It is well and truly astounding how much the Klitscko brothers have shaken up the world of the heavyweight division since they turned pro. They have been alternately lauded and derided in the most outrageous fashions imaginable for well over a decade now, leaving no sharp stone unturned nor any unruly fan unruffled.
Their records are such that many in the mainstream boxing press have begun talking them up for the IBHOF, so the time is ripe to examine the best heavyweights in history to ascertain who might be able to beat the Klitschko brothers in their current form.
This 2005 IBRO list is probably the most comprehensive consensus of any of the dozens of heavyweight lists that can be easily conjured up. One may dicker over the individual rankings, but most would agree that these would be top 20 heavyweights overall at the time of the poll .
The IBRO heavies I have selected go against the Klitschkos naturally represent the top echelon of the Great Pantheon of boxing with varied styles to challenge them. I only chose those with a career that shows they could put up a championship quality fight against the brothers. These are best to best match ups, not worst to best as so many unartful types are want to make.
I grouped them into 4 main style categories so that broadly similar fighters can be compared and contrasted for differences in how the fights might go. This exercise is as much about application of styles as it is about the eras and the individual talents, so, lets look at the greats the Klitschos will be facing.
Boxer/movers: Muhammad Ali, Larry Holmes, and Gene Tunney.
Swarmer/bob and weavers: Joe Frazier, Mike Tyson, and Jack Dempsey.
Strongman/Clubber: George Foreman
Boxer/puncher: Lennox Lewis, Joe Louis, and comeback version of George Foreman.
The Klitschko Credentials
Wlad has compiled a 14-0, 10 KO record against the best in the division since his last bizarre loss 7 yrs ago. Vitali is 10-0, 8 KO from his last loss some 8 years ago, including his 4 years of inactive retirement. Nobody has come close to beating either brother during this period as they have steadfastly eliminated almost 2 generations of Ring contenders or ABC beltholder types between them.
Now that Wladimir Klitschko easily if ungracefully snuffed the threat of the Ring ranked #3 British poser, Mr. David Haye, the 35 year old Wlad could comfortably retire with a HOF quality record of 56-3, 49 KO. after having dominated the division in a fashion never seen before.
The same could be said of his 40 yr old brother, Vitali who sports a 42-2, 39 KO record. Vitali even has his own superfight scheduled in a couple of months against the great Polish champ, Tomasz Adamek, now Ring ranked #2 behind Wlad the Ring champ and Vitali the WBC champ and #1 Ring challenger.
Both Klitschkos are prodigious boxers, winning some 90% of all rounds contested between them, as well as knockout artists, both approaching the 90% mark for their careers, unprecedented for all the fighters that predated them. They are also both highly accurate punchers, Wlad due to his incredible jab that is 90% of his offense, and Vitali due to his own jab and straight rights, 90% of his offense, so it’s near impossible to get past their offense into range for a clean shot at them.
Wlad not only holds the Ring, IBF, WBO, IBO, and WBA belts, but he is also 5th in the Ring P4P ratings and #2 in Boxrec P4P ratings behind Manny Pacquiao. Vitali is #3 in Boxrec P4P ratings with a record 4 yr layoff between consecutive title wins, so their P4P accomplishments transcend the heavyweight division.
Wlad is 17-2, 14 KO in career title fights and Vitali is 12-2, 10 KO for those interested in arcane title comparisons, but titles are a poor substitute for the incredible gauntlets they have passed through on the way to ruling over their dominion.
Klitschko critics still abound though, the complaints ranging from “boring fighters” to “fighting bums in a weak division” to “any great heavyweight from the past would beat them” or my favorite, “too robotic,” among the more popular. Typically the complainants point to past losses as an excuse to ignore their unprecedented successes, a rather primitive denial of the real records.
Since Rocky Marciano was the only undefeated great heavyweight, one would presume that he would automatically be touted as the greatest heavyweight ever, but he isn’t, proving the hypocrisy of that mode of rationalization.
Fantasy fights often roust a primordial instincts in some to rally to their “tribe” or their “favorite” no matter the reasoned analysis discussed, so this article is doubtless not their cup of tea, but given the nature of the Klitscho dominance and their unique style of boxing, the fantasy fights available to them have never been hotter for true boxing fans still tuned in to the current scene.
