There is a moment in Joe Louis’s fine autobiography, My Life, where the former heavyweight champion describes how his waning powers left him for good during his final fight with Rocky Marciano. “From the seventh round I knew I just didn’t have it,” he writes. “I said to myself, ‘Oh, if I just could have gotten to you five years ago.’ But it wasn’t five years ago and I was bleeding like a stuck pig. My age gave me away: all of a sudden my legs gave out. I was washed up.”
Related: Tyson Fury shocks Wladimir Klitschko to take world heavyweight title
Louis was 37 years old. He had been the undisputed champion for more than 11 years and fought in 27 world title fights. But now he had nothing left. “They had to lift me off the stool for the bell in the eighth,” he remembers. “I was glad I wasn’t fully conscious when referee Ruby Goldstein stopped the fight. There was no doubt Marciano had beaten the shit out of me.” Afterwards, when Louis was on the massage table, the doctor told him he could not fight for at least three months. “I turned my head and looked at the doc and said, ‘Do you mind if I don’t fight no more at all?’” wrote Louis, sounding both grateful yet wistful. “I thought, like many fighters before and after me, that I’d always be some kind of superman. That’s the dream. Not the reality. I just didn’t have it any more.”
Louis’s words came to me after watching Wladimir Klitschko’s ponderous attempts to catch up with Tyson Fury on Saturday. There will be other fights. There may be other victories. But, like the Brown Bomber against Marciano, his legs looked to have gone. He just didn’t have it any more.
So how will Klitschko be judged? The verdict in some quarters on Saturday night was that he had been found out. Faced with a taller opponent with a superior reach he had been found wanting when his plan A – establish the jab – was unable to take effect. He certainly looked terrible against Fury. The Ukrainian was never one of the sport’s more fluid movers. But in Düsseldorf he fought with the stiffness of someone who had suffered a couple of slipped discs.
Such disrespect is not new, of course. During his career Klitschko has also been accused of lacking a killer instinct; of lacking a chin; of being one of the most boring champions to watch in heavyweight history. It did not help that in recent times even the right hand has been thrown sparingly, when the opponent was softened and prepared for the kill. Late-era Klitschko fights have involved too much jab-jab-clinch. The boxing equivalent of catenaccio.
But in the future, when people are debating the top 10 heavyweights of all time, Klitschko will be in there. How could one discount a fighter who on Saturday fought in his 28th heavyweight title fight, overtaking Louis’s mark, and establishing a record that is likely to last until most of us are dead? A man who, having regained his heavyweight title by stopping Chris Byrd in April 2006, made 19 defences – nine of which came against unbeaten fighters – and was unbeaten for a decade?
One has to be a special fighter to post those kind of numbers, whatever the era, whoever the opponents. There is some truth in the argument that Klitschko has achieved such success because the heavyweight division is so anaemic these days, with many elite American athletes preferring to go into the NFL or the NBA rather than get whacked in the face for a living. But this can be overstated.
Go back into the archives and someone somewhere will always be arguing that the heavyweight division is in decline. Look at the opponents Louis fought during his ‘bum of the month’ era in the 1930s, for instance – or better still, check out footage of him pummelling Johnny Paychek on YouTube. And remember Louis, who is usually regarded as the second best heavyweight of all time behind Muhammad Ali, struggled against Billy Conn, for instance, who weighed 12st 6lb when they fought, putting him inside the light heavyweight limit. Ali, of course, was dumped on his pants by Henry Cooper, who weighed 13st 3lb in their first fight in 1963.
In fact in Louis’s autobiography, written in the late 70s when Ali was coming to the end of his career, he claims that “Ali’s a great fighter but I think a Rocky Marciano or Jack Dempsey would rate ahead of him. Ali makes too many mistakes, his hands are down a lot and he takes too many punches to the body.”
Tellingly Louis also adds: “The one thing wrong with the fight game now is that there aren’t enough good heavyweights around. When Ali goes, the game will be in bad shape. Ken Norton and Jimmy Young aren’t the type to carry a championship.” He was right about that but Larry Holmes and Mike Tyson certainly were the type.
So when it comes to evaluating Klitschko we should perhaps not be too unkind. Personally I think a peak Ali would have bamboozled him. Holmes, Sonny Liston, George Foreman and Lennox Lewis would have got around his jab. And a prime Joe Frazier and Tyson would have been too quick. You also couldn’t count out Jack Johnson, Louis, Evander Holyfield or his brother Vitaly either. But I can’t see too many other fighters in history who would have toppled Klitschko at his best. Yes his fights have been repetitive and often dull. But why mess with a winning formula?