Wladimir Klitschko was destined to be a dominating heavyweight from the beginning.
The giant, powerful Ukrainian won the super heavyweight gold medal in the 1996 Olympics and, for the most part, has overwhelmed his professional opponents to become the No. 1 big man in the sport.
Klitschko has had three opponents do what today might seem next to impossible, though: They knocked him out.
He was in the process of developing into a star when, at 24-0 (with 22 knockouts), he agreed to fight unheralded American Ross Puritty in what was expected to be a triumphant return to the capital of his country, Kiev.
No one thought much of the challenge until Puritty stunned the boxing world by stopping Klitschko in the 11th round.
Then, after Klitschko rebuilt his career with a series of victories and won a major title, it happened again. This time Corrie Sanders of South Africa put the big man down four times en route to a shocking second-round KO.
That was followed by one more knock out only three months later, the final time against Lamon Brewster in 2004.
Klitschko would never lose again, winning 13 consecutive fights going his showdown with David Haye on July 2 in Hamburg, Germany, and leaving his slip-ups in the distant past.
However, no one who has followed his career will forget the fights in which he proved to be abundantly mortal. Neither will Puritty and Brewster, who often receive calls from boxing writers before Klitschko fights.
Here are their memories of what happened and how they see Klitschko now.
Puritty vs. Klitschko: Dec. 5, 1998 in Kiev, Ukraine
Result: TKO 11
Record going into the Klitschko fight: 24-13-1 (22 KOs)
Overall career record: 31-20-3 (27 KOs)
The hard puncher from Norman, Okla., had a few notable successes going into the Klitschko fight. He had drawn with Tommy Morrison and stopped decent heavyweights Jorge Luis Gonzalez and Joe Hipp.
But he also had losses to Michael Grant, Hasim Rahman, Corrie Sanders, Larry Donald and Chris Byrd on his record, making him appear to be a safe opponent for the then-22-year-old Ukrainian.
The fact he was good sized (6-foot-3 and 245 pounds at the weigh-in, 25 more than Klitschko), had power (27 KOs in his 31 victories) and was tough (none of the above-mentioned fighters stopped him) wasn’t as obvious.
Klitschko dominated almost the entire fight with his superior technique and much work rate. But he failed in two regards: He never hurt Puritty and – more significantly – he didn’t pace himself.
The overwhelming favorite was running on fumes when Puritty put him down with a flurry of punches late in the 10th round and then picked up with he left off in the 11th, during which Klitschko’s trainer stopped the fight.
“Basically I took what he had,” said Puritty, who coaches football and works with a few amateur fighters in Wichita, Kan., now. “I stood in front of him, let him prove how strong he was. He was a young kid. I proved I could withstand any kind of attack.
“… I just let him punch himself out. I’m sure he would’ve knocked out a lot of guys before that. I just happened to take a good punch.”
Puritty believes Klitschko fell victim as much to overconfidence as to Puritty himself.
“It always comes down to ego,” he said. “At the time I fought him, he truly believed he could knock anybody out. He thought he could beat anybody any way he wanted. I feel to this day that had he been more patient and boxed, he would’ve won.
“The fight definitely would’ve gone 12 rounds, though. He wasn’t going to stop me.”
Puritty believes Klitschko has a questionable chin to this day. The difference now is that no one can get near it.
Klitschko is a seasoned pro at 35 (and a good 20 pounds heavier than he was in the Puritty fight). THE RING champion knows how to use his long jab to keep his opponents at bay and then follow with crushing rights. The system is all but impenetrable.
He also paces himself now. It’s a good bet he’ll never punch himself out again.
“He’s a hell of a fighter,” Puritty said. “He’s matured. I respect him for what he’s done. He’s done it his way and he’s done it well.”
“I don’t think he will [punch himself out now], not with the kind of guys he’s fighting, guys who won’t take chances,” he added. “He beats you with his jab. I don’t understand that. I don’t understand how these guys sit back and don’t do something to change it up. Everybody fights safe today.
“If you fight safe with a guy like that, you’re gonna lose. He has too good of a jab.”
