Go on: Light a candle for Klitschko

007_Wladimir Klitschko
Like it or not—and many won’t—Wladimir Klitschko owns a firm place among boxing’s best-ever heavyweights. (Esther Lin/Showtime)

One of history’s all-time great heavyweight champions retired today. But don’t hold your breath for the hero’s sendoff.

More like, Don’t let the door hit you in the ass on the way out.

So it went for Wladimir Klitschko, who announced Thursday that, after 20-plus years of professional prizefighting, he is moving on. For the majority of boxing fans, at least on this side of the water, it couldn’t have happened soon enough.

Stiff, safe and monolithic in stature, Klitschko struggled to appeal to American fight aficionados, who prefer their heavyweights to move like butterflies and bees—or teddy bears, a la George Foreman in his twilight. A granite 6-foot-6 and 240 pounds, the Ukrainian with the Olympic gold medal, doctorate degree and—for chrissakes—Hayden Panettiere on his arm, was almost entirely unrelatable. His fighting style was often described, kindly, as robotic. He could pass for an evil henchman in a Bond flick. Klitschko was, in every way, foreign to us. And let’s face it: Boxing is one of the few remaining playgrounds where a strident anti-“others” streak is not only acceptable but heartily encouraged. Who the hell roots for Darth Vader?

Oddly, Klitschko became less likable—instantly downgraded from Sith Lord to straw man—when, in 2003, he was upset by Corrie Sanders in a harder-they-fall stoppage, dropping his version of the heavyweight title in the process. Many critics never got over the defeat. For a time, it seemed Klitschko himself wouldn’t. He was stopped again, by lightly regarded Lamon Brewster, a year after the Sanders loss. It didn’t help that some considered Wladimir’s older brother, Vitali, to be the superior fighter. And with no Ali, Frazier or Foreman to act as foils—let alone a Holmes, Norton or Quarry—Wlad drew little more than dismissive waves from wide swaths of the public, even as he began reinventing himself under the tutelage of trainer Manny Steward, gradually collected world titles and steamrolled through a decade’s worth of challengers.

011_Anthony Joshua vs Wladimir Klitschko
Wladimir Klitschko, right, put up perhaps his greatest fight in his final performance, last April’s TKO loss to Britain’s Anthony Joshua. (Esther Lin/Showtime)

But Klitschko, in many ways, had the last laugh. Among other feats, he found mass-market appeal in Europe and, at the height of his powers, unified the heavyweight championships for a stretch of more than four years. He also arguably saved his best for last: an April war at London’s Wembley Stadium with British Olympic darling Anthony Joshua, in which the 41-year-old Klitschko scraped himself off the canvas to drop (and nearly finish) Joshua, before eventually succumbing, with a certain grace, in the 11th round. Displaying the heart and sand in his final fight that many fans had waited for years to see from him, “Dr. Steelhammer” may have, in the end, softened a few cynics. But even the remaining holdouts can’t deny Klitschko’s career 64-5 mark (with 53 KOs and zero ducks), string of 18 consecutive heavyweight title defenses or humble embrace of the role of boxing’s global statesman.

In his official retirement statement, Klitschko said, “I’m very thankful for this.” We should be, too.

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