LONDON — For 11-plus years Wladimir Klitschko did not lose. From 2004 to 2015 he won 22 fights in a row, virtually all of them in utterly dominant fashion.
For 9½ years of that incredible run, Klitschko was the heavyweight champion of the world, the dominant figure in boxing’s marquee division. With every defense he inched closer to all-time records.
In all, he made 18 successful defenses during his second title reign, the third most in division history behind only two other legends, Joe Louis (25, the all-time record for any weight class) and Larry Holmes (20). In all, Klitschko has participated in 28 world heavyweight title bouts, the division record.
Sure, Klitschko did not fight in an era with great competition, but there have really been only two outstanding heavyweight eras: the Muhammad Ali-Joe Frazier-George Foreman-led 1970s and the Lennox Lewis-Evander Holyfield-Mike Tyson-led 1990s.
Still, Klitschko’s reign lasted for nine years, seven months and seven days, the second-longest heavyweight title tenure in history behind only Louis, who held the title for 11 years, eight months and eight days.
Klitschko’s reign might be history, biting the dust at the hands of England’s Tyson Fury, who outpointed him in a desultory fight in November 2015, but he is eager to recapture two of the titles belts he once held and ascend to No. 1 in the division again.
Klitschko can accomplish his goal by beating 27-year-year-old British star Anthony Joshua (18-0, 18 KOs) at sold-out Wembley Stadium, where a crowd of some 90,000 will watch one of the biggest heavyweight fights in many years on Saturday (live on Showtime at 4:15 p.m. ET with HBO airing a taped replay at 11 p.m. ET/PT).
To hear Klitschko (64-4, 54 KOs), now 41 and fighting for the first time since the loss to Fury, say it, he is free as a bird going into what many will view as a career-defining fight for both men.
It might sound bizarre to consider it a career-defining fight for Klitschko after all he has accomplished in his 21-year career, but he says it is just that. Yet he also says he doesn’t feel any pressure at all.
“This is my chance, my opportunity, my obsession. It’s my signature fight. I have a chance to fight myself to heaven,” Klitschko told ESPN. “How is it not [a signature fight]? I am a lucky motherf—– to get the opportunity to fight on the biggest stage of my career and with attention I never ever had before. I feel it from the fans even if I’m the underdog. I’m considered like food for lions in this fight. I don’t care. I am determined. I am obsessed. I am not kidding about that. I’m totally reloaded.
“I don’t have the pressure of defending, defending, defending and trying to break Joe Louis’ records anymore. I am a free man.”
As Ukraine’s Klitschko moved closer and closer to Louis’ hallowed marks, he said he did not pay much attention to the historical aspects of his title reign. When Klitschko was asked about it, he would typically decline to discuss it and say he would think about that stuff once his career was over. But he said the constant drumbeat of those records did in fact wear on him.
“I now have freedom in my mind, body and soul and I love it,” Klitschko said. “I don’t have this pressure anymore. I was like hamster in the hamster wheel — defending, defending, defending. Now I am out of that wheel.
“But when you keep hearing about [Louis], it’s there. You know it’s there. It’s in the back of your mind. If you want to destroy a person, give them 10 years straight of success. To handle success for a long time is super complicated. Whatever [Floyd] Mayweather has done is outstanding. Dude is amazing. You have to respect that. It’s incredible discipline. I had my success for a long time. Now I am representing the majority of society because I have ups and downs. I went down. Now I am trying to pick myself up against Joshua.”
Despite the legacy Klitschko has already made in boxing, he doesn’t want to discuss it. He said he is still creating one and that this fight is part of it.
“I’m not done yet so I don’t want to hear anything about any legacy,” Klitschko said.
He recounted a story of when he made the 1996 Olympic super heavyweight final and a teammate commented to him about how great it was that he’d already secured at least a silver medal — a big accomplishment because Klitschko said he did not think he would advance that far.
Then Klitschko said he had a dream on the eve of the final.
“I dreamed that I was losing the fight and my coach is telling me I am behind and I have to do something, that I have to step on the gas pedal,” Klitschko said. “Then in the fight my dream was actually happening and I was losing. I said f— the dream. I’m going to change my legacy because I am not going to be satisfied with the silver medal.”
Klitschko indeed won the gold and said he has the same mentality as he prepares to face Joshua, who will be the third Olympic champion he will have faced along with Alexander Povetkin and Ray Mercer.
“It’s all or nothing,” Klitschko said. “I don’t care about legacy. I want to have it all. All or nothing. You go out there and do it like I did it in the Olympics.”
Regardless of whether Klitschko is to be believed that he does not feel any pressure going into the fight, he does believe it’s on Joshua, who comes in with one title (they’re also fighting for a vacant belt), the crowd behind him and immense expectations for his third title defense.
“All the pressure is on the other side, not on me,” Klitschko said. “I don’t need to defend my titles. I don’t need to worry about losing a perfect record. I am just going to enjoy myself in the ring, enjoy the atmosphere, and enjoy my performance. I want to impress myself.”
Even though Klitschko was supposed to face Fury in a contractually obligated rematch, it was called off twice because of Fury’s personal problems. That put Klitschko into a 17-month layoff, which he said turned out to be good for him.
“I never had this chance to rest,” Klitschko said. “The time off was great. Right now I’m happy and not worried about ring rust because I did stay in shape and had a good training camp. But I had 27 years nonstop of boxing [between the pros and amateurs]. My body never had a real rest. It was always camp to camp, fight to fight, nonstop.”
Klitschko said it was not hard to get back into the groove once he went to training camp in the Austrian mountains with trainer Jonathon Banks, and now he is ready to prove he is not quite done yet, even though he has immense respect for Joshua, who earlier in his career helped prepare Klitschko for a fight as a sparring partner.
“I believe this man has a lot of skills. Maybe yes, maybe not he will be the biggest star in boxing,” Klitschko said. “I know there are plans to fight [titleholder Deontay] Wilder after me. It’s good to be young and ambitious, but I believe this fight has a lot of questions. Is it too early for him, too late for me?
“All those questions will be answered on [Saturday]. Do I still got it or is it too late? I’m looking forward to his challenge. I have my goal to become three-time world champion and I’m obsessed with it.”