And so it ends, the 11-year, 22-fight reign of Wladimir Klitschko, the greatest heavyweight of this era diminished, seemingly, by a forgettable performance against Tyson Fury, the 6’9” Goliath who needed to be little more than faster, quicker and more aggressive to end Klitschko’s time atop the division and claim three pieces of the heavyweight crown.
It ends for everyone though, right? Muhammad Ali lost to Leon Spinks, Mike Tyson fell to Evander Holyfield, Holyfield saw age catch up on him against John Ruiz. At 39, Klitschko appeared to be well-positioned to extend his run atop the heavyweight division well into his 40s. He is among the most finely tuned athletes in sports and he ruled a division that lacked credible opponents. Up until Saturday that included Fury (25-0), a solid big man brimming with confidence and the hunger, that perhaps, Klitschko (64-4) has not had in years.
That seemed to be the difference. There was no pivotal moment, no Ali putting down George Foreman, no Hasim Rahman flattening Lennox Lewis. From the opening bell Fury was just better, albeit marginally, connecting on 86 of his 371 punches (23%), per CompuBox, while Klitschko landed 52 of 231 (23%). Fighting with his hands by his side for most of the night, Fury taunted Klitschko, daring him to unleash right hands while Klitschko, maddeningly, refused to engage. It was jab, jab, awkward, looping right hand for Fury, who survived a one-point deduction for rabbit punching to win a unanimous decision.
Credit Fury: He won the fight, he is now the unified heavyweight champion. But this fight was as much about Klitschko meekly giving away the title as it was Fury going out and seizing it.
Maybe we should have seen this coming. Klitschko didn’t look especially sharp last April, when Bryant Jennings took him the distance in another lackluster fight. Really, it’s been two years since Klitschko looked impressive. In ’13 he dominated an anticipated showdown with Alexander Povetkin, knocking Povetkin down four times en route to a unanimous decision.
Something has been missing since then.
The familiar piston-rod jab Emanuel Steward drilled into him has lost its pop and the concussive right hand he once threw with regularity has too often remained holstered by his side. Time after time, Fury offered Klitschko openings on Saturday to throw his most devastating punch. Time after time, Klitschko elected not to engage.
Said Klitschko, “Tyson was the faster and better man tonight. I felt quite comfortable in the first six rounds but I was astonished that Tyson was so fast in the second half as well. I couldn’t throw my right hand because the advantage was the longer distance he had.”
Of course, it had to end eventually; bred to box, Klitschko was a decorated amateur, an Olympic gold medalist, a man who has lived an unforgiving sport for nearly 25 years. The fire that drives any athlete to be great can only burn for so long. And despite Klitschko’s nearly flawless physique, timing and reflexes eventually erode.
Yet Klitschko’s final years will be inextricably linked to one decision: To replace Steward, who died in 2012, with Johnathan Banks, a former sparring partner. Banks was a Steward disciple, a fringe heavyweight contender who had been in Klitschko’s camp for years. He knew the routine, which is why Klitschko tabbed him. No need to mess with success, after all. But a trainer is more than a pad holder, more than someone who can run an efficient camp. A trainer is a strategist, a motivator, and there were few better than Steward, who cloned Klitschko from the DNA he infused into Lennox Lewis, harnessing his superior size and punching power to mold him into an unstoppable heavyweight force. Banks learned under Steward but could never emulate him, and it’s fair to wonder if Klitschko would have been better off replacing Steward with a more experienced trainer.
Klitschko will be back, and there is every reason to believe he can regain his titles. Again, Fury was far from spectacular. He won because he was busier and because Klitschko refused to fully engage. A rematch could easily yield a different result. But the aura of invincibility around Klitschko is gone. He’s a heavyweight now, and a good one, but no more fearsome than Fury or Deontay Wilder and ripe for the likes of Anthony Joshua and Joseph Parker to come for.
The era had to end sometime, and on Saturday, it did.