Last Saturday, Wladimir Klitschko knocked out Kubrat Pulev, earning his 53rd KO, and climbed one step closer to heavyweight immortality. As it stands, he’s third on the longest heavyweight title defense list, only two defenses behind Larry Holmes and seven behind the great Joe Louis. At this point, breaking the record isn’t a matter of skills — he’s got the ability to beat every other heavyweight alive. The question is whether he’ll get bored with the sport, too enamored with his young fiancée, or if the financials are there to make the record attainable.
Klitschko didn’t so much fight Pulev as thrash him. For the past half dozen years, Klitschko’s fights have taken on a very particular tempo: stand tall, long jab, pawing jab, right cross, pepper shots until there is no smidgeon of danger left in the opponent, then the knockout right hand. While the right hand ultimately sealed Pulev’s fate, it wasn’t the highlight punch of the night. That distinction goes to the leaping left hook Klithscko threw in the third round that seemed like a choreographed tribute to the late Smokin’ Joe Frazier.
As with most of Smokin’ Joe’s fights, there was excitement in the Pulev matchup, something not often associated with the dominant, although often tedious, Klitchko performances.
Whether it’s been at a measured, boring or exciting pace, there’s no denying that in the current landscape of heavyweight boxing, Klitschko reigns supreme. All other belt holders are mere pretenders.
Klitschko’s dominance is so complete that to understand his proper place in boxing you have to step out of the present and look to the past. If he retired today, he would be a first-ballot Hall-of-Famer and one of the top 25 heavyweights of all time. But he’s not retiring today, and it doesn’t look like he will for a while. Moreover, he can realistically meet and beat the hallowed record set by Louis.
The great Muhammad Ali never got close to that record. In his second title reign, he successfully defended his title 10 times — a far cry from Louis’ 25. But there’s the caveat — in his “second title reign.” Ali’s first title run was cut short. Not by a man, God or Ali’s own demons. The government, and the myriad of boxing commissions following the government’s lead, accomplished what no living person could — it stripped Ali of his title.
After defeating Sonny Liston to win the title for the first time, Ali defended his belt nine times before he was stripped. For three and a half years, Ali’s boxing brilliance lay dormant, growing cobwebs and losing rounds to Father Time. After returning to the ring, it took Ali 18 fights to retain the title in spectacular fashion against George Foreman in 1974. He held on to the crown for 10 fights, until the neophyte, Leon Spinks, found a way to write himself into the history books by dethroning the legend. “The Greatest” had two long title reigns (the third didn’t last a single fight) — with a total of 19 defenses between them. If Ali had not been stripped of his title and prevented from boxing in 1967, would he have beaten Louis’ record? Would he be number two, three or four, instead of number 5, on the heavyweight title defense list?
By now you might be wondering what Eric Kelly has to do with any of this. He was a four-time national amateur boxing champion, two-time New York Golden Gloves champion and 2000 Olympic Team alternate, but all south of 160 pounds. Not a heavyweight, not a professional. Yet Kelly is doing today what Ali tried but failed to accomplish. Kelly is turning his fast talk and large personality into a well-paying job.
Kelly was once a trainer to Wall Street nerds at the Church Street Gym. After a mini-documentary on Kelly and his unique training style went viral, Kelly was able to land a gig with Vice Sports as a host, presumably earning some decent cash.
Ali, arguably the most verbose and quick-witted firebrand ever in sports, tried to capitalize on his personality by charging for public speeches, acting in movies and theatrical productions, and more, but still needed financial assistant from people like Joe Frazier to make ends meet.
Now imagine if Ali had the same opportunities to capitalize on his personality that Eric Kelly is enjoying today (now that an injury to Kelly’s eye has permanently taken him out of the fight game). In today's marketplace, Ali might have become the most famous athlete-turned-sports-anchor of all time. There would be a myriad of ways for him to monetize the personality he created in the boxing world. Had he been able to host a show like Kelly, Ali’s need, maybe even his desire, to box would have likely diminished.
Without such options, Ali knew his only way back to solvency was inside the ring. Financials dictated legacy. Or at least they helped. That is no less true today.
Klitschko has all the skills needed to reign supreme for years. But whether he’s able to break Louis’ record (surpassing Holmes is almost a foregone conclusion) may come down to money.
Klitschko made almost $30 million in 2013, and to continue making money at that level requires a great deal of promotion and time. Klitschko is 38 and for the past three years has fought about twice a year. At that rate, he’d be 41 when he was on his final fight to tie Louis’ 25 defenses. He could be even older if he has a slow year, like in 2011, when he only fought once.
If he wants to avoid losing a fight to Father Time and prolonging the years when he’s forced to spend months away from his young wife and newborn, Klitschko might have to fight more often, for comparatively less money each time, so he can fit in the wins sooner. If he would rather let the demand build for his two fights a year so he can maximize his income per fight, then Louis’ record might stay out of reach. Where a lack of money pushed Ali forward toward a greater legacy, a craving for an excess of money might hamper Klitschko from boosting his own legacy. For now, Klitschko has family business to attend to, with his fiancée near childbirth.
Soon (hopefully) Bermane Stiverne and Deontay Wilder will meet to see who will hold on to the title that once belonged to Klitschko’s older brother, Vitali. Shortly after that is settled, Klitschko (if he’s true to his word) will embark on the process of negotiating to fight the winner — to collect the belt that rightfully belongs in the Klitshcko household. Without any hesitation, I can say the stockier Stiverne won’t get past Klitschko’s tall stance and long jab. Wilder's long arms won’t be of much help defending against Klitschko’s crisp, accurate punches. Dr. Steel Hammer will knock out either if he cares to take even a bit of risk. Bryant Jennings (another aspiring American heavyweight) wouldn’t fair any better. The long-lost Cuban hope, Odlanier Solis, is too slow, too heavy and too undisciplined to stand a chance against the focus and dedication Klitschko lives and breathes.
The names are there for the picking. If Klitschko wants the record bad enough, he could set up a “Bum of the Month” club like Louis and run through men quickly and easily on the way to the record. He'd just have to forego the eight-figure paydays he's use to getting for each fight. If he’s mostly interested in the big paychecks, then he'll have to hope Father Time doesn't catch up with him while his marketing team continues to promote his brand and build up the lambs they bring for him to slaughter.
A former college wrestler, Taekwondo black-belt, and wannabe boxer, Paul Navarro (aka Fight Like Sugar) is now a full-time lawyer, part-time fight scribe, and high school wrestling coach.