The 1990s: The Boxing Decade That Never Was?

Lennox LewisBy Michael Klimes: It is often said that love or perhaps even affection for somebody makes it precarious for that person to criticise them. I have always felt that Joe Calzaghe was a brilliant fighter, maybe a great one, who just had the misfortune of being born a few years too late. I think Joe Calzaghe has now done enough to be considered a worthy Hall of Famer. The humiliating boxing lesson he taught to Jeff Lacy, the enthralling match up with his heir apparent Mikkel Kessler and the ugly yet important victory over Bernard Hopkins have ensured that he has earned the votes to enter Canastota.

Still I think it is a little tragic and Calzaghe has discussed this himself that he has not had the best opposition to test himself against to prove how good he believes he is. Calzaghe’s long road to greatness is maybe the best example of how boxing started to decline around the time I was born. What do I mean by this? From the late 1980s, boxing saw a new generation of fighters from mainly Europe and America rush to establish themselves as it was clear that the previous stars of Marvin Hagler, Roberto Duran, Sugar Ray Leonard and Tommy Hearns were being to fade. At the time it might have seemed boxing was entering a slump. After all, wouldn’t it be difficult to surpass those legends?

However, the sport was going to see another healthy era of entertainment. Cus D’Amato had unleashed his most prized possession, Mike Tyson, on the heavyweight division as he captured the title all guns blazing in 1986. The cruiserweights cried out to be known and deserved to be so as Evander Holyfield and Dwight Muhammad Qawi put on one of the last classic fifteen round title bouts in history. Similarly, from light middleweight to super middleweight, a group of endlessly dynamic and exhilarating performers were about to pick up the baton from their predecessors and run with it well into the 1990s. Winning a world title as this time really meant a lot as it was not easy. The rivalries and fights were bloody good.

From Britain, Chris Eubank and Nigel Benn became the most popular post-war British boxers surpassing the sacred cow, which was Sir Henry Cooper. Their rivalry was engrossing and their meeting in 1990 remains one of the bouts of the decade. Both found taking down Michael Watson a tough proposition and who could blame them? Watson was a crafty, well conditioned and intelligent counter-puncher. Unfortunately the rematch between Chris Eubank and Michael Watson turned very ugly as Watson received permanent brain damage and Eubank’s killer instinct deserted him. From then on Eubank’s fans were destined to witness many championship defences with tedious decisions. Their hero could still take awe-inspiring amounts of punishment but he was not able to inflict it like he used to.

Nigel Benn became the most exciting fighter in the world, he was breathtaking to watch. After he was stopped by Michael Watson in 1989, he went straight back into the fast lane and travelled to America. He took on Iran Barkley and Doug DeWitt in scintillating contests. The clash with Dewitt was eight rounds of unrelenting mayhem. Nevertheless, Benn was to have has his own traumatic evening against Gerald McClellan. McClellan was an excellent fighter who was touted as the next big thing. He was young, had a strong amateur pedigree, considerable boxing ability and was an exceptional puncher. The speculation surrounding their fight took jingoistic proportions as it cultivated an “us and them” mentality, i.e. the Brits against the Yanks. Everyone got more damage than they wanted though. In the space of ten rounds, two of boxing’s best operators in their weight class were ruined. Roy Jones Junior was also partially spoilt as well as he understandably developed a safety first boxing style afterwards. McClellan was his friend and the experience affected him. Sadly, Jones perhaps became a bit too safety first and with his HBO contract became more of a business man than a fighter. Floyd Mayweather Jr is the latest manifestation of that mentality.

Another contemporary of Eubank and Benn was Herol Graham. He was a smooth defensive stylist but never accomplished as much as he could have meaning that he never won a world title. Steve Collins was the hard boy from Ireland and is the only man to have beaten Chris Eubank and Nigel Benn twice. Although he was only in the spotlight for a short time, he achieved a lot and retired gracefully, one of the game’s few to do so.

America also had an impressive list of boxers serving in the ranks. James Toney was devastating in the early 1990s until he ran into Roy Jones, divorced from his manager Jackie Kallen and wasted many years by trundling through the wilderness. It was only in 2003 that he really got back mainstream recognition with his magnificent victories over Holyfield and Jirov. There were other luminaries such as Terry Norris, Julian Jackson, Mike McCallum, Michael Nunn, Reggie Johnson, Iran Barkley and Bernard Hopkins. It is a shame that there were the tragedies of McClellan and Watson and the disappearance of Toney and easy road forged by Jones. These events tarnished a remarkably competent era of light middleweight, middleweight and super middleweight boxing.

The heavyweights suffered a similar dilemma as it was exceptionally deep but did not deliver to the level it should of. By 1990 Mike Tyson had lost his title and in 1992 went to jail and the rest is we say is history. Riddick Bowe was another heavyweight A-Lister that went into melt down. The pinnacle of his career was beating Evander Holyfield in 1992 to become the undisputed heavyweight champion and the trilogy thereafter. But he completely shredded his credibility by refusing to fight Lewis in 1993 and dumping his belt. We therefore have one of the missing pages in the heavyweight division’s rich history: A fight which would have pitted the finest 6’ 5’’ heavyweights of their generation against one another. Lewis and Bowe were very versatile boxers who could do anything. Lewis went onto accomplish all he could while Bowe angered the usually calm Eddie Futch. Bowe’s personal problems then intervened in his career and he had a farcical rivalry with Andrew Golota. The first fight produced the most ridiculous and riveting riot in boxing history at Madison Square Garden where supporters of each boxer entered the ring for fisticuffs. Lou Duva had medical problems at ringside and it was of course live on television. Jim Lampley provided expert commentary on the unfolding drama but suddenly realised that he had left his daughter somewhere in the melee and continued broadcasting despite the fact he announced it on air.

It only got better when Mike Tyson and Evander Holyfield had their rivalry which shattered PPV records. Tyson’s second life as a top heavyweight with Don King at the helm was derailed in a one sided beating from Holyfield. There had to be a rematch and one of the most infamous moments in all of sport occurred when Tyson bit Holyfield’s ear off. You could not have scripted or fixed what was happening. Any anarchist was salivating and those who wanted to ban boxing would probably have regarded Tyson as the Messiah. He was becoming impossible to defend. It finally took Lewis to restore a degree of soberness to the embarrassingly drunk man that was the heavyweight division at the time.

David Tua and Ike Ibeabuchi came together in 1997 to produce a classic. Ibeabuchi had the potential to accomplish magnificent accolades and be mentioned in the same breath as African legends like Azumah Nelson and Dick Tiger. Alas, it was never to be and Ibeabuchi has all the time to think about it in his prison cell.

Therefore the heavyweight division of the 1990s which had Tyson, Bowe, Lewis, Holyfield, Golota, Tua, Ibeabuchi, Mercer, Ruddock, Moorer, Foreman and Morrison was a confusing place. All these men could be damn good when it suited them but for some reason boxing fans were and were not spoilt. We witnessed an abundance of talent but ultimately many of the decade’s most significant pugilists lacked consistency and self-destructed. Mike Tyson was the tragic apotheosis of boxing’s ability to hurt itself more than anyone else.

Article posted on 24.07.2008

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