Wladimir Klitschko has a message for Bermane Stiverne, Deontay Wilder and anyone else battling for the WBC belt: don’t expect him to join the fray. Yes, the unified champion would like to add the missing piece to the heavyweight crown to his collection. But, Klitschko warns, just because he wants it doesn’t mean he's going to chase whoever has it.
"If I don’t have it, it doesn’t matter," Klitschko said in a telephone interview. "It doesn’t matter who wins [Stiverne-Wilder]. They will not be recognized as the heavyweight champion. That’s a matter of fact. It would be nice, for statistics, for me to have it. But if it doesn’t work out, I’ll be fine."
He’s right, of course. The winner of Stiverne-Wilder will be the heavyweight champion in the same way the winner of college basketball’s NIT is a national champion. Klitschko is the heavyweight kingpin. He has held a belt for eight and a half years, second only to Joe Louis’s 11. He has defended his title 16 times, behind only Louis (25) and Larry Holmes (20). He’s a first ballot Hall of Famer who will go down as the greatest heavyweight of his era and one of the best of all time.
"I’m driving [the division]," Klitschko said. "You want to be at the top, you have to pass me."
Klitschko is a pretty cerebral guy these days. The influence of the late Emanuel Steward still lingers, both inside in the ring, where Klitschko uses that piston-rod jab to set up a thundering right hand, and outside, where he has a calm confidence instilled in him by Steward over nearly a decade of working together.
At 38, Klitschko's life is settled. He’s engaged to actress Hayden Panettiere and the two are expecting their first child, a girl, in December. He makes millions every time he steps in the ring -- usually in Germany, his adopted home -- and he is rarely in danger of losing a fight.
Recently, Bernard Hopkins said that fresh challenges, like last weekend’s showdown with Sergey Kovalev, were what kept him motivated deep into his 40's. For Klitschko, the twilight of his career is about something more basic.
"I’m not doing it for money, I’m doing it for fun," Klitschko said. "If you would sit in my skin, you would understand. To be a professional at something, there is so much joy. I do a lot of things well, but the best thing I do is to box. I’m a true professional."
There is something that has rattled Klitschko. Rather, someone. Shannon Briggs, the ex-heavyweight titleholder last seen getting his face rearranged by Vitali Klitschko in 2010, has been relentlessly stalking Wladimir. Training camp in Miami? Briggs is there. Paddle surfing on the beach? Briggs is there. This week Briggs popped up in Hamburg, where Klitschko (62-3) will defend his IBF title against Kubrat Pulev (20-0) on Saturday (HBO, 4:45 pm). Briggs crashed Klitschko’s public workout, stripped off his shirt and declared to a bewildered foreign press corps that he would "knock Klitschko’s teeth out."
"I remember seeing Shannon in the hospital after the [Vitali] fight, he seemed like a very nice guy," Klitschko said. "He turned into a complete nut. I found it amusing at first. I didn’t care. He was trying to promote himself. Now he seems to have lost it. We need to save Shannon from Shannon. He is like a stalker. It’s not funny anymore. I seriously, honestly, think Shannon has brain damage. We need to help him."
There has been speculation that Briggs’s antics have been coordinated, that Team Klitschko has used Briggs, 42, to drum up some attention. Briggs denies it. Klitschko denies it, too. But when asked directly about the possibility of fighting Briggs in the future, Klitschko is noncommittal.
"Honestly, I would love to punish him," Klitschko said. "I honestly want to whip his ass and shut his mouth for once and for all. But I have a championship belt and I will have to ask the public. I will have to see who the fans want me to fight. Later on, things could happen."
Which brings us back to Wilder, Stiverne and any other rising North American heavyweight. If there is one gap on Klitschko’s resume, it’s that he never established a presence in the U.S. There were opportunities -- two of his first four title defenses were in New York -- but he never fully committed, preferring the comfort and money he found in Europe. Klitschko has a home in Florida and is marrying an American. It gnaws at him, friends say, that he has never been able to firmly establish himself as an attraction on U.S. soil.
In 2015, that could change. Briggs is from Brooklyn. Klitschko wants to fight at the Barclays Center. He tried to have a title defense there in 2012, only to have arena executives -- hamstrung by an exclusive output deal with Golden Boy, a deal that has been a disaster for the building -- insist that Klitschko take on Golden Boy as a co-promoter. Among Briggs, Wilder, Stiverne and Bryant Jennings, there are several viable options for a U.S.-based Klitschko fight in 2015. Which may explain why HBO signed Klitschko to a three-fight deal that begins on Saturday, against Pulev.
Pulev, incidentally, is no pushover. He’s technically skilled, blending a defensive, amateur style with sneaky power. He has knockout wins over 6-foot-7 Alexander Dimitrenko and 6-8 Alexander Ustinov and a lopsided decision victory over 6-6 Tony Thompson, so he’s comfortable against taller opponents like the 6-6 Klitschko.
"He has very fast hands for his size," Klitschko said. "He has a very good eye for punches. He knows how to not get hit. He’s ambitious, which means he is going to come to fight. That’s why I can’t focus on the future. I have to focus on him."