It has been more than seven years since heavyweight champion Wladimir Klitschko last fought in the United States. And if that means he has been diminished or is little more than an afterthought to American boxing fans, that is their loss.
While America wasn't watching, Klitschko steadily has ascended toward the summit of the sport, and his reign is approaching many of the records set by Joe Louis. Another man might have trumpeted his achievements, but one of the gifts that has sustained Klitschko is his sense of perspective about the world and his place in it.
Having just passed his 39th birthday in March, Klitschko often is asked to contemplate his athletic mortality. How much longer can he last?
"I don't know," Klitschko told a group of writers earlier this week at Madison Square Garden. "As long as I have motivation and health, I'll do it. The excitement is definitely there. I don't feel by no means old or bad or slow or anything like that. What could be cooler than to be the baddest man on the planet and beating up people for a living?"
The 6-6 giant of a man was beaming when he spoke, as if making a joke at his own expense. We know this much: Klitschko (63-3, 53 KOs), who owns the championship belts offered by the WBA, IBF, WBO, IBO and The Ring magazine, will tie a record set by Louis when he appears in his 27th career heavyweight title fight against Bryant Jennings (19-0, 10 KOs) Saturday night at the Garden.
His last visit was a dull 12-round decision over Sultan Ibragimov on Feb. 23, 2008. Since then, he has fought mainly in soccer stadiums in Germany and across Europe in front of crowds upwards of 60,000. But he's excited about the prospect of a Garden sellout for a bout against Philadelphian Jennings.
"It's the right timing and the right opponent because Jennings is undefeated," Klitschko said. "His life is charming. I love the story of how he had two jobs to do."
What other boxer describes his opponent's back story as 'charming?' But that's Klitschko. Told the inexperienced Jennings believes youth will be served, he gives the notion credence rather than dismissing it.
"It has always been like that in history," Klitschko said. "Do you think 20-year-old Mike Tyson (worried about it)? Always younger people are going to come up and try to push you down from the hill as the king of the hill. I'm taking him with respect."
Mention the prospect of meeting WBC champion Deontay Wilder or undefeated Tyson Fury in the future, and Klitschko can't help but reflect on a career that spans 25 years going back to his amateur days.
"I see the change of generations coming up," Klitschko said. "I've had all those guys in my training camp. They're very competitive, very young, very ambitious fighters that are definitely going to bring a lot of excitement to the ring. I wish them good luck. I don't want to talk like a guy who has been too long around, but I see those guys reflecting myself 10 or 15 years ago."
Klitschko won his first heavyweight title in 2000 against Chris Byrd, just four years after capturing the super-heavyweight gold medal at the Atlanta Olympics. After five defenses, Klitschko lost the title to Corrie Sanders on a second-round TKO in 2003. His next title shot against Lamon Brewster a year later ended in a fifth-round TKO.
The Brewster fight was Klitschko's first with trainer Emanuel Steward, and he credits Steward, who died in 2012, with resurrecting his career and reviving his interest in boxing.
"If Manny Steward wasn't around, I wouldn't be sitting here, and I wouldn't be boxing," Klitschko said. "I did not like boxing, and Emanuel made me love boxing. Emanuel educated me. You could hear the same story 1,000 times, and it's never getting boring."
Klitschko hasn't lost since that Brewster fight 11 years ago; he regained the IBF and IBO titles against Byrd in 2006, and he has made 17 straight defenses. His 22 successful defenses are just three short of the all-time record set by Louis, and he has surpassed the achievements of older brother Vitali, who was a two-time heavyweight champion, the last time from 2004-12.
But Klitschko doesn't concern himself with records and said it's almost "offensive" to compare himself to Louis. "I'll let you guys track it and think about it," Klitschko said. "I don't want to compare myself with any of the great heavyweights. I'm still looking up to those guys like a kid. They are still icons for me."
He knows the records and an exalted place in heavyweight history are within his grasp, but for now, it's enough to focus on Jennings and the chance to get reacquainted with American boxing fans.
"We're trying to get on the peak of the mountain in our jobs, but nobody knows where the peak is," Klitschko said. "So, nobody knows how long we're going to last. I just stop planning. I'm enjoying the momentum. It's absolutely exciting. I hope you enjoy it, too."