Heavyweight class missing centerpiece

Matt Crosson

When Lennox Lewis retired from boxing in 2003, he took the respectability of the heavyweight division with him. The future of the 200+ weight class, once the marquee division of professional boxing, is pretty bleak.

The popularity of heavyweight boxing over the years has always hinged on the talent and charisma of the champion. Joe Louis ruled the division with an iron fist in the 1930s and 1940s, Muhammad Ali captivated the world with his blinding speed and engaging personality in the 1960s and 1970s and Mike Tyson violently dispatched all opponents in the 1980s.

Lewis won the heavyweight championship in 1993 and subsequently dominated the division for ten years. Despite a couple of stumbling blocks along the way (knockout losses to Oliver McCall and Hasim Rahman, which he later avenged), Lewis proved to be a worthy champion.

Although there are a plethora of heavyweight fighters today who wear shiny belts that identify them as champions, I assure you there isn’t one among them who is fit to hold Lewis’ Everlast shorts.

Today’s heavyweight division is overrun with washed-up veterans, physically gifted but unskilled youngsters, and former Soviet Republic fighters, trained at the sports schools of the old U.S.S.R. Less than a month ago, all four major titles were held by these former-Soviet fighters. Some called this the “Russian Revolution of the heavyweight division.” I call it a watered-down weight class, starved of American talent.

Sergei Liakhovich of Belarus, lost his version of the heavyweight title on Nov. 4 to aging-journeyman Shannon Briggs by technical knockout in the 12th round. Briggs is a moderately talented fighter with a powerful right hand, but definitely not championship material, as was shown in his 5th round knockout-loss to Lewis in 1998.

Oleg Maskaev is another Russian fighter with a big gold belt, but very little skills. His best asset as a fighter is his ability to take punches, which he does well ? and often. In August, he outlasted the once-promising Rahman, finally knocking him out in the 12th round.

Rahman is one of many recent American heavies who never lived up to the hype. Jameel McCline, Chris Byrd and Michael Grant (whom Lewis knocked out in two rounds) were all billed to be the next great American heavyweight, but none had the tools to make it happen.

At 7 feet, Nikolai Valuev is the tallest heavyweight champion of all time. He may also be the slowest and most unskilled champion of all time. Watching his most recent fight against Monte Barrett was grueling. The Russian smothered Barrett with his 330-pound frame for 11 rounds. Barrett’s trainer stopped the fight in the 11th after his fighter had been knocked down for the third time. The match was more like a circus sideshow than a prizefight.

Perhaps the best candidate to take the torch from Lewis is Wladimir Klitschko. Four years ago, Klitschko was touted as the most talented up-and-coming heavyweight in the division and a showdown with Lewis was looming. But the 6-foot-6 Ukrainian suffered two knockout losses in two years to Corrie Sanders and Lamon Brewster, which negated his shot at the heavyweight king.

Klitschko has recently put his boxing career back on track, scoring wins over Samuel Peter, Byrd and the previously-undefeated Calvin Brock. Klitschko looked strong in each fight, but his ability to take a punch is still a question mark. He was knocked down twice in the fifth round against Peter.

The next great heavyweight champion might be in a gym in Philadelphia or Moscow right now, dreaming of becoming the next Ali or Tyson. Until then, we’ll just have to suffer through a mediocre period in the heavyweight division.