This is just about as good as it gets for the modern heavyweight division: The true champion is facing the most qualified opponent he hasn’t yet defeated. It’s a legitimate fight, Wladimir Klitschko vs. Kubrat Pulev. HBO is televising Saturday afternoon, as it should, no matter how tedious Klitschko fights are to many of us, because people watch in droves. We just all know how this ends:
Klitschko is going to whop him, whether he knocks Pulev out or Pulev survives the clockwork jab, grab and right hand assault.
Klitschko is boxing’s most dominant champion, a fighter who rarely loses a round. Even the pound-for-pound king (and 154-pound king) Floyd Mayweather loses rounds these days, sometimes enough that people score his fights a draw. The closest final scorecard in a Wlad Klitschko fight where his opponent remained conscious since 2006 is 116-110 against David Haye, an anomaly among the other two judges that nobody takes very seriously.
Debates will persist about how much that’s Klitschko’s fault and how much it’s the fault of his moribund division. There is plenty of blame to go around. Klitschko, at 6’6″, is a superb athlete for his size who knows how to utilize both his physique and tactics that maximize each other, while exposing himself to zero risk. It is surely true that another generation of better schooled heavyweights could’ve at least challenged, then maybe beaten or even demolished Klitschko. Maybe gigantic, athletic, powerful up-and-coming heavyweights Deontay Wilder or Anthony Joshua will one day catch an aging Klitschko — he’s 38 now — on a decline.
But Pulev is about as good as it gets right this instant in terms of proven heavyweights. Alexander Povetkin recently eclipsed Pulev as the #1 heavyweight in the Transnational Boxing Rankings, but we’ve already seen what happens when Povetkin and Pulev fight: whop.
If they stepped into the ring today, I’d pick Povetkin over Pulev. Povetkin has more power and is a smoother boxer. Pulev is only more consistent in his effort in the ring and in his training. That counts for a lot these days in this division, to be sure. Pulev, like Klitschko, has rarely been in a close fight, whereas Povetkin has. Undefeated in 20 fights, he suffered a fluke knockdown against Joey Abell and little trouble besides. He struggled a little against Tony Thompson early, perhaps, then took over.
What he has going for him is solid boxing. He slaps a little, sure, but he can also sit down on technically proficient shots. He feints, he has good defense, he works his one-twos, he varies it up with lead rights and he doesn’t seem to have trouble taking a shot when he does get hit. All in all, he’s very competent. Lesser heavyweight champions of past eras nonetheless would’ve eaten him alive. Lennox Lewis, Evander Holyfield, everyone on back — eaten him alive.
Whatever you think of Klitschko and how much he is a product of his era, he should have not much more trouble eating Pulev alive than past division kings. Pulev doesn’t have the size, he doesn’t have technical proficiency beyond Klitschko’s, he doesn’t have better power or speed. One might give Pulev a chance if one suspected Klitschko might age overnight, except the Klitschkos don’t age so poorly, as brother Vitali showed by fighting at a high level into his 40s (and could’ve gone longer had he chosen not to re-enter Ukrainian politics). And Wlad is a better natural athlete than his big brother. And a better boxer. One might give Pulev a chance if one suspected he was the one to remind Klitschko that back in 2005 and before, he used to get flattened a lot, except Klitschko has faced far bigger punchers than Pulev since then and none of them delivered even a single reminder.
Nope, it’s more routine dominance for Klitschko this Saturday. Until he shows vulnerability he hasn’t shown in nearly a decade, or until he faces someone who can truly dredge up the vulnerability he showed back then, it’s more of the same.