The Last Great Heavyweight Championship Fight

By Matthew Thomas Potter - The Heavyweight division is often the most lucrative weight class in boxing and its ultimate accolade - the Heavyweight Championship - is one of the most desired and prestigious in all of sports. This prestige derives from a long history that is populated by elite competitors, controversial characters and household names engaged in gargantuan battles that create legends that live long beyond the moment when the arena lights dip and the crowd heads for the exit.

The current crop of Heavyweights consists of big, strong, well drilled, title holders like the brothers Klitschko – Wladimir and Vitali.. The mammoth Ukrainians are closely followed in the rankings by a small, brash, but ultimately unproven, entertainer in David Haye and a handful of mediocre fighters who fill the listless void of no-name talent that inhabit the rest of the Top 10.

Most boxing fans today acknowledge that the balance of power in the division has shifted from the United States to Europe. The traditional African-American archetype of the Heavyweight Champion has been inverted. White Europeans with broken English accents now dominate in an era of mismatches. The Klitschko brothers, who often adopt a relatively cautious approach, are so far above any of their competitors that the division is almost entirely devoid of exciting and potentially explosive fights. So while the title belts held by Mike Tyson, Evander Holyfield, Muhammad Ali, Joe Louis and Rocky Marciano are still floating about, attaching themselves to any old Champion, we have to go all the way back to 2003 to find that last great Heavyweight contest.

When learned and knowledgeable boxing fans talk about what defines a great fight, they often establish the criteria as something like the following; a great fight should have high-level technical skills on show. It should be fought at a fast pace and it must contain enough incident and high-octane action to provide an exciting spectacle. On that basis, Lennox Lewis versus Vitali Klitschko is the last of the great Heavyweight Championship fights. Fought at the Staples Centre in Los Angeles, Lewis – the Champion – entered the ring for what would be his final fight, at a career high weight of 256lbs. The challenger, Vitali Klitschko, initially appeared an unremarkable foe. He had never held a title, never been in the ring with a household name and he’d taken the fight on what seemed like a moments notice.

What followed went down in history as one of the great contests, something that sits comfortably alongside fights like Ali versus Frazier or Tyson versus Holyfield. As the introductions were made a stupor arose in the Staples Center. The fans that packed this great arena could obviously sense something special was about to happen as their excitement reached fever pitch.

Lennox Lewis was an aged Champion, a little out of shape, with one eye firmly fixed on retirement. Vitali Klitschko was in his physical prime and this was his big chance. He wanted Lewis’s Championship. But Lewis was in no mood to capitulate. Two man-mountains with a combined weight of over 500lbs engaged each other in an exhausting bout of violent and bedraggled beauty. It was a messy affair, punctuated by clinches, holds, throwing, low-blows, rabbit-punches and wrestling manoeuvres.

As a superficial spectacle, it was nothing special. But what made this a truly great fight was the subtext bubbling beneath the surface. It was a battle of wills, the aged Champ against the hungry young contender. Neither man was willing to budge an inch or to take one backwards step. They became exhausted quickly as the sweltering heat of the lights and the pure physical excursion began getting the better of both.

Round after round ended, and Lewis slumped to his stool. Everyone wondered how much he had left - it looked like the end of his reign and Lewis seemingly needed something divine to keep his challenger at bay.

But it was no twist of fate, or lucky break that opened up a horrific cut above Klitschko’s eye. It was clean, effective punching from Lewis and it was enough to salvage the fight and escape with the victory. He had beaten his valiant opponent so badly, so bloodily, that Klitschko couldn’t continue. The crowd didn’t like it, and Klitschko openly begged for a re-match, but Lewis could retire with a clear victory against the man who would take over as arguably the best Heavyweight of the post-Lewis era.

As we survey the barren landscape of the Heavyweight scene in 2010, we can only hope to see such magnificent days again. Boxing needs a Heavyweight hero.

Article posted on 23.03.2010

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