Facing Wladimir Klitschko

By Scoop Malinowski

Boxers recall their experiences inside the ring against the Heavyweight Champion of the world: Wladimir Klitschko…

Ray Austin lost to Wladimir in 2007 by KO 2: “He’s an all around athlete. A great athlete, a better athlete than what I had anticipated when I got in there with him. He’s got everything a heavyweight is supposed to have – he’s strong, he’s got mobility, movement, good jab. But the key thing was for me to go in there and take it to him and make him fight and don’t let him box and get in his comfort zone. That was the plan – to break his rhythm.”

Austin says it wasn’t his night. “Basically, in that situation, my mind wasn’t even there. Wasn’t nothing coming together for me that night. Nothing. And it ain’t no certain excuse. It happens like that sometimes. Some nights is your’s, some nights it’s not. That was the wrong night for me not to click in [laughs].”

Klitschko surprised Austin with his athleticism. “He was kind of fast on his feet. His mobile movement from the right to the left was better than I anticipated. Cause when I first went in there, I cut the left off immediately and he darted back the other way. And he did it so swiftly and fast. Like, this is what he do, he didn’t have no problem. When a guy is used to going a certain way – like you got a guy who you push and he’s not used to going backwards, he’s kind of clumsy when you push him back. You go, Uh oh, I kinda found something. But when I cut the left off, he did it like that’s how he was practicing. He just moved with no problems, like this is what I do. I said, Oh okay, this guy isn’t gonna stand still. He came to fight [laughs]. Because I watched the Sam Peter fight and Sam seemed like he caught up with him a little more. Even though he boxed Sam pretty good, Sam was able to catch up with him and land a couple of punches. And that’s what I was looking to do.”

When asked if he thought Wladimir, in his current form, was an “all-time great,” Austin agreed, “Yeah, I think he’s one of the greatest so far. He hasn’t really truly been tested, he’s been in a couple of wars, he won a few, lost a few but he still got to prove himself. But so far, out here right now, he’s probably one of the best.”

Phil Jackson: “The experience that I got from Wladimir (in 1999) – he’s a tough cookie. He had those losses, I don’t know what happened to him. To me, Wladimir – he’s a good fighter. Something went wrong, somewhere down the line. To me, I knew he could still be the champ because he has that power. He has that power.”

That’s not the only asset Klitschko owns, says Jackson, who sparred with both brothers in Atlantic City before Wladimir boxed Ray Mercer in 2002. “He has an excellent jab. He’s not a mover like his brother – his brother moves extremely well. He wears you down with that power, man.” Jackson, who lost a world title bid to Lennox Lewis by KO 8 in 2004, says Klitschko hit harder than Lewis. “Klitschko had more power, most definitely. In both hands. You could feel it. Put it this way – if it would have been Wladimir in there when his brother fought Lennox Lewis, I think he would have dropped Lennox Lewis. I honestly do. I think he would have dropped Lennox Lewis.” Jackson sees a difference in Klitschko’s style now compared to 1999. “Back then, he just don’t give a damn. He just came forward. He just throw ‘em at you. Now he boxes more, he boxes smarter now and waits for the right time to use the power.”

Chris Byrd: “Wladimir beat me the first time (2000), I just didn’t feel right. The second fight (2006), I can be very honest – I was never in the fight. He fought a great fight. He made some changes to his style. He got my respect for beating Sam Peter. I got hit with all kinds of punches. It wasn’t the fight we trained for in sparring. Everything felt great going in but when you get out there and start getting hit and certain things don’t work for you…I thank the Lord I had the chance to have a rematch with Wladimir Klitschko. He’s such a big, strong, good boxer. I take nothing away from him.” Employing an ill-conceived strategy in the rematch let Byrd down. “It was knuckle-headed of me to think I was bigger and stronger than him,” said Byrd. “He’s 241 pounds of muscle and I was 212 pounds of bulked up muscle, not even for real muscle. So I felt I had to go in there and push him around. And it didn’t work out. It was a horrid showing, getting hit with all kinds of punches. I was pretty sharp in sparring, I was pretty aggressive, but Wladimir Klitschko is a big, strong guy, he’s talented. He knows how to box.”

When asked what type of style could offset and possibly defeat Klitschko, Byrd replied, “I would say be a big, strong guy and press him forward. But you gotta move the head. I didn’t move my head. You gotta give him angles because he’s so tall and shooting down and he’s taking that half-step back and he’s getting his punches off. It’s hard to fight him.”

Lamon Brewster defeated Wladimir in 2004 and lost to him in 2007. The American cited an improved left jab as the difference maker. “He was able to maintain the jab, whereas the last time I knew his jab would be busy but I was able to get past it. In the second fight his jab was better, he had an awesome jab and I tried to get past it but I couldn’t. So then he was accumulating punches. I knew, at some point, I couldn’t keep getting hit like that. I felt I was the same, relentless Lamon Brewster in both fights but sometimes, somebody has the better night. Unlike crying wolf or saying poison, you just admit when someone’s better than you that night. He was better that night. And I might be better the next night.”

