I was pleased to see Wladimir Klitschko retire last week.
Nobody wants to go out on a defeat (although historically fighters often do) but in Klitschko’s case, given the manner of his performance and the scale of the occasion the fact that he lost didn’t mean that he didn’t go out on a high. He did. I was lucky enough to be ringside and I’ll always remember that fight just as much for Klitschko’s final, glorious last stand as I will for Joshua’s win.
I’ve been thinking, in the days since he announced his retirement, about what his career has maybe taught us about boxing, and about sport generally and in the end it came down to a couple of things.
Firstly, it confirmed my long-held belief that it’s utterly pointless to compare fighters from different eras. That doesn’t mean I don’t do it, I do, because it’s fun, but there’s no point to it as far as I’m concerned. All any fighter can do is be the best in their division(s) in their own era, and that’s not an opinion, that’s a statement of fact. To criticise a boxer because their competition wasn’t perceived to be stiff enough is totally absurd but that was the situation the Ukrainian found himself in, until probably the final chapter of his career when due credit began to be more forthcoming.
How would he have fared in the 60s and 70s, the accepted golden era of heavyweight boxing, people would ask? We don’t know, is the answer, and what is more, we never will. It seems to be the curse of dominant champions that people question their achievements on the grounds that they appear to have come too easily, that such a level of superiority is somehow suspicious.
But nobody has questioned Usain Bolt’s greatness have they?
Why? Because he set world records and proved that he was the fastest man of all time. But in boxing you can’t set the same type of records, those measurements can’t be made and therefore valid comparisons between competitors from different eras become impossible.
Klitschko was the best of his time and there’s not a boxer who has ever lived who has been able to claim any greater achievement than that. It isn’t possible.
The second thing that the life and works of big Wlad showed us, I think, is that early defeats don’t define a fighter. It’s a strange one this because most people would agree with that. A pet hate for many fight fans these days, and I share it, is that unbeaten records are far too prized, that the sport was healthier in years gone by when boxers would be matched tough early, get that “0” off their back and learn from defeats.
But in the case of Klitschko people seemed to make an exception. I’ve lost count of the amount of times I’ve heard someone say “yeah but he lost to Corrie Sanders and Lamon Brewster, he can’t be that good.” Now that statement assumes two things: One, that Sanders and Brewster, who both held the WBO heavyweight title during their career, and had records of 38-2 and 29-2 at the time they met Klitschko, were a pair of incompetents, which they were not: And, two, that defeats set your career bar in stone, that they define your true level of ability forever, which is ridiculous.
They were damaging defeats, no question, but WK did what all champions do which is learn from them and improve. I read a good quote recently from Brother Colm O’Connell, the Irish missionary and athletics coach known as the “Godfather of Kenyan running.” “Winners”, he said, “are losers who have evaluated themselves.”
I’m not some kind of Klitschko groupie, he’s not a hero of mine, but I admire him enormously, as I do anyone who squeezes every last drop out of their talent, and who refuses to allow their setbacks to define them, no matter how much others might want them to.
And that’s what he did.
I suspect that his career will become more celebrated the longer he’s retired. It’s another curse of dominant champions that they are often made to wait to receive the accolades they deserve whilst more maverick performers, who disappointed as often as they excelled, are celebrated like heroes.
But in sport dominance doesn’t guarantee popularity and, like many before him, Wladimir Klitschko is now more popular, off the back of a defeat, than he ever was when he quite simply didn’t know how to lose, when winning was pure routine.
‘Everybody loves a winner.’ Strangely, it’s not really true.