<
>

Older Klitschko out to preserve family name

4/20/2004

They've been inseparable, those Klitschko boys. They have media
teleconferences together, appear in commercials together, write books
together, get PhD's together, and they were supposed to win heavyweight
championships together.

That's not going to happen.

On April 10, Wladimir Klitschko, the younger of the two Ukrainian
heavyweights, and the one perceived by many to be the more talented of the
brothers, pounded Lamon Brewster for four-plus rounds at the Mandalay Bay in
Las Vegas. In round five of their WBO championship bout, the roof caved in,
and a combination of fatigue and a relentless (pardon the pun) opponent
forced the collapse of the brother.

Now two weeks later, it's up to Vitali. It's up to big brother to save the
family name by defeating Corrie Sanders in Los Angeles on Saturday night
for the WBC heavyweight title left vacant by the retirement of Lennox Lewis.

Who woulda thunk it? Who would have expected that Vitali -- who always took
the proverbial back seat to the younger (by four years) Wladimir -- would be
the one most pundits believe can save the post-Lewis heavyweight division?

Not many. Including this reporter, who wrote the following about the
brothers Klitschko in an April 2002 breakdown of the heavyweight division:

"Wladimir Klitschko -- Well protected in his adopted home of Germany, the
Ukrainian giant remains a mystery to those who believe he hasn't fought the
type of competition to make him deserving of his lofty status. The younger
Klitschko has all the physical tools, including size, a stiff left jab, and
a sledgehammer right. But will he fold when he receives resistance from a
legitimate heavyweight?"

"Vitali Klitschko -- Wladimir's older brother is stiffer and more mechanical,
and thus more susceptible to being a victim of a superior athlete in the
ring. Vitali does have power, but his European style will be exposed sooner
rather than later."

Well, in the two years since, it has been proven that Wladimir will fold
when facing resistance from heavyweights such as Sanders and Brewster, but
it has also been shown that while Vitali still has a lot of stiffness to his
style, he continues to have success because, frankly, there are few, if any,
superior athletes left in the heavyweight division.

So Vitali Klitschko, using the same tools that built his record up to his infamous loss to Chris
Byrd in 2000, has become the ideal heavyweight in a sea of average talent.

What makes him special, though? Maybe it's what separates every heavyweight
once you get to the championship level --­ chin, power, and heart. If you've
got one you can do some damage for a while; two, you could probably nab a
belt. But if you have all three, you could very well be champion for a
while.

And Vitali Klitschko has proven that he has the three ingredients that make
champions.

Yet that's something no one was saying when he quit in the corner against
Byrd, claiming a shoulder injury. In that fight he was comfortably ahead on
all three scorecards after nine rounds, and could have coasted with one arm
to victory. But he didn't, and boxing's version of the scarlet letter was
hung over the then 28-year-old's head.

Enter Wladimir, who easily decisioned Byrd over 12 rounds to avenge his
brother's loss, and suddenly, Vitali was relegated to the status of "other
brother."

Vitali was the one who would stand a step behind Wladimir in photo shoots,
the one who was less gregarious with the media, the one who didn't get the
movie role with Lewis in "Ocean's Eleven.". He was the serious Beatle, not
the cute one -- George Harrison, not Paul McCartney.

He plugged away on the European circuit, beating the likes of Timo Hoffman,
Orlin Norris, Vaughn Bean, and Larry Donald, while HBO and the American
media courted Wladimir.

So when Vitali got the call to replace an injured Kirk Johnson against
Lennox Lewis in June of last year, there were no seismic ripples through the
boxing world. Vitali would get whacked out in four rounds by Lewis and
Wladimir will come in to avenge his brother in a big money revenge match
that would set worldwide pay-per-view records.

Surprise, surprise, surprise.

The older Klitschko not only remained standing after eating a number of
Lewis bombs, but he gave as good as he got and was even winning the bout.
More importantly, he fought gallantly even though it looked like Lewis took
a steak knife to his left eye. The fight was stopped on cuts in Lewis'
favor after the sixth round -- and truth be told, it appeared that the
champion was a round or two away from finally getting to the challenger --
but in the eyes of all who had seen the bout, Vitali Klitschko had redeemed
his name by erasing the "No Mas" from his record, and he did it on the
sport's biggest stage.

Less than six months later, Klitschko was back in the ring, and overflowing
with confidence, he roared through Kirk Johnson in two rounds.

Now he gets his shot again. Not at Lewis, but at one of the men who beat
his brother, Sanders. On paper, this fight should be a walkover. Sanders,
38, is already discussing his future as a golf pro, and even at the time he
defeated Wladimir Klitschko, he was in semi-retirement, having only fought
twice since 2001.

But this fight isn't just about a title; it's about establishing something
that no one could ever take away. Vitali Klitschko, like most older
brothers, is supposed to be the leader, the one setting the standard. For
the last few years, though, it's been Wladimir setting the pace, getting the
ink, and being the star.

So kudos to Vitali for throwing a wrench in the
marketing works. He's 32, married with two kids, and has a fighter's face.
He isn't as glib with the English language as his younger brother, and not
as fluid in the ring.

But he can punch, he can take a punch, and yeah, he's got heart. Sounds like
championship material to me.