Klitschko fighting to be the people's champion

Despite a few setbacks, Wladimir Klitschko has punched his way to the top of the heavyweight division. Stuart Franklin/Bongarts/Getty Images

HAMBURG, Germany -- When Wladimir Klitschko was stopped by Lamon Brewster four years ago in Las Vegas, many insiders felt he was destined for heavyweight boxing's scrap heap.

Boxing News, the British trade paper and oldest continuously published boxing magazine in the world, produced a memorable cover that showed Klitschko on the floor, face bloodied, eyes vacant, his career at the top seemingly over. The headline was unequivocal: "Broken Man."

"I was in the hell of boxing," Klitschko said. "Everybody wrote me off. The only people who still believed in me were Emanuel Steward [Klitschko's trainer]; my brother, Vitali; Bernd Boente [the Klitschkos' manager]; and myself.

"People were calling me a dead man walking. It was awful. But here I am, four years later, and I'm still walking. I still have goals and I am going to achieve them. It has not been an easy journey, but I have always believed that I would make it."

Klitschko will put his heavyweight titles on the line against Tony "The Tiger" Thompson, a 36-year-old, 6-foot-5 southpaw from Washington, D.C., on Saturday. Thompson has been beaten once in 32 bouts and is America's leading heavyweight, a dubious distinction if there ever was one.

In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king, and so it is in the heavyweight division today. Klitschko's rehabilitation has established him as the foremost heavyweight in the world, but alas, this is in an era in which Tony "Two Ton" Galento might have given most big men a run for their money.

Even against such moribund opposition, Klitschko has struggled to rule with an iron fist -- explaining why so many doubters remain. Sportswriter Hugh McIlvanney has witnessed from ringside the reign of every heavyweight champion since the beginning of Muhammad Ali's. Klitschko's reign leaves the London Sunday Times columnist feeling far from thrilled.

"The transporting of heavyweight hegemony across the Atlantic by a bunch of grossly flawed fighters from countries that were formerly part of the Soviet Union has to be seen not as democratization but unmistakable deterioration," McIlvanney wrote recently. "In the past, dark ages and golden ages have been cyclical in boxing but there must be a suspicion that, for the heavyweights, the current trend is irreversible. Cue the requiem."

Yet Klitschko resisted his own requiem when so many voices were ushering him toward the door.

"Wladimir Klitschko is just a six-round fighter who can't take it if the other guy dishes it out," Roy Jones said in the wake of Klitschko's fifth-round technical knockout by Brewster -- the last time Klitschko tasted defeat. He had been stopped before, early in his career when he ran out of steam against Ross Puritty, and again in 2003 when Corrie Sanders caught him cold and finished him inside of two rounds. But the Brewster bombshell was devastating, for it appeared to blatantly demonstrate an innate weakness at Klitschko's core.

The subsequent paranoia that fueled Klitschko's claims that he was drugged before he stepped into the ring at the Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas dripped like petroleum onto a funeral pyre. Three days later, as he sat in a dark corner of the La Brea Boxing Club in Los Angeles while his brother prepared to face Sanders, he looked like a ghost.

"It wasn't Wladimir Klitschko fighting Lamon Brewster that night, it was Wladimir Klitschko fighting Wladimir Klitschko -- this is what I believe," Klitschko said. "I was fighting myself just to get through the rounds."

Perhaps Klitschko has never fully overcome his demons, but he has put together a fine body of work since that fateful night, suggesting that he is made of harder stuff than might have been thought.

DaVarryl Williamson, Samuel Peter, Chris Byrd, Calvin Brock and Sultan Ibragimov have all experienced defeat at Klitschko's hands by various means.

Victory over Peter, in particular, is an impressive statistic, for the Nigerian Nightmare is ranked No. 2 in the heavyweight rankings behind Klitschko by most authoritative judges.

The fight itself, of course, conveyed the lingering vulnerability that afflicts Klitschko's reputation even now. Three times he was bludgeoned to the canvas by Peter's crude blows, and his own reservations about his ability to withstand the hardest punches seem to have contributed to a series of safety-first performances, such as the one in which he stunk up Madison Square Garden in February against Ibragimov.

Can there ever be redemption for a prospective heavyweight champion who acknowledges that he himself might be one of his most formidable opponents? The heavyweights have become boxing's circus act -- the ringmasters (promoters) calling on them when it is time to send in the clowns -- so 6-foot-6, 32-year-old Klitschko, the man who would be king, ought to be dominant, surely?

"I will not see myself as champion until I have all of the belts," Klitschko said. "I still have work to do to be recognized as the real champion, and this is driving me on, this is my motivation. To me, it is important to become the people's champion, the real champion. This is why I fight."

Sophisticated, articulate, humorous and fun to be around, Klitschko could carry the banner for his sport with pride and honor. In his work with UNESCO (the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization), he has raised money and awareness for programs to build schools and hospitals in countries as diverse as Namibia, Brazil and Romania.
As befits a man with a Ph.D. in physical training and sport from Kiev National University for his research into amateur boxing's coaching process, he even acknowledges the fear that infiltrates the spirit of every fighter.

"Fear is like poison from a cobra," he said. "With this poison, you can kill somebody, but with just a little bit, you can make someone healthy. This is the difference. If there is a little bit, it can bring you more success in your work. If there is too much, it is death."

Maybe it is time for Klitschko to separate himself from the worst of his fears. Time for a requiem or time for a reappraisal? Either way, time might be running out if Klitschko wants to be considered a worthy heavyweight champion.

Brian Doogan writes on sport for the London Sunday Times and is the longtime European correspondent for The Ring magazine.