Philosophically, fantasy fight fans generally fall into two main camps:
1. Golden oldies rule the roost with more heart, discipline, and native fighting ability than moderns.
2. Modern fighters are more scientifically trained and bigger, stronger, and in better shape than ancient greats.
There are elements of truth to both camps, but life and boxing are considerably more complex than two subjective, unproven points of view. It’s important to remember every fighter was modern in his era before falling into the “retired” category which the brothers will be doing soon enough.
Credible analysis should compare career timelines as well as styles since every fighter starts from scratch and then falls into peaks and valleys representative of their eras and their ablities. No fighter is perfect and all have assorted good and bad days at the office no matter the result. Analysis should have proper context or we could end up having the poorest versions of a fighter against the best versions of other fighters, not valid superfights in the Great Boxing Pantheon for sure.
Since the brothers will be going up against a range of great fighters, let’s start with their strengths and weaknesses so as to not repeat them for every match.
Wlad Strengths: Utilizes his great height, reach, strength and footwork to become one of the best defensive fighters ever, rarely getting hit clean, as well as becoming one of the best ever offensive fighters. He has dominated fights with just his left jab, but he also has a solid right hand and one of the devastating and versatile left hooks in boxing that he seldom uses for some reason. See the last round of the first Peter fight and the KOs of Chambers and Austin as examples of that left hook as well as early and late round knockout power.
Wlad Weaknesses: Has some shaky balance after throwing his right hand which has limited it’s use. He has been hurt and down in the past from big punches, primarily against Corrie Sanders, and has a preference for a hard clinch to a slug out, counter, or brawl, probably because because his timing and mental makeup is all wrong for these inside styles of boxing. Periodically he marks ups some, but it hasn’t really been a problem because his formidable defense and offense control most of any fight. Had a strange stamina issue earlier in his career that seems to be corrected with some mental discipline.
Vitali strengths: Also utilizes his great height, reach, strength and footwork to become one of the best defensive fighters ever, rarely getting hit clean, as well as becoming one of the best ever offensive fighters. His ability to take a clean punch to the head or body is without question. His ring activity, balance and stamina are excellent and he’s not shy about engaging a slugout or nifty counter as needed. He controls fights with superior command of timing and range such that there is never a need for a crude brawl. He has a heavy handed type of power that few can outlast.
Vitali weaknesses: Though his boxing abilities are still at a zenith in his 40th year, he is 40 now with all the ravages that implies that could cause him to become unstuck in a hard fight as he likely has coming up against Adamek. He has lost 2 fights by “fluke” injury, a torn shoulder and the most shredded face ever seen in modern boxing, so it’s difficult to really count those oddities as a weakness, but like his brother, he has also been marking up slightly in a few fights as expected at his age.
It is telling that both the brothers are pure headhunters like Ali, almost never throwing a body shot, and like Ali, they are arm punchers rather than leveraged punchers as pure sluggers are. Defensively, they also lean away and pull straight back from attacks just like Ali in spite of gross overall differences in style from Ali, so just like Ali, they get away with breaking the rules of boxing convention because it suits their talents and styles.
And like Ali, they absolutely do infuriate their critics to an unhealthy degree, even if they are polar opposites in personalities compared to the flamboyant over the top Ali.
Let’s kickoff the first round with the modern boxer/punchers who were still active in during the start Klitschko era, Lennox Lewis and George Foreman. As such, all fights will be contested under current 12 round, 10 ounce gloves championship rules, a rule that I concede favors the brothers, yet is the most inclusive comparison for all the fighters.
Lewis did pull out a win by the skin of his teeth against the still developing Vitali before hustling off to premature retirement without passing GO to collect the riches of a lifetime. In short, he didn’t fancy the lucrative rematches HBO and fans were begging him for. Critics moan about Lewis’ age, weight, and condition, but the boxing consensus was that he was at the top of his game coming in. I’d favor the improved brothers overall, but perhaps others might chose a younger version of Lewis, say sometime between Golota in 1997 and Tua in 2000, so fair enough, but remember, the brothers are a grade above Golota and Grant, the big men Lewis did defeat handily and wouldn’t be suckered in by Lewis’ brawling tactics in those fights at this stage.
The comeback George seemed to avoid all the big boxer types, but the truth is the 41 yr old version who had Holyfield hanging on for dear life in the closing rounds was good enough to compete with the improved brothers or any heavy in history. His best shot would be against Wlad who has the weaker whiskers, but I’d favor the brothers overall. Still, who can forget a prime Shannon Briggs going on the run after tasting Big George’s power in his last fight nearing 50 yrs of age?
