It’s not often the world of sport can produce a world champion who is so alternative in personality to the modern-day athlete.
Especially in the world of boxing where we are regularly bombarded with the bravado and trash-talking endemic within millennial sport stars.
Wladimir Klitschko was a different breed – a champion like no other before him.
Despite criticisms of the Ukrainian for his supposed lack of personality and facing opponents deemed ‘bums’, Wlad is the second-longest reigning Heavyweight Champion of all time, in between Joe Louis and Larry Holmes.
Louis and Holmes were also criticised for the opponents they faced but both boxers are now recognised as legends of the sport.
Wladimir’s former trainer, Johnathan Banks, foretold:
Wladimir won’t be properly appreciated until after he’s left the sport.
The statement was made in the lead up to his fight against Tyson Fury – he was right.
It wasn’t Wladimir’s fault that, as his career catapulted during the mid-2000s, the other heavyweights who fans so seemingly adored, were calling it a day themselves.
Mike Tyson was on the brink of retirement, Evander Holyfield and Riddick Bowe were past their best and Britain’s Lennox Lewis retired in 2004.
But regardless of opposition, up until his fight with Tyson Fury, Wlad had defended his World title a staggering 25 times, in a career that saw him reign as Heavyweight Champion of the World for nine years, unifying the IBF, WBO and WBA belts en route.
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Wladimir’s boxing career started in the early 90s in Poland, where as an amateur, he was coached at the Gwardia Warszawa boxing club.
It was here, alongside brother Vitlali, the pair used to ‘demolish boys’ according to Jerzy Kulei – the only Polish boxer to ever win two Olympic gold medals, and where Wlad picked up the name ‘Dr Steelhammer’.
In 1993 Wlad won the Junior European Championships as a heavyweight and in ’94 took second place at the Junior World Championships.
Two years later in ‘96, while still in the military, he came second as a Super Heavyweight at the European Championships, losing to Alexei Lezin.
Later that year Ukraine travelled to the Olympic Games in Atlanta for the first time as an independent nation. It was here ‘Dr Steelhammer’ defeated Lezin in the semi-finals before beating Paea Wolfgramm to win gold.
In 2012 Wlad revealed he had sold his gold medal, in another testament to his character:
It was absolutely a highlight in my life – I sold the medal in March and 100% of the funds, which is $1 million, went to the Klitschko Brothers Foundation – we care about education and sport, that is the key in any children’s life.
If they have knowledge they can succeed with that in their adult life and sport gives them the rules – how to respect your opponent, how to respect the rules.
It is always in life like that, you go down but you have to get up, and sport gives you this great lesson.
— Klitschko (@Klitschko) August 6, 2016
Wlad turned professional after the Summer Games and it wasn’t until his 25th fight, against Ross Puritty, that he suffered his first defeat – his record going in to the fight was 24-0 with a staggering 22 KO’s.
For 5 years Wlad dominated the Heavyweight division alongside his brother Vitali, who had also turned professional, with both having firm grips on their WBC, WBA, and WBO belts respectively.
Despite many fans feeling the brothers should have faced one another in the ring, they promised their mother they wouldn’t – she didn’t even watch their individual fights.
Wlad and Vitali rarely sparred with each other – something happened that neither brother would talk about and throughout their careers, both said they wouldn’t fight each other in a heavyweight unification match if the circumstance arose.
— Klitschko (@Klitschko) January 10, 2016
Vitali retired in 2012 at the age of 42 to pursue a career in politics – he is now the Mayor of Kiev, but Wlad enjoyed another 5 years in the sport.
After the defeat against Puritty, it would be another five years until Wlad suffered defeat again, this time in Germany against Corrie Sanders, getting KO’d in the second round.
Sanders was killed in 2012 and upon hearing the news, the Klitschkos were some of the first to issue a public statement, with Wlad saying:
We will remember Corrie as a great person both inside and outside the ring.
The loss against him changed a side of my character tremendously, it made me tougher and it made me better – before and after the Corrie Sanders fight, nobody beat me the way he did.
After the fight with Sanders, Klitschko only lost once more – to Lamon Brewster – before carrying on an undefeated streak for another 11 years – beating Tony Thompson, David Haye and Bryant Jennings along the way.
The ‘Klitschko-Era’ had taken off and the brothers grew in popularity – they never became celebrities in the modern sense of the word, despite Wlad’s guest appearance in Ocean’s 11.
The brothers have been renowned for their intelligence, nearly as much as their boxing; each has a PhD in Sports Science – both presenting a doctoral thesis on the physical and mental development of adolescents in sport, as well as being fluent in four languages: Ukrainian, Russian, German and English.
Politics and humanitarian work continue to be passions for the brothers and their charity, the Klitscko Foundation was subsequently set up – ‘an organisation, which focuses on projects in the field of sports, science and education’.
In his personal life, back in 2009, Wladimir started a relationship with Nashville and Heores star, Hayden Panettiere they now have a daughter together.
The pair visited the Euromaidan-protests in Kiev, where Vitali was a leading figure, even addressing the crowd with Hayden.
— Klitschko (@Klitschko) March 26, 2016
In 2015, seven months on from Wald’s victory over Bryant Jennings at Madison Square Garden, he returned to Germany to take on the self-proclaimed ‘Gypsy-king’, Tyson Fury.
Going in to the bout, many experts believed this would be another win for ‘Dr Steelhammer’.
Fury, then aged 28, beat the Heavyweight Champion of the World on a unanimous points decision in Dusseldorf, with an inspiring performance, claiming the WBO, WBA and IBF belts from the 40-year-old.
Klitschko took the loss in stride and revealed he would put his ‘mistake’ right in a rematch.
This never happened – Fury repeatedly blamed injuries but Wlad revealed:
Unfortunately, Team Fury is trying to change the terms of an already-signed contract multiple times, and it is going on endlessly.
They say you should never meet your idols, but I’m so glad I had the pleasure of meeting and working with Wladimir.
It’s easy to get caught up in someone’s hype and to be moulded into thinking a certain way about someone when they’re presented in the press, but he truly is a gentleman in every sense of the word.
Being humble and pleasant is easy when you’re winning, but Wlad showed that even through the losses, character is one thing that a defeat cannot take away from you.
For me, not only as a boxing fan but as a fan of Wlad and Anthony Joshua, it was a fight I was intrigued to see – my head saying AJ and my heart vying for Wlad.
WHAT. A. FIGHT!
Despite his loss to AJ, the manner in which he conducted himself both before, during and after, speaks volumes of the type of person he is and what an example he’s set for the sport.
Wow! So many people interested in my statement. Server broke down. So look here…https://t.co/iZnjFtxHeT
— Klitschko (@Klitschko) August 3, 2017
His career isn’t remembered by a loss to Joshua, or the fact he turned down the opportunity of a rematch.
Wladimir Klitschko should be recognised as not only one of boxing’s greatest ever fighters but one of its greatest ever human beings.
A true gentleman, the sport is worse for his absence as a fighter and a character. Thanks for the memories and for inspiring us all to do more for humanity.