Heavyweight Groundhog Day

Jack DempseyBy Andrew Harrison: Heavyweight boxing is in the doldrums, dovetailing with a society in the midst of economic doom and gloom, the worst crop of big men in history many proclaim. Ever since the heavyweight champion hung them up whilst still on top, the division has toiled amid uncertainty, with nobody able to seize sole command of the division. How the public miss that guy now. Admittedly the fans took a while to warm to him due to his often scientific approach and the emphasis he placed on turning his bouts into chess matches, however he eventually earned universal acceptance when he put a whipping on one of the most vicious, aggressive and hard hitting fighters ever to hold the heavyweight championship.

From the rabble left over the hard hitting European fighter feted in Germany is probably the best of the lot but after already seeing him get his clock cleaned, doubts remain. Adding to the mess is the lumbering and carefully matched giant (also hailing from Europe) known predominately for being the largest heavyweight title holder of all time as opposed to having any discernible talent. Elsewhere we see the same list of somewhat talented but erratic contenders trying and failing miserably to fill the void........

I’m referring to heavyweight boxing circa 1930 yet it could so easily be 2008. For Gene Tunney, Jack Dempsey, Max Schmeling and Primo Carnera see Lennox Lewis, Mike Tyson, Wlad Klitschko and Nicolay Valuev. For the perennial contenders such as Jack Sharkey, Max Baer and Jimmy Braddock see John Ruiz, James Toney and Hasim Rahman.

The comparison between Tunney and Lewis is closer than first glance would lead you to believe. Both fancied themselves as intellectuals of sorts, both employed strategic approaches to their boxing and neither attained the acceptance with fans or the media that the marauding wild men they eventually vanquished to earn their props did (Dempsey and Tyson). They both retired whilst still champion which, despite being the fairytale ending so many fighters look toward, disrupted the natural order of things leaving a division in chaos. Rocky Marciano left a similar landscape in his wake when he rode off into the sunset in 1955.

The Klitschko boys have long been associated with Schmeling, in fact Vitali named his third child after the Hall Of Famer. Max remains a hero to the brood, both he and Vitali had their biggest fights against a guy named Louis/Lewis and they all three are worshipped in Germany. Weird? It gets weirder. Primo Carnera was sold to the paying public based primarily on his physical size rather than his boxing skills which were scarce to say the least. Often dwarfing his opponents by some sixty pounds and seven inches in height, his record was padded with nondescript opposition, in fact many of his fights were dogged with rumours of match fixing. Sound familiar? I could just as well have described Nicolay Valuev, although maybe I’m being a tad harsh on the man who after all has just surpassed Willie Pep? Pep was once reported to have won a round without throwing a punch. Valuev just won an entire fight...

Karl Marx once wrote that ‘history repeats itself, first as a tragedy, second as a farce’. The heavyweight division between ’28 and ‘37 was indeed tragic, one of the worst periods ever seen and judging by recent action in this moribund division we passed the farcical stage some time ago. In the days of Sharkey, Carnera and Baer the division went without an undisputed champ for 23 to today and we’re talking almost five years. With Vitali Klitschko and his brother Wladimir pounding on clueless cannon fodder such as Peter, Rahman and Thompson, James Toney scraping by the likes of Fres Oquendo and Valuev being gifted a decision over the ancient relic of Evander Holyfield, we have surely never had it so bad.

One explanation could be down to the sheer size of the three title holders. Opponents facing the Klitschko boys or Valuev seem to be struck with an inferiority complex. In an effort to match their bulk, they’re packing on so much dead weight that they render themselves immobile, bloated sitting ducks. This is perhaps the curse of the modern heavyweight; the legendary Joe Louis certainly didn’t see fit to fatten himself up like a Christmas turkey to tackle the monsters of his day such as Buddy Baer or the aforementioned Carnera. Joe turned up in shape so he could land his shots and once he did, it was goodnight Vienna.

In 1930 Ring founder Nat Fleischer wrote the following on the Max Schmeling Jack Sharkey affair:

‘…those 80,000 persons got what might be called a parody. It was a cruel travesty on a heavyweight championship engagement-Schmeling outclassed, then the winner on a foul. Schmeling was fouled. He was entitled to the verdict and the championship. That can not be disputed. But the public also was fouled, and that has happened just once too often.’

Quite what Fleischer would have made of the Valuev Holyfield debacle along with other recent heavyweight happenings is anyone’s guess.

Can history really be repeating itself? If we’re comparing today’s muddle to the heavyweight abyss post Gene Tunney, then the bad news is we’re not out of the mire just yet (that interregnum lasted the best part of nine years). Looking on the bright side however, we should be expecting a hard hitting and dominant champion to appear on the horizon, ready to clear up this dross and shine new light toward a flagging sport. If he’s half the fighter Joe Louis was then heavyweight boxing may just stand a chance after all.

Article posted on 25.12.2008

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