Older Klitschko out to preserve family name

Updated: April 20, 2004, 4:50 PM ET
By Thomas Gerbasi | Maxboxing.com

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.