Wladimir Klitschko officially ended a 21-year professional boxing career on August 3, when he announced his retirement. One of the longest-reigning champions in the sport’s history, he competed in more heavyweight title bouts than anyone.
Klitschko’s final fight, on April 29 in front of 90,000 at sold out Wembley Stadium in London, was his 29th heavyweight title appearance – two more than the legendary Joe Louis – a classic battle against England’s Anthony Joshua, his ex-sparring partner. The bout was a thrilling, dramatic highlight for the ages where both fighters got knocked down and showed tremendous fire power. Klitschko, 41, went down three times and was out in the 11th round.
This was Wladimir’s second consecutive defeat after a momentous upset loss to Tyson Fury seventeen months prior which cost him the unified world championship he held for nearly a decade.
Klitschko (64-5, 54 KO) had the right to an immediate Joshua rematch and most of the boxing world believed he would accept the fight. Joshua’s handlers were already making plans for a November 11 rematch in Las Vegas.
Klitschko had not made up his mind about the rematch option, taking his time to ponder his future. He did and opted for retirement instead of one last fight with Joshua.
“I deliberately took a few weeks to make my decision, to make sure I had enough distance from the fight at Wembley Stadium,” Klitschko said in his retirement statement on August 3. “As an amateur and professional boxer, I have achieved everything I dreamed of, and now, I want to start my second career after sports. I would have never imagined that I would have such a long and incredibly successful boxing career. I’m very thankful for this. Thanks to everyone who has always supported me, especially my family, my team and my many fans.”
The Ukrainian Klitschko became a star in Germany, where his fights were spectacles in sold-out soccer stadiums across the country. He also spends lots of time in the United States, where he and his long-time fiancée, actress Hayden Panettiere, are raising a toddler daughter. He leaves the boxing ring on his own terms as one of the most decorated pugilists of all time. He won an Olympic super heavyweight gold medal as an amateur in 1996, was a two-time world champion as a professional and banked hundreds of millions of dollars.
Klitschko’s second world title reign began with his 2006 win over Chris Byrd and lasted until his loss to Fury in 2015. It was one of the most dominant in any weight division in boxing history. There were few real challengers as he breezed by all the top contenders to unify three title belts. He never had a chance for the missing fourth belt because his older brother, Vitaly, another future Hall of Famer, held it for many years. Their goal of holding the titles at the same time was realized. They both kept their promise to their mother that they would never fight each other. His second reign of 9 years, 7 months and 7 days was the second longest heavyweight title tenure in history behind Joe Louis (11 years, 8 months, 8 days). During this time Wladimir made 18 consecutive defenses, third-most in division history behind only two other boxing legends, Louis (25) and Larry Holmes (20).
Nicknamed “Dr. Steelhammer” because he earned a doctorate, he won his first title with an annihilation of Byrd in October 2000 and defended his belt five times before a surprising second-round knockout loss to big puncher Corrie Sanders in 2003. The year 2004 saw him get a shot at a vacant belt against Lamon Brewster, and Klitschko battered him all over the ring until somehow he lost his strength and got knocked out in the fifth round in Las Vegas.
Klitschko was actually not taken as a serious contender at first, especially after being stopped in the 10th round by journeyman Ross Puritty in 1998. The stunning loss to Brewster hit him hard and he resolved to make it to the top of his sport. He used a most vivid reminder of his loss as a major motivational tool: Klitschko kept the gloves he wore in that fight on display in his office and he carried a business card given to him by Brewster’s former manager. The card has a picture of Klitschko being knocked out and is signed by Brewster.
The Brewster loss was also Klitschko’s first bout under the guidance of the late, great Hall of Fame trainer Emanuel Steward. The duo stuck it through and Steward helped to rebuild Klitschko into a potent boxing force. The two were together for 17 fights until the trainer’s death in 2012. He was replaced by his protégé and former sparring partner Johnathon Banks. The Ukrainian easily maintained his winning ways, rarely even losing rounds until the upset at the hands of Fury. The latter’s ongoing psychological problems plus issues with drugs and alcohol forced two contractual rematches to be canceled.
Fury’s problems kept Klitschko out of the ring waiting for a rematch until he finally came back to face Joshua for his belt and a vacant one. Despite losing the bout, he showed great heart and made it a fight to remember. He lost, yet went out on a high note, offsetting the criticism he received for being a boring, clinical fighter. The true analysis of his boxing career stated he was so dominant he made it look too easy, even if it wasn’t too exciting. True he competed in a down era for heavyweights of note, but he nonetheless did beat them all.
He defeated Byrd (twice), Ray Mercer, Jameel McCline, Samuel Peter, Calvin Brock, Sultan Ibragimov (to unify titles), Tony Thompson (twice), Hasim Rahman, Ruslan Chagaev (stripped of a title for taking the fight), Eddie Chambers, David Haye (to unify titles), Alexander Povetkin and Bryant Jennings.
Klitschko was in line for another huge pay day ($20 million range) in a potential rematch with Joshua, instead opting to retire at the right time.
“Twenty-seven years ago (as an amateur) I started my journey in sports and it was the best choice of a professional I could have ever made,” Klitschko said.
Ihor Stelmach may be reached at email@example.com.