- Dan Rafael, ESPN Senior Writer
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Wladimir Klitschko is the most underappreciated heavyweight champion in history. In his time, Larry Holmes, coming into his own in the shadow of Muhammad Ali's exit, was in a similar boat and also vastly underappreciated.
Despite receiving heavy criticism in his day for a lack of top-tier opponents (not his fault), Holmes wound up with one of boxing's most dominant championship reigns. He defended the title 20 times, good for the second most in heavyweight history behind only the great Joe Louis, who made 25 defenses -- a record for any weight division. Holmes also had the second-longest heavyweight title reign -- seven years, three months and 12 days. It was only after his retirement that his greatness began to be truly appreciated.
Now look at Klitschko. He is heavily criticized for his lack of competition (also not his fault) but is in the midst of one of boxing's most dominant heavyweight championship reigns. He has defended the title 14 times -- all in dominant fashion, including 11 by knockout -- good for third most in heavyweight history behind Louis and Holmes.
Now Klitschko, whose 15th defense was signed this week for Oct. 5 in Moscow against Alexander Povetkin, is on the verge of surpassing Holmes and claiming second place all time in terms of length of title reign. Undoubtedly, Klitschko won't truly be appreciated until after he retires.
Klitschko won his title (to begin a second reign) on April 22, 2006, by stopping Chris Byrd in the seventh round. Along the way, Klitschko has collected three of the major sanctioning organization belts, restored the lineage and faced all comers.
On Aug. 4, Klitschko will have held his title for seven years, three months and 13 days, meaning nobody else will have held the heavyweight title longer than Klitschko except for Louis, who was champion for 11 years, eight months and eight days.
Klitschko is 37, remains in tip-top shape, still has the desire to fight and has taken little punishment in his career. Since 2004, he is basically untouched, and there is no reason to believe he can't continue on this way for years to come.
When I informed Klitschko that he would soon surpass Holmes, he was surprised -- and the fact he was surprised did not surprise me. Klitschko has never been one to focus on statistics or records or want to discuss them. More than once, I have brought the records up to him and he has told me he wasn't interested. He would say we can talk about it when he is retired.
But with his title reign about to eclipse Holmes', Klitschko made an exception and agreed to talk about the milestone.
"I was never counting for how long have I been a champion or trying to pass anyone in history," Klitschko said. "I'm just enjoying myself in this sport and always, with excitement, look forward to any challenge in my life. I've heard about the records from [late trainer and friend] Emanuel [Steward] but was never comparing myself or thinking where am I at this point. I'm in the middle of the action and just care about staying focused on my game, as Emanuel told me. I miss that man so much."
As for Holmes, Klitschko said he is familiar with his fights and enjoyed meeting him.
"Of course I watched the fights of Larry Holmes and, of course, he is one of the best fighters in my division," he said. "I'm happy that I've met him in person and had a chat with him about life and boxing."
Klitschko (60-3, 52 KOs), a 1996 Olympic gold medalist for Ukraine, said he isn't thinking about retirement and is completely focused on the fight with Povetkin (26-0, 18 KOs), who won Olympic gold for Russia in 2004.
"I'm looking forward to my next challenge in Moscow on Oct. 5, and who knows for how long I'm gonna stick around?" Klitschko said.
With few on the horizon who appear to be legitimate challengers for Klitschko, including Povetkin, he may stick around for a long time to come, perhaps as champion for at least 11 years, eight months and nine days.