LOS ANGELES – Few of his intimates thought it was wise of Vitali Klitschko when he broached the idea last year of ending his retirement and returning to boxing.
His body had betrayed him repeatedly in his final years in the ring and his 40th birthday was getting ever closer. He had all the money he'd ever need and enough interests outside the sport to keep him happy.
He retired in 2005 after several times failing to stay healthy to fight Hasim Rahman for a version of the heavyweight title.
When he talked of returning, many of those closest to him recoiled in horror.
"I was definitely against it the first time he talked to me about it," his younger brother, International Boxing Federation and World Boxing Organization heavyweight champion Wladimir Klitschko, said.
So was his wife. So was his mother. And so was just about anyone who meant anything to him.
Klitschko, though, had struggled with retirement. He'd run unsuccessfully for mayor of Kiev, Ukraine, turning to perhaps the only business more corrupt than boxing.
He knew there were those who questioned his heart, who had scoffed at what they perceived as his excuses.
Fight after fight, he had to withdraw because his body was falling apart. It would have become fodder for late-night comedians had anyone really cared about boxing.
But he took care of himself during his retirement and the aches and pains gradually left. He soon returned to full health and it dawned on him that his body was capable of performing at a high level.
The lure of a return to the action, of potentially fulfilling a dream and holding a world title at the same time as his brother, was too much for him to ignore.
"The rest was so important to me," he said. "My body healed. I got all of it taken care of and I was in good health. I knew my skills and I knew what I could do. I just really wanted to do it."
He returned to pummel Samuel Peter last October to win the World Boxing Council heavyweight belt, then defended it in March against Juan Carlos Gomez.
On Saturday at the Staples Center, he'll meet unbeaten power puncher Cris Arreola in a fight broadcast live on HBO. That brings a smile to his face every time he talks about it.
"It's a big fight, a good fight," Klitschko said. "This is what I wanted."
His younger brother concedes he was wrong to oppose his return to boxing, saying the change in his brother's demeanor has been dramatic. Wladimir says his brother is content, happy, and enjoying the process as opposed to treating it like a business.
"The way he's come back has surprised all of us," Wladimir Klitschko said. "I was against Vitali's coming back against Samuel Peter, but I was amazed by his performance. I didn't expect that.
"He's back, and he's loving it. He's enjoying his time [in the spotlight]. He understands he's not 23 any more and he has limited time. That's why he really enjoys everything: The fight itself, the attention, the whole circus around the fighter. Because he loves it, I believe he's going to stay successful."
The lack of respect he's received, particularly from media in the U.S., is remarkable given his record. He's 37-2 and his only two losses were to Chris Byrd when he had to quit because of a shoulder injury that later required surgery, and to Lennox Lewis on cuts.
He was leading Lewis on the scorecards in that 2003 bout when the fight was stopped because of the blood that was gushing out of Klitschko's cut and into his eye. Lewis retired after that fight and in the summer was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame.
Rarely has a day gone by that Klitschko hasn't thought of fighting Lewis again, though.
"If he were here and were ready, I would fight him now," Klitschko said.
It's that combative attitude that Klitschko has that lends so much promise to Saturday's bout. Most heavyweight matches in recent years have been vomit-inducing, but the Klitschko-Arreola fight has the makings of an intriguing bout.
Arreola is 27-0 with 24 knockouts and cocky enough to believe he can become the first man to cleanly beat Klitschko. Klitschko was far ahead of Byrd when he was forced to quit because of the shoulder injury and he was leading Lewis on the cards at the fight's midpoint when it was stopped.
Arreola, though, plans to bring the fight to him and vows, "This ain't going the distance, believe me."
Klitschko believes the same thing, but he doesn't see how Arreola will be able to stop him.
He dismissed a claim by Arreola that he already has a fight planned for December – "I read about it on the Internet, but I did not know [about it] and all I have thought of for the last five weeks has been Cris Arreola," Klitschko said – and said he's eager to prove himself against a man with such a gaudy record.
"The question is, who will be the winner? I don't know," Klitschko said. "It's a heavyweight fight; it's boxing, where any one punch can decide the outcome. After five weeks of training, 100 miles of running, and over 100 rounds of sparring, I can now answer that question. I am in great shape, ready for a great performance and ready to show my skills in the ring.
"Five weeks ago, if you asked me that question, I wouldn't have been able to answer it. Now, after my training camp, I can tell you that I will win. Arreola is a tough guy, a big puncher, but he doesn’t have the experience in the ring."
His younger brother professes much respect for Arreola, as well, but Wladimir Klitschko said he recognizes something in his older brother that doesn't bode well for Arreola.
"He's enjoying himself, he's relaxed, he's healthy, he's having fun and he looks forward to getting to the gym and working hard every day," Wladimir Klitschko said. "When he's that way, Vitali always gives good performances. And that's what I expect from him on [Saturday]."
- Wladimir Klitschko
- Vitali Klitschko