.”