There's nary an objective soul who would venture to say that IBF-WBO heavyweight champion Wladimir Klitschko is great.
Great guy? No doubt.
Great athlete? Affirmative.
Great scholar? Unquestionably.
Great heavyweight boxer? Nope. Not even close.
But Klitschko, who defends his titles on Saturday in an HBO-televised bout at 4:30 p.m. ET from Hamburg, Germany, against the left-handed Tony Thompson, is a victim of circumstances when it comes to boxing greatness.
If you asked a buddy if a boxer who had captured an Olympic gold medal, won 50 of 53 pro fights, had two reigns as world champion, recorded 44 knockouts and had only been beaten cleanly once should be regarded as great, he'd give you a strange look before replying, "Of course."
Until, that is, he found out it was Wladimir Klitschko you were asking about.
Then, he'd have to go back and ponder the question. At which point, he'd probably have to concede that at 32 years old, after a dozen years as a pro and with a 94.3 percent winning percentage that the guy isn't really great.
That, though, probably isn't Klitschko's fault. He's fought in an era bereft of quality heavyweights. These last five years are probably the worst period of heavyweight talent since the mid-1950s, when there was Rocky Marciano and virtually no one else of quality.
There was Muhammad Ali and Sonny Liston and Joe Frazier and Jimmy Ellis and George Foreman and Jerry Quarry, among others, in the 1960s. The 1970s featured Ali, Frazier, Foreman, Ken Norton and, most notably, Larry Holmes. The 1980s brought along Mike Tyson. In the 1990s, it was Riddick Bowe, Evander Holyfield and Lennox Lewis.
But since 2000, there hasn't been anything close to the quality of heavyweights that existed in the prior 40 years, leaving Klitschko to fight a collection of misfits and orphans.
A boxer's greatness is defined as much by whom he's beaten as much as it is by the physical skills he possesses. Would Ali be as highly revered as he is if he'd never fought Frazier, Foreman and Liston and instead made a career of beating up on guys like Alfredo Evangelista and Jean-Pierre Coopman?
I think not.
Klitschko didn't have the opportunity to fight Lennox Lewis, who didn't convince all the skeptics of his own greatness until he pummeled a washed-up Tyson in 2002. But Klitschko is the standard now by which other heavyweights are judged. And despite the fact that he's been around so long, he points out that he's only now entering his prime years.
Klitschko is 32 years, three months old. Ali beat three Hall of Famers – Frazier, Foreman and Norton, as well as Earnie Shavers, one of the hardest hitters in history – after he was 32 years and three months.
So, there is still plenty of time for Klitschko to establish himself as more than just the best heavyweight of a dreadful era.
"I've learned the negative side of boxing already," Klitschko said. "I appreciate wins more now. And I see the sport differently now. I'm more mature as a person and I now truly enjoy being an athlete. I've been doing this (as a pro) for 12 years and I have over 50 fights, but I know what I want now and I know how to accomplish it.
"I'm stepping up to a different level in terms of my understanding of the sport and my ability to box. The experience I gained, it's something you can't buy in a shop. I'm still young and I'm just coming into my prime. I have a lot still to give."
Klitschko's coming off a performance he'd rather forget, even though he picked up an extra heavyweight title belt in the process and won nearly every round. But his performance over Sultan Ibragimov was so desultory that fans in Madison Square Garden were roundly booing early in the fight.
Ibragimov was intimidated by Klitschko's size and strength and never tried to engage him, opting to stay as far away as possible and flick jabs. The criticism of Klitschko was primarily because he had a better jab and he had the ability to work his way in and finish the fight.
Instead, he was content to win an ultra-boring decision.
He concedes the fight wasn't pleasing, but said Ibragimov gave up when he won. Still, he accepts the criticism that has come his way. And though he won't flatly say it, it sounds as if he intends to make a point on Saturday against Thompson.
"He was so defensive and I was chasing him and looking to land shots and it wasn't an easy job," Klitschko said referring to the Ibragimov fight. "I understand the criticism and I'm alert to it. But I say you can't judge someone on one fight.
"I've won 50 fights and I have had 44 knockouts. I always try to finish the fight as early as possible, even if it's not possible, but I understand what the audience wants.
"Tony has promised me he won't fight like Ibragimov. I reminded him of that and he promised me again he's going to fight."
If Thompson (31-1) comes to fight, it will make for a better show for those in the audience and those watching on television.
It won't do anything to deem Klitschko great, of course. He needs to beat someone of equal or greater stature, which he has yet to do.
He may never get that chance. There are precious few young contenders coming up who could be the Frazier to his Ali. Chris Arreola and Alexander Povetkin are two who are beginning to gain attention, but they're far from sure things.
The sad thing may be that Klitschko will never wind up with the foil who could help him prove his worth. He may have to be satisfied to be remembered as the guy who ruled the worst era in heavyweight history.
- Wladimir Klitschko
- Joe Frazier
- George Foreman