Heavyweight Boxing: Where Is It Headed?

By John Wight: Heavyweight boxing attempts to kick into life again this weekend with current WBC champion, Vitali Klitschko, set to enter the ring to face veteran heavyweight and former WBO champion, Shannon Briggs, in Germany.

On paper at least this looks a decent matchup, with Briggs bringing the height and size to match the older and more formidable of the Klitschko brothers, not to mention genuine knockout power. The problem is that Briggs hasnít fought since last December, when he knocked out journeyman boxer, Marcus McGhee, in one round. The result was later ruled a Ďno contestí due to Briggs testing positive for an illegal substance. The question this weekend in Germany, and the single factor upon which the nature of fight will rest, is over the physical and mental condition that Briggs brings to the ring. If he comes to fight and win then we may be in for something close to an interesting evening. If not then heavyweight boxing will again find itself being traduced and dismissed as a pale imitation of what it was in days gone by.

Evidence in support of the latter proposition is provided by a lesser known and little publicized heavyweight contest taking place on Friday night. It involves former light heavyweight champion Antonio ĎThe Magic Maní Tarver, who at the age of 41 makes his heavyweight debut against Nagy Aguilera, an opponent who brings to the ring a decidedly average record of 16 wins and four losses, with two of those losses coming in his previous two fights. That the location of this fight is a casino in that Mecca of boxing otherwise known as Miami, Oklahoma, tells you something about the excitement and interest surrounding this contest.

To be sure, heavyweight boxing isnít in the best of health these days, reflected in the recent decision by HBO to cease its coverage of boxingís former elite division, citing plummeting viewing figures and lack of interest in the heavyweights in the all important US market. The sad truth is that heavyweight boxing has been in decline in terms of popularity for over a decade and more now in the States. In that time much effort has been given over to coming up with the reason why. Some put it down to the dominance of basketball and football in attracting the larger athletes to their respective sports. And with lucrative contracts on offer in advance in basketball and football for young men moving into the professional ranks straight from college, itís understandable on a certain level why this is. By contrast heavyweight boxing Ė indeed boxing in general - is a sport which offers no guarantees or financial inducements when starting out. It also explains the reason why the sportís talent pool in the States has traditionally consisted of young men with little or no other options in life outside of poverty, prison or the likelihood of an early death in the projects. Even talented boxers are finding it harder to escape such a fate nowadays, it seems.

Then thereís the nature of boxing itself, which has evolved from a mass spectator sport into something approaching a marginal sideshow as a consequence of the monopoly of pay per view. This has resulted in huge rewards going to a mere handful of fighters at the top, while the vast majority plying their craft further down the pay per view scale make do with ever dwindling financial rewards commensurate with limited exposure.

It is also no accident that the period of decline in US heavyweight boxing has coincided with the rise and extended reign of the Klitschkos. Perhaps the only point of debate here is whether their dominance reflects a symptom of the decline of the sport in the US, or is its cause. To watch the Klitschkos box is to watch the near perfect marriage of technique and size. Both brothers bring to the ring a faultless jab which, along with excellent physical conditioning and height, means they are able to remain on the outside and jab the head off their opponent for 12 rounds without being troubled in return. To the discerning and non-discerning fan alike, this has removed the excitement that was always associated with the heavyweights.

This might explain the hype surrounding the current WBA heavyweight champion in the shape of Britainís David Haye. His upcoming contest against the perennially enigmatic Audley Harrison on November 13 has generated more excitement and anticipation than it probably deserves, especially here in the UK. The fact it has suggests that Harrison still retains that unknown quantity synonymous with the underdog in the minds of the British boxing public, along with enough of a bite to trouble his more prestigious opponent. The sharp words and insults being traded by both fighters hasnít done the fightís profile any harm either.

The danger is, of course, that on the night it quickly becomes apparent that the hype surrounding the build up follows the fighters into the ring and results in a disappointingly one sided outcome in favour of the much fancied Haye.

Such an eventuality would do the sport a great deal of harm, bringing more people round to the view that David Haye expends more time on promoting himself than he does on putting it on the line as he announced he would when he first burst onto the heavyweight scene two years ago. In terms of media presence and charisma, he certainly shines, but without the performances in the ring to back it up heís now treading a fine line between credibility and ridicule. The antics of the past year in relation to fighting the Klitschkos has rebounded on him, and it is hard to see how fighting Audley Harrison can be viewed as anything other than a payday.

Perhaps it is time for David Haye to ask himself if heíd rather be a boxing promoter than a boxer, because one thing is clear: the two donít mix.

Where heavyweight boxing goes from here is hard to say with any degree of certainty. Letís just hope for the sake of the sport in general that it doesnít remain in the doldrums too much longer.

Article posted on 16.10.2010

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