As a dangerous, unbeaten challenger made his way to the ring at Hamburg’s O2 Arena, spectators anticipated world heavyweight champion Wladimir Klitschko’s toughest test in years. Bulgarian standout Kubrat Pulev was expected to either extend the Ukrainian giant in a game yet unsuccessful effort, or perhaps even score an upset over the ageing ring icon.
It turned out that neither premonition was close, as Klitschko brutally demolished Pulev in five excitement-filled rounds to notch a 17th successive world title defence. In what was arguably a career-best performance, the 38-year-old behemoth floored his challenger four times – twice in the first, once in the third and once in the fifth – with the final knockdown rendering Pulev sprawled flat on his back on the canvas and the contest instantly waved off.
Despite his dominance of the heavyweight scene in recent years, Klitschko (63-3, 53 KO’s) has often been criticised for less than appealing safety-first style, but from the early exchanges in the opening round it was apparent that this fight was going to evolve very differently. With a strong Bulgarian contingent in attendance, there was a minor eruption when Pulev appeared to stun the champion with a solid shot that forced Klitshcko to grab hold and clinch, but that was dwarfed moments later when a left hook from Wladimir whipped the 16,000 capacity crowd into frenzy.
Detonating on the challenger’s chin, Pulev (20-1, 11 KO’s) was put on his back in the centre of the ring and although he rose quickly to referee Tony Weeks’ count he appeared to be on unsteady legs. Pulev attempted to disguise his lack of stability; balancing on one leg and sticking out his tongue with contempt, an unwise course of action if what materialised next was anything to go by.
Klitschko marched over to resume the action and scored with the left hook again, sending Pulev down for the second time in the round and prompting fears of a first-round blowout. But the challenger somehow managed to survive the remaining minute-and-a-half to the bell, happy to get tied up in clinches and repeatedly dig Klitschko behind the head, prompting a warning from Weeks.
The second round featured less action, with Pulev more reluctant to engage, though he did score a number of times with his highly-effective jab. Klitschko won the round however, landing the more telling blows and even scoring to Pulev’s body, much to the surprise of the boxing media who have seldom seen Klitschko throw body punches during his lengthy world title reign.
At the start of the night that reign was four consecutive successful defences short of the tally set by Larry Holmes, with the Easton Assassin’s 20 second only to the great Joe Louis’s mark of 25. But it was clear Klitschko would reduce Holmes’s lead when he landed a huge right hand that wobbled Pulev in round three, before dropping him for the third time in the fight with another left hook.
Again Pulev survived to the bell and somehow escaped the fourth round without another trip to the canvas. Those who have often slated Klitschko’s lack of a killer instinct must have been shaking their head as the fight could and perhaps should have already been over. But they would not have to wait much longer for the finish. Pulev landed a hard right hand, but during the same exchange was met with another Klitschko left hook and this one would certainly end matters.
Flat on his back with his gaze fixed to the ceiling Pulev could not beat the count and Klitschko let out an emphatic roar after capping off a dominant display with a sublime finish. As well as inching closer to tying Holmes as the division’s second longest reigning champion in terms of consecutive defences, Klitschko has held a heavyweight crown for eight-and-a-half years, second behind Louis’s reign of 11 years, 8 months and 8 days.
The fight was the first of a three-fight contract that Klitschko has signed with HBO, with the next bout expected to take lace across the Atlantic next spring. The opponent could well be the winner of the Dereck Chisora and Tyson Fury rematch, although the likes of Bermane Stiverne, Bryant Jennings and Deontay Wilder would appeal more to an American audience.
Over-the-hill former titleholder Shannon Briggs may even have thrust his name into the mix, with his continued public attack on Wladimir continuing in Hamburg at the post-fight press conference. On this evidence however, no opponent currently on the heavyweight horizon seems to pose a legitimate threat to Wladimir Klitschko, who continues to add to his legacy and looking better with age.