Sultan Ibragimov lost a wide decision to Wladimir at Madison Square Garden in 2008:
“I should have been more aggressive. When I tried to go forward, he’d go back. If I did get inside, he’d hold me. I couldn’t fight him. It wasn’t that I took his punches, or his speed or power. It was his height and it was a very hard technical fight. Nobody could do anything. I felt bad that I didn’t train differently. I should have had more of an attack strategy than defense.” Mario Costa was in Ibragimov’s corner and noticed Klitschko is a more defense-oriented fighter than he once was. “I think he fights almost scared. He’s a defensive fighter. He doesn’t want you to check his chin. It’s hard to fight a guy like that. He’d try to punch Sultan from waaay outside. Then back up. Always throwing something and be so safe. It’s very hard to fight a guy like that. He fights safe. Many times he’ll throw a jab and go half-step back, not move forward.”

After the fight Costa, spoke about it with his friend Mike Tyson. “Mike said tall guys are hard to get in on most of the time,” said Costa. “He said he always had a hard time with taller guys, to get in it’s always hard.”

Jameel McCline faced Wladimir in 2002, losing by tenth-round stoppage:
“He was so hard to fight because he has a great jab. He had really good speed and he was extremely intelligent.” McCline revealed Wladimir’s intelligence came across inside the ring, “With shots to the belly – that I never thought a heavyweight could get away with, so quickly, without me catching him with a left hook on the way out, or a right hand on the way out. His intelligence translated into ramrod jabs that I was unable to get around.”
McCline believes the Klitschkos have transcended boxing. “I spent some time with Wladimir in Austria three years ago when he was getting ready for Mariusz Wach. And I explained how he and his brother have effectively changed the heavyweight division. He said, ‘Well, what do you mean?’ I said, ‘Well, think about it: Ten years ago we all fought each other. No. 9 fought no. 4. No. 3 fought no. 7. No. 8 fought no. 2. And the No. 1 and the champion fought everyone. Now, you guys beat guys that come out of nowhere, who no one has really seen. They’ve had maybe only one HBO date prior, if any, and all the sudden you’re fighting them. The shot of their life. And no one sees them again.’ And he thought about it. He was quiet for about a full fifteen seconds. And then he said, ‘You’re right.’ And I said, ‘Not that those guys aren’t decent fighters but it’s completely different. Everyone is out to get a shot at Klitschko as opposed to being the best that they can be. The Klitschkos transcended the heavyweight division. They completely changed how things work in the heavyweight division.”

McCline’s lasting memory of Wladimir Klitschko? “It’s funny. I was thinking about that recently. How that guy – ten years after my fight with him – he is still relevant in so many ways in the heavyweight division. It’s just really brilliant and amazing what he has been able to accomplish for all these years. He hasn’t gone down at all. The competition is completely different than it used to be. But, still, he beat that competition…now he’s beating this lesser competition. Not taking anything away from anyone.”

Ray Mercer: “Fuck fuck fuck him. He was on steroids. Just kidding [chuckles]. I just totally took him for granted. I was in Brigantine NJ fishing. Fishing was my number one love. I was fishing instead of training. And first seeing Wladimir Klitschko – I never saw him before – I didn’t know he was as big or he was as strong as he was. So I got in the ring and he knocked me down in the first round.” Ray agreed Klitschko was better than he estimated: “Of course. I was in the mindset of if I lose weight and train and run I’ll be good to go. But my trainer Matt Howard telling me that I need to lift weights and take vitamins and everything because this guy is big but I didn’t believe it. I just thought I can go in there in shape – 230 or something – which was wrong because he was big and stocky. So that was a lesson I learned. That was the last lesson I learned. I got the shit beat out of me.” The former WBO titlist recalls his strategy and tactics for Klitschko: “Just go in there and be in shape – just go in there and be able to fight. I never really did have a strategy for that fight. I really didn’t. People don’t believe me but fishing was my number one love. So I was fishing in Brigantine on the dock and I caught a striped bass for the first time. After I did that early in the camp I was hooked. I was going fishing every day – my trainer was telling me: ‘You’re not gonna run?’ I’m going fishing first.” The former Olympic gold medalist at heavyweight in 1988 says he wasn’t overly impressed by Wladimir: “He really didn’t impress me. He knocked me down with a jab in the first round. That’s only because I was ill-prepared – my trainer kept telling me this guy is big and strong and all that. If I’d seen him and known what was going on at the time I think I could have beaten him. I went six rounds with him and I was still in there – I mean – he didn’t knock me out. The referee stopped the contest. Worst ass whoopin I ever got.” Ray was 38 when he boxed Klitschko in Atlantic City: “Yeah I was 38 but take nothing away from Klitschko. Klitschko had his big trainer in Emanuel Steward and that’s what got him over.” Ray says Wladimir is not the hardest puncher he faced – that distinction goes to another American: “Tommy Morrison – his left hook. He had me fartin’ when he hit me in the body with the hook. I was fartin’. I farted three times straight up [chuckles].”

Scoop is the author of Facing Nadal; Facing Federer; and Facing Hewitt; as well as Muhummad Ali: Portrait of a Champion – all available at amazon

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