Vitali Klitschko is graying at the temples and is making the inexorable march toward his 40th birthday, but the World Boxing Council heavyweight champion says he feels better physically than he did when he was in his 20s. Klitschko, who defends his title on Saturday at the O2 World Arena in Hamburg, Germany, against the long-forgotten Shannon Briggs, is fighting as if he's just now moving into his peak.
The elder of the highly successful brother duo is 39 years old, but has yet to be challenged since he ended an injury-induced 46-month retirement in 2008. He's 5-0 with five knockouts in his comeback and has barely lost a round, let alone a fight.
Overall, Klitschko is 40-2 with 38 knockouts and has never been cleanly beaten in a professional career that stretches back to 1996.
Klitschko lost to Chris Byrd in 2000 when he had to quit while comfortably ahead after nine rounds because of a serious shoulder injury that would eventually require surgery. In 2003, he was stopped on cuts by Lennox Lewis after six rounds in a fight he was leading on all three official cards.
But putting Klitschko into historical perspective is hardly a simple task. He fights in what boxing historian Mike Silver calls the worst era in the sport's history in terms of technical quality. And because he's so much bigger than some of the men regarded among the greatest in heavyweight history, many experts have difficulty accounting for that when comparing Klitschko to stars of the past.
Klitschko is just over 6 feet 7 inches, has an 80-inch reach and has averaged around 250 pounds since his 2008 return. Rocky Marciano, the legendary heavyweight champion of the 1950s, was 5-10, had a 67-inch reach and averaged 186 1/2 pounds in his seven world championship fights.
Marciano, who finished his career 49-0 with 43 knockouts, is ranked the 14th greatest fighter in history in Bert Randolph Sugar's 2006 book, Boxing's Greatest Fighters. In 2002, The Ring magazine ranked Marciano 12th in its list of the 80 greatest fighters of the previous 80 years.
Silver and independent matchmaker Johnny Bos, each of whom is a highly regarded expert and boxing historian, agree on one thing about a Klitschko-Marciano comparison and disagree on another.
Both men believe it would have been a one-sided affair. Bos said Klitschko's size advantage – 9 1/2 inches in height, about 13 inches in reach and, about 60 pounds – would have carried him to an easy victory had both men met while at their peaks.
"Oh my God, he would have killed Marciano," Bos said of Klitschko. "He was a foot taller. If you put Rocky in a 240-pound frame, it might be a different story. But the size difference between them is so massive, it wouldn't have really been close."
Silver, who has written a highly acclaimed book, "The Arc of Boxing: The Rise and Decline of the Sweet Science", agrees a fight between the men wouldn't have been close. He simply disagrees on the identity of the winner.
Silver believes Marciano would have torn Klitschko apart and said he believes size is vastly overrated among heavyweights. He said he believes that as long as a fighter is 185 pounds or more, which Marciano was, he is plenty big enough to knock out a man of any size with the proper technique. He devoted a large portion of his book to an analysis of the impact of size in heavyweight boxing and concludes it meant little throughout the sport's history.
But now, he said, with the sport as a whole and the heavyweight division in particular being very diluted, size has become a weapon for the big men.
"We're talking about a sport today in which the competition isn't there like it used to be," said Silver, who served as a historical consultant for 18 boxing documentaries on networks such as HBO, ESPN, PBS and A&E. "The skills aren't there like they used to be. Today, size matters more than it ever did. Size matters more than it ever did because so few fighters have the technical skill, training and knowledge, that experience, ring savvy, seasoning, to know how to counteract superior speed and how to counteract superior athleticism.
"[Former light heavyweight champion] Archie Moore took apart so many guys who outweighed him by 30, 40, 50 pounds or more, because he had such great ring savvy. Archie loved fighting heavyweights. He didn't love defending his light heavyweight title, because those guys had speed and he was already in his late 30s, early 40s [by the time he won the title]. He loved to fight the heavyweights because he knew the heavyweights were the slowest guys. … I would hate to think what Archie would have done to a guy like [former World Boxing Association heavyweight champion] John Ruiz. It would have been over in five or six rounds and Ruiz could have been seriously hurt."
Silver said Klitschko hasn't faced anyone with the skills that Marciano had. No one Klitschko faced, he said, understood how to combat Klitschko's massive size.
He insisted that Marciano knew how to do that and would have quickly worked his way inside and done significant damage to Klitschko.
"I don't think Klitschko is a good enough boxer to have been able to deal with a guy like Marciano and I don't think he ever met anybody who knew how to get inside," Silver said. "If you notice, in so many of Marciano's fights, he's right there inside. He knew how to get that inside position. He was trained beautifully by Charley Goldman. And, incidentally, if Charley Goldman were around today, maybe he could have done something with Klitschko, but I doubt it.
"I don't think either of these guys have the stomach for fighting or the toughness that the old-timers had. We have to take in the mental aspects and we have to take in the psychology of the fighters. But neither of the (Klitschko) brothers have ever met anyone who knew how to get inside, which Marciano certainly did. He'd bang the body, bring it up to the head and he'd chop them down like you would a big Sequoia. And believe me when I tell you, Marciano hit as hard as any 250-pounder ever hit."
The difference in the opinion of two of the game's most respected analysts clearly exposes the problem of how to rank a fighter like Klitschko. Clearly, he deserves to be in the International Boxing Hall of Fame, because he's beaten the men of his era. He just happens to fight in an era which is utterly devoid of skilled opposition.
When a reporter remarked how amazing his domination of the heavyweight division has been, Klitschko sloughed off the praise.
"Please, don't put a crown on my head right now," he said. "Right now, I don't care about what I've accomplished. I'll let you guys decide that kind of thing. I just enjoy the process and getting ready to fight and fighting and trying to knock my opponents out. Everything else is secondary."
Clearly, Briggs is secondary. He has fought a collection of misfits in the last three years to, ahem, earn his title shot and, outside of a lucky punch, has little chance to win.
"Shannon has one shot and that's to land that one shot," Bos said. "Otherwise, forget it. If he can't get that one shot in there, it's all Klitschko."
Heavyweight boxing has become Wladimir Klitschko, Vitali Klitschko and a slew of pretenders. But just because you beat Ralph and Ed on Sunday afternoon to win the club championship doesn't mean you deserve to be compared to Arnie, Jack or Tiger, so, too, is it true that beating the likes of Albert Sosnowski and Kevin Johnson doesn't put you in the same conversation as Muhammad Ali, Joe Louis, Marciano and Larry Holmes.
Vitali and Wladimir Klitschko are unquestionably Hall of Fame bound. They're the greatest of their era.
Whether that really means anything is something boxing analysts are going to dispute for years.