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Wladimir Klitschko was never really embraced by the average boxing fan, despite dominating a lackluster heavyweight division for the better part of a decade.
He understands why, even as he looks to change his ways in what could be his last hurrah next week against Anthony Joshua in London.
“It’s not as boring as it was with me during all those years,” Klitschko said. “You can like me or hate me but when one person conquers it all, it is boring. I totally get it.”
It wasn’t just Klitschko’s dominance that soured boxing fans on him. It was the way he fought.
Every opponent was kept at arm’s length. Punches were traded cautiously – probably with good reason, considering what Lamon Brewster did to him back in 2004.
Klitschko never won any style points, though he kept winning against a series of opponents who could never seem to crack the code. Then Tyson Fury entered the picture, making Klitschko look slow and old in breaking his 11-year winning streak to win his heavyweight titles.
Now Klitschko challenges the unbeaten Joshua for the title once again. He does so as an underdog going into enemy territory, with 90,000 fans expected to be cheering their countryman on a week from Saturday at Wembley Stadium.
At the age of 41, he says he feels like a new fighter. Even better, he says he feels like really fighting.
“I understand I don’t have titles anymore, but in a certain way I feel relieved,” Klitschko told The Associated Press in a call from his training camp in Austria. “I feel calmer, more free. Before it was all defending and caution. Now it’s different, and I like the feeling that I don’t have any pressure.”
The fight shapes up as a familiar boxing matchup, with the up-and-coming young slugger from England tested by the aging veteran who has piled up a deep bag of tricks over the years.
Both are Olympic gold medalists (Klitschko in 1996, Joshua in 2012). Both are massive heavyweights with the skills usually found in smaller fighters. Both have the kind of knockout power that may make it a short night in London.
And Klitschko now says it’s time to throw caution to the wind.
“I have nothing to defend so I need to bounce back and be the hunter,” he said. “Joshua has the title and it’s something I will need to get. It will be a totally different attitude. I will not hold myself back.”
If experience is a key in the fight, Klitschko has a huge advantage against Joshua, who began his amateur career late and has only 18 professional fights.
After regaining a piece of the heavyweight title in 2006, Klitschko made 18 successful title defenses in a row before losing to Fury in a desultory effort. He’s won 64 of 68 fights and has fought for the heavyweight title 28 times.
But with the wins came the criticism. Klitschko, who lost the title by knockout to Brewster in 2004, was widely panned in boxing for playing more defense than offense as he won fight after fight against a group of mediocre challengers.
“I think after so many years of defending the title, unifying the title, it built up the pressure,” Klitschko said. “At some point, it cramps your style.”
Klitschko plans have his brother, Vitali, in the corner as he usually does for his fights. Vitali Klitschko, now the mayor of Kiev, was a dominant heavyweight champion in his own right, before retiring to take up politics in his native Ukraine.
Meanwhile, he’s enjoying the preparations for a fight he never thought he would get after his rematch with Fury was derailed by Fury’s emotional problems.
“I think I’ve been very, very fortunate with having Joshua as my opponent,” he said. “For the first time in a long time I’m an underdog. He’s either great, or I’m still great. The question marks on both fighters make this a fight for the fans.”