The prime clubber/strongman George, now that’s an all time force of nature right there. Thing is, that Foreman was a wide swinging distance slugger who could struggle against boxers, not a winning recipe for the best distance boxers in history, and he never beat a supersized heavy in his prime. Still, we cannot blithely ignore the chances of one of the strongest, most awkward sluggers in heavyweight history who could cut off the ring quicker than credited, but it’s a different fight going up against the size and style of the brothers. Sam Peter was a poor man’s Foreman as one example. It’s too easy to pick the greater legacy in fantasy matchups as the usual suspects are want to do, but I favor Foreman slightly against Wlad and Vitali against Foreman.
Joe Louis credentials are without question, a near perfect boxer/puncher with perhaps his only real weakness being a leaky defense and shaky chin that sees him on the deck in a number of fights, but then again he was in a BUNCH of title fights! He has the best historical record against supersized heavies such as Primo Carnera, Buddy Baer, and Abe Simon, knocking them out handily by utilizing his underrated footwork, timing and combinations. However, the Klitschkos in their current form are vastly superior to Joe’s big fellas, and both use a new style that leverages their size and strength, also with underrated footwork. Louis was somewhat easy to hit, and as superior boxers at range, the brothers are among the most accurate punchers in boxing history, 99.98% pure head hunters with body shots a rare oddity.
Could Joe ever make it inside for his short counters he was so feared for?
Maybe, but I find it hard to make this more than an even fight in that I feel the 12 rd distance under modern conditions greatly favors the brothers since Joe was something of a slow starter. It’s only the incredible ring achievements of Louis that has me rate him in an otherwise poor style matchup for him. The fight would surely have a lot of tension to it because of the quality of the threats and the boxing nuance.
Let’s move on to the boxer/mover types, Muhammed Ali, Larry Holmes, and Gene Tunney.
Of the three, Gene Tunney is unquestionably the most completely skilled fighter in heavyweight history, he had all the smarts, talents and attributes save size and strength, but does he give up a lotta size, a half foot and some 60 lbs easily. There is little doubt he could move about the ring and avoid most of the punches for 12 rds, but it’s doubtful he’d get credit for a defensive fight only. His offensive forte was at range, another bad style match up against the brothers that gives him little chance.
Holmes a bigger fighter at 6-3, 210-215 or so, the perfect size for his era which has since fallen by the wayside of today’s heavies. The only titlest he ever beat was Ken Norton in a highly disputed decision with no rematch. The ugly truth was that the Klitschko sized Cooney was outboxing him on the cards before tiring and losing form and points with lowblows. Both brothers are considerably more experienced and proven than Cooney who had feasted on name fighters well past their best to leverage his title shot. Maybe the Holmes rapier jab could open up their faces for a stoppage, his only chance since he cannot outbox them, a distant cutter’s chance for him.
Not the big Ali fan like so many are, but his chances are compellingly intriguing. First off, I can’t see any form of the comeback version of Ali being competitive in spite of 1972 being his best overall year of boxing against quality contenders and 74 being his best win ever against Foreman not to mention the legendary Thrilla in Manila. None of those fights is remotely akin to a Klitschko fight save gloves and trunks.
No sir, we’re talking about a prime, peak ali here, 1966-1967 that is an overrated portion of his career, but one that sees him outclass a near Klitschko quality boxer in Ernie Terrell. Ali was at the height of his mercurial quicksilver reflexes that operated in unpredictable free form, sometimes disappearing for portions of a fight, but then striking without warning to change the fight.
There is no doubt his flighty feet were faster and more unpredictably frustrating than Tunney or Holmes, and he had blinding combination capability when he wanted to let loose, but then again, both the brothers are very patient defensive minded boxers with excellent footwork not prone to wild goose chases and hayemakers. I like Ali’s chances enough to make this an even type of unpredictable fight. Could be a stinker or classic, all dependent on what form of Ali showed up in the ring. Terrell held his own in the early going before damaging his eye on the ropes, even roughing up Ali inside with some rights, but the brothers are pure outside boxers, so that fight has little relevance overall other than Terrell being tallish with a good jab and experience that were useless with his damaged eye.
Finally, the last grouping I give the best chances too, the swarmer/bob and weavers, Joe Frazier, Mike Tyson, and Jack Dempsey.
