Print and Go Back ESPN.com: Boxing [Print without images]

Saturday, November 10, 2012
Updated: November 12, 12:13 AM ET
Klitschko shows mettle of champion

By Dan Rafael
ESPN.com

If anyone was concerned about how heavyweight champion Wladimir Klitschko would react going into his first fight in more than eight years without the late Emanuel Steward, his dear friend and trainer, they shouldn't have been.

Klitschko turned in yet another supreme performance in a one-sided annihilation of Poland's Mariusz Wach (27-1, 15 KOs) to retain the heavyweight world championship for the 13th time on Saturday before a sold-out crowd of about 15,000 at the O2 World Arena in Hamburg, Germany.

Klitschko-Wach
Wladimir Klitschko was wobbled by Mariusz Wach in the fifth round Saturday, but the heavyweight champ came through it fine, stayed calm and punished the challenger the rest of the way.

Klitschko won virtually every second of the fight -- other than one difficult moment in the fifth round -- en route to a lopsided decision victory against the iron-chinned Wach, who soaked up inordinate punishment but would never go down. Klitschko hit him with everything.

Flush right hands? Check.

A brutally stiff and punishing left jab? Check.

A smattering of hurtful body shots? Yup, those too.

Klitschko even found an occasional home for his underrated left hook.

And there were lots and lots of clean combinations against Wach's face -- over and over and over, to the tune of scores of 120-107, 120-107 and 119-109.

"I have a lot of respect for Marius Wach," Klitschko said. "I didn't know a man could take so much punishment, but he kept going. There was no shot that would take him out."

Steward wouldn't have been needed to say much of anything, because the fight was so utterly one-sided. I can hear him now. Steward would have said to Klitschko: "Your jab is beautiful, keep doing what you're doing. The man can't take your pressure."

But he wasn't there, and it wasn't unreasonable to think that Steward's death just two weeks before the fight -- and having known he was dying throughout the training camp -- might leave Klitschko unfocused or vulnerable, especially facing the 6-foot-7½ Wach.

Wach, 32, was the first opponent whom the 6-6 Klitschko had ever faced who was taller than him. But the best (using the term loosely) opponent whom the extremely untested challenger had faced before Klitschko was Tye Field. That is saying precious little.

As it turned out, Klitschko was as focused as ever in dedicating the fight to Steward, whose place in the champion's corner was taken by aspiring heavyweight contender Johnathon Banks, Klitschko's longtime sparring partner and a Steward disciple who was being groomed as his assistant trainer.

Klitschko was as energetic as ever and threw pinpoint shots. So even though he appeared focused without Steward, what would happen if Klitschko had encountered any trouble and the voice in his corner that had been there for so long was silent?

Would Banks, heading a corner of any kind for the first time, be able to deal with it? Would Klitschko respond?

Earlier in his career, Klitschko didn't always show sufficient mental fortitude. He fell apart in an 11th-round TKO loss to Ross Puritty forever ago (1998 to be exact) in a fight he had been winning easily. Klitschko's 2003 second-round knockout loss to the late Corrie Sanders had nothing to do with his mental state. He just got hit on the chin by a great puncher.

But in 2004, still trying to recover from that loss to Sanders, Klitschko turned to Steward, who took him on as something of a reclamation project.

Wladimir Klitschko and Mariusz Wach
Klitschko landed 274 of 693 blows (40 percent) in Saturday's bout, compared to Wach's connecting on 60 of 308 punches (19 percent).

Klitschko (59-3, 51 KOs) lost his first fight under Steward's guidance, a fifth-round knockout to Lamon Brewster for a vacant world title. Klitschko had fought a near-perfect fight and was destroying Brewster, doing everything Steward wanted him to do. But he fell apart again when Brewster wouldn't stay down. Brewster broke him mentally, not physically.

Still, Klitschko and Steward were still getting to know each other then. Steward, whom I always thought of as the best psychologist in boxing in addition to being a strategic genius, eventually rebuilt Klitschko's psyche, improved his defense, taught him how to better pace himself and how to better control his emotions. He helped make him into one of the best heavyweights in history.

So when Wach had a singular moment late in the fifth round, Klitschko was able to weather the storm like the champ that he is.

With seconds to go in the round, Wach landed a solid right hand on top of the head, getting Klitschko's attention. Klitschko was knocked off balance, and Wach continued roughing him up with a couple of shots behind the head.

The bell rang, and this would be a moment when Steward's Yoda-like wisdom in the corner probably would have come in handy.

But Klitschko already had learned his lessons well from Steward. Klitschko was calm in the corner and Banks said all the right things, as he did throughout the fight.

Wach's moment was gone, and Klitschko, calm as ever, dominated the sixth round.

Steward would have been proud.

Klitschko went on to turn in a huge seventh round and then battered Wach relentlessly in the eighth, a round so violently dominant that it earned a 10-8 score without a knockdown. Referee Eddie Cotton looked closely, and it had to have been on his mind to possibly stop the fight, but Wach, bleeding inside his mouth and nose, somehow stayed upright.

In that brutal eighth round, Klitschko landed 44 of 84 punches (52 percent) while Wach connected on just 3 of 8 (32 percent), according to CompuBox statistics.

Klitschko continued to dish out punishment until the final bell rang, a surprise in that the bout went the distance for it to ring at all. For the fight, Klitschko landed 274 of 693 blows (40 percent) while Wach landed a meager 60 of 308 punches (19 percent).

"He was very slow compared to my sparring partners," said Klitschko, who counted top heavyweight prospect and 2008 U.S. Olympic bronze medalist Deontay Wilder as a key sparring partner.

So Klitschko, 36, polished off yet another challenger who talked a big game but had nothing when it counted, and he did it in the typical one-sided fashion we have become accustomed to. And with it, his historical title reign continued.

The 1996 Olympic super heavyweight gold medalist for Ukraine moved to 20-2 in world title fights. His 13 consecutive title defenses (during his second title reign; he made five others in his first reign before losing to Sanders) are third-best all-time. Only Joe Louis (25) and Larry Holmes (20) made more.

Klitschko's current reign is going on seven years and will soon be the second-longest reign ever, behind only Louis' 11 years, 8 months and 8 days.

Klitschko, who plans to attend the memorial service for Steward next week in Steward's hometown of Detroit, is happy to give the trainer a hefty amount of credit for helping rescue a career that has grown into one of the best in heavyweight history.

Steward, Klitschko said, was with him during training camp and during the fight, including that rough spot in the fifth round. And based on Banks' performance, it seemed he also carried Steward with him.

"His spirit is with us," Klitschko said. "Johnathon did a good job. I said [that] one day he will be a great coach. He's not there yet, but he will be someday. We love Emanuel. We miss him, and one day we'll meet up again. Rest in peace."