Puritty would go only 6-7-2 (including a TKO loss to Vitali Klitschko) and never again beat a marquee opponent in his 15 fights after his great triumph. His last fight was in 2007, an eight-round majority decision over journeyman Carl Gathright.
Now 44, he said he would consider a return to the ring but doesn’t expect any meaningful opportunities to arise.
What does the victory over Klitschko mean to him?
“I don’t think about it too much,” he said. “When one of his fights comes up, someone calls me to talk about it. That’s about it. I really don’t keep up with it otherwise. It is what it is.
“He’s the champion. I wish him the best of luck.”
Brewster vs. Klitschko: April 20, 2004 in Las Vegas
Result: TKO 5
Record going into the Klitschkko fight: 29-2 (26 KOs)
Overall career record: 35-6 (30 KOs)
Klitschko seemed to have put the Puritty setback behind him when he made the sixth defense of his WBO title against the underrated Sanders in 2003 in Germany.
Then disaster struck and it had nothing to do with pace. Sanders badly hurt Klitschko with a left hand with about 30 seconds remaining in the opening round and the champion never recovered.
The South African put him down four times in 3:27 and scored a second-round KO, proving again that Klitschko was human.
Klitschko won two fights after that before the year was up and then received an opportunity to fight Brewster for the vacant WBO title in 2004.
Brewster was neither particularly big (6-foot-2, 226 against Klitschko) nor a boxing whiz. He had lost one-sided decisions to Clifford Etienne and Shufford in 2000, the only losses on his record at time.
Again, though, he was durable. He wouldn’t be stopped until his second fight with Klitschko in 2007 and in his most-recent fight, against Robert Helenius last year. And he had power: 26 KOs in his 29 victories going into the fight.
The fight looked remarkably similar to the setback against Puritty, although the end came much sooner. Klitschko was controlling the action when Brewster hurt him with a big left with about 45 second remaining in the fifth round and followed with a barrage of punches.
Klitschko, hurt, exhausted or likely both, collapsed at the bell and referee Robert Byrd put a halt to the fight.
Afterward, Klitschko made the curious claim that he was somehow drugged but never proved it. The reality one last time was that he had his vulnerabilities just like any other fighter.
Brewster said he saw something in Klitschko’s sixth-round TKO over Ray Mercer that helped him win.
“I just think it was a game plan well executed,” said Brewster, who lives in Los Angeles and is unable to fight because of an eye injury. “The plan from the beginning was to go in there … and get him unraveled mentally. It worked. I watched his fight with Mercer. I saw that if you pressure him, you could tire him out.
“If Mercer could’ve sustained his punches, I think the result of that fight might’ve been different.”
Brewster said that he believed even after he beat Klitschko that his foe was a special fighter. He saw many of the traits we see today in Klitschko, only they needed more refining.
He admires Klitschko for overcoming his setbacks, “getting up after you get knocked down,” and correcting the mistakes he made in the past.
That said, he also still believes that his strategy could still take Klitschko down under the right circumstances.
“If you let him breathe, he’ll do what he does,” Brewster said. “You don’t want to give him time to think. You have to keep the pressure on him. Watch the tape of my fight with him. Every time I got close to him, I hit the body. And every time I hit him in the body, it took a little gas out of him.
“… You gotta take him to deep water and let him drown. That’s not easy to do, though.”
Brewster would defend his belt three times and then lose it by a unanimous decision against Sergei Liakhovich in 2006. He was dominated and then stopped by Klitschko in six rounds in his next fight, proving that the most-dominating heavyweight on the planet had learned his lessons.
But Brewster has the satisfaction of having taken a major title from a future Hall of Famer.
““The biggest regret I have is that I didn’t take a tune-up (after the Liakhovich loss),” he said. “And I would’ve liked a rubber match. I always thought we could create a great legacy, like Frazier and Ali or something like that.
“The victory [over Klitschko] meant a lot, though. From the time I was 7 years old, I asked God to allow me to be heavyweight champion of the world. And I was blessed that it happened.”