Actually, I don’t give Smokin Joe much of a chance because he’s down on power compared to Dempsey and Tyson and slower to boot, but he could create some difficulty for as long as he lasted due to the brothers reluctance to throw hooks and uppercuts, perfect offensive weapons against low slung bobbing noggins. Frazier did beat the massive Buster Mathis, a technical boxer who never leveraged his size and strength like the brothers, but Big George destroyed him at distance with crude clubbings, not encouraging against the best controlled distance fighters in history.
Dempsey destroyed some good sized heavies including a similar fighter to the brothers in Jess Willard, but his was the era of 6 ounce gloves, not the 10 ouncers of modern heavyweight championship boxing, so it’s hard to envision Dempsey doing the same damage as he did against Willard, probably the worst beating in boxing history, broken this and knocked loose that. Still, Dempsey used a cautious style to open before exploding, and that element of surprise and his cat quick reflexes coupled with some of the best combination punching in heavy history makes a prime Dempsey a gamer in any fight.
Last, but certainly not least, the young Mike Tyson when he had a professional Hall of Fame team training and managing him was a near perfect fighter to match the Klitschkos, winning almost every contested round and knocking out most every fighter, usually within a few rounds that always seemed to end up as a highlight. Tyson has a record against Big Men to match Joe Louis, his best win coming over the Klitschko sized Tony Tucker who had similar talents even if he fought in a different style to the brothers. Tucker was in his natural prime for the bout with plenty of experience and undefeated, a very underrated fighter given that he was never beaten again until many years later well past his best against a prime Lennox Lewis.
Tyson, like Dempsey, had very good handspeed and footwork with combination punching that was devastating once they slipped the gaps inside, but Tyson had some extra 25 lbs of power added to his mix and fought under near identical modern rules.
I favor Tyson who was as naturally gifted as any fighter in history and for a brief time maximized his talents with the best professional team ever assembled in boxing. Nobody is gonna beat the brothers at their range, so it’s gonna have to be an inside style fighter although Tyson was best as a midrange combination puncher rather than a classic inside brawler like Dempsey could be.
So, if I were to rate their chances on a numerical scale, here’s the list.
1. Mike Tyson
2. Muhammad Ali
3. Jack Dempsey
4. Joe Louis
5. George Foreman
6. Lennox Lewis.
7. Joe Frazier
8. Larry Holmes
9. Gene Tunney
There’s a large gap between #1, my only favorite and the rest. The #2, 3, & 4 are all competitive fights that swing either way depending on who was on and who was off on the day of the fight, so it’s the first four greats listed who realistically have a decent shot at dethroning the Klitschkos.
Subjective Fantasy Fight outcomes really don’t mean much to the Great Pantheon of Boxing when we know even big favorites can be upset. Let’s delve deeper into the established criticisms of this era.
Some moan about the Klitschko’s not beating anyone and their era being a weak one, but they said the same thing about Joe Louis. The history is such that the heavyweights have never fully satisfied boxing insiders and boxing fans in any era, all being derided for their weak heavyweights, so the weak argument is just that, a terribly weak argument that has never held water.
Same deal with them not beating anyone. Facts are that when they turned pro, they were obligated by contracts to fight on a German promotional banner that was also starting out, so there were problems breaking into the elite US market at the time. Vitali did fly over for a few Mike Tyson fights in the late 90s to drum up interest, but American boxing isn’t much interested today much less back when. Eventually they broke the Don King stranglehold on the division and have had no problems securing top fights since then, nor any problems disposing of the best competition of their boxing careers.
Still, both brothers were Ring ranked by the end of the 90s with Wlad being #1 for most of the time since 2001. You are welcome to peruse my previous article on the Battle of the Weakest links that examines past great heavies’ weakest defenses compared to Vitali:
And the article detailing the current top 25 heavyweights in boxing and the Klitschko brothers‘ records against them. Warning….it’s pretty impressive:
While speculation is never written in stone, records is records and those are written in stone and provide much of the basis of my conclusions. If we had a massive tourney involving all these fighters, at the end of the day the best would take their lumps and losses with the worst of them with some odd results mixed in as happens so often in big matchmaking. Anything is possible
Fighters have always been matched up in theory, the perfect excuse to breaking a fight down stylistically enough to justify picking a winner, so there it all is laid out for whomever wants it:
The Klitschkos vs…….
Who you got?