Will the Real Heavyweight Champion Please Stand Up?

01.06.05 - By Kevin Kincade: When I originally approached ESB about this article, I had a rough idea of what I wanted to say; but wasn’t really sure of the angle to take. I’ve always had a particular fondness for the heavyweight division because I grew up watching Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier, George Foreman, and Larry Holmes. People can talk pound-for-pound all they want; but the fact of the matter is Rocky Marciano would have squashed Sugar Ray Robinson like a bug in less time that it would have taken to go through the pre-fight introductions. Painfully obvious? Of course it is.

The underlying truth is this, whether the big boys of boxing are too lethargic for you or not, the man who carries the title of the Heavyweight Champion of the World is “the baddest man on the planet”; nobody can whup him. Presently, no man can make that claim or is unwilling to prove it, which frustrates me to no end. So, I decided to offer a little heavyweight history 101 for your approval and hopefully your endorsement for the solution to the problem.

A long time ago a young Bostonian said, “I CAN LICK ANY SON-OF-A-B*TCH IN THE HOUSE!” That young man was the immortal John L. Sullivan, World Heavyweight Champion, 1882-1892. The quote has become recognized more as myth or anecdote than attitude over the years. When the Great John L. first uttered those words, he meant them. He truthfully and wholeheartedly felt there was no man alive who could defeat him in the ring. Can Vitali Klitschko, Lamon Brewster, Chris Byrd, and John Ruiz say the same thing? Can they truthfully utter the same quote in all confidence? All of them, all four men claim to be the heavyweight champion of the world. In essence, they are “The Boston Strong Boy’s” fistic descendents; they should be able to say it and be willing to back it up.

Skipping ahead a few years from John L, in 1904, something happened that left the boxing-world champ-less: World Heavyweight Champion, James J. Jeffries, retired undefeated. As was the custom of the time, Jeffries chose two fighters he felt were most worthy to succeed him, a smallish Kentucky fighter named Marvin Hart, and the former Light-Heavyweight Champion, Jack Root. The “Boiler Maker” even refereed the bout in 1905 that saw Hart win by a 12th round knock-out and all was right with the world again, until a “colored” by the name of Jack Johnson stopped Hart’s successor in Australia three years later; but that’s another story.

The infamous color-bar aside, allowing a retiring champion to choose his successor is far too biased in nature, so, in 1921 the sport’s first sanctioning body was born. The NBA (National Boxing Association) sanctioned it’s first bout when Heavyweight Champion, Jack Dempsey defended against Georges Carpentier. Now, here’s where it gets interesting. In July of 1928, reigning champion, Gene Tunney, relinquished his title when he announced his retirement. Two months later Jack Sharkey beat Tommy Loughran for NBA recognition as World Champion; but didn’t get it from anybody else. Of course, when he fought and fouled Max Schmeling in 1930, the “Black Uhlan” emerged with the NBA title and universal recognition as champion. So, this means one of two things: either Jack Sharkey, not Floyd Patterson, was the first man to regain the Heavyweight Title when he beat Schmeling in a rematch in 1932, or we, the boxing fans, have always decided who the champ was and the sanctioning bodies merely act as guideposts. Not wanting to cause the Patterson family any grief, let’s just say the second conclusion is the right one.

Going on the presumption that the NBA (WBA) title Sharkey won in 1928 was worthless until he took on universally recognized #1 contender Max Schmeling, we must conclude that the only way to become the heavyweight champion of the world when there is no champion is for the two best big men in the world of boxing to “get it on”. So, who are the two best big men? When Joe Louis retired in 1949, Ezzard Charles and Jersey Joe Walcott fought for the honors; but the winner, Charles wasn’t universally recognized until he defeated Joe Louis in 1950. The same predicament faced Larry Holmes thirty years later. Though the Easton Assassin had beaten the man, Ken Norton, whom the WBC recognized as champ, it wasn’t until he pounded a helpless Muhammad Ali into submission in 1980 that he was universally recognized as the real heavyweight champion. This was only fair. It followed the precedent that had been set years before with Louis and Charles and had been repeated in 1971 when Ali, who had never lost his title in the ring, squared off with Frazier for the first time. The people again ignored the sanction bodies in 1988 when Mike Tyson finally got universal recognition as World Heavyweight Champion when he steamrolled the man who had relieved Holmes of the throne, Michael Spinks, in 91 seconds. We, the fans, ultimately decide what’s truth and what’s politics.

So, here we are in 2005, the World Heavyweight Champion, Lennox Lewis has retired and left us with four heirs to the throne. Of the four, which two are the best? Let’s start with the longest reigning paper titlist, Chris Byrd, IBF Champion. Byrd won recognition by the IBF after defeating recently deposed WBA titlist, Evander Holyfield in December of 2002. At the time, Holyfield was arguable the #1 or #2 fighter in the world. He had just drew with John Ruiz in a rematch of the bout that cost him WBA recognition as champ, and defeated the recently deposed undisputed champion Hasim Rahman, so The Real Deal was near the top of the heap. Since winning the IBF belt, Byrd has defended successfully against Fres Oquendo, Andrew Golota, and Jameel McCline and is scheduled to face off against Serguei Lyakhovich on July 23rd.

Next in line is WBA titlist, John Ruiz. John is officially a two time WBA titlist, like Jack Sharkey. For some reason, in all of their wisdom, the officials of the WBA decided that Ruiz, who had just become the second man in history to lose the “heavyweight title” to a former middleweight champion, should fight former undisputed heavyweight champion Hasim Rahman for what would become the WBA championship, when Roy Jones Jr. moved back down to light-heavy. Since regaining his “title”, the Quietman has defended successfully against Fres Oquendo and Andrew Golota and unsuccessfully against another former middleweight titlist, James Toney; but that one doesn’t count. Currently, Ruiz is not scheduled to fight anyone; but whoever he ends up fighting next, I’ll bet it’s not a former middleweight champ.

Enter Vitlali Klitschko. Dr. Iron Fist was the last man to fight Lennox Lewis for the undisputed world heavyweight championship and did quite well before the big Britt’s big mitts got the better of the tender flesh around the 6’ 8” Ukrainian’s left eye. Upon Lewis’s retirement from the ring, the WBC named Vitlali Klitschko and Corrie Sanders as the #1 and #2 contenders, respectively. There are no arguments as to Klitshcko’s being named #1 contender; but Sanders as the ranking #2; that’s another story. In 2003, “The Sniper” was in relative retirement having only faced one credible opponent in his entire career, Hasim Rahman, to whom he lost in 2000 via 7th round TKO. However, the WBO apparently saw enough merit in his victories over Michael Sprott and Otis Tisdale in 2001 and 2002 to give him a shot at their champion and Vitlali’s more famous brother Wladamir. Surprise, surprise; Sanders bounced the highly touted Dr. Steel Hammer off the canvas like a basketball in round 2. While this upset victory should have bolstered Sander’s ranking, it’s shouldn’t have pushed him up to number 2. Regardless, Vitali avenged his younger brother’s loss within 8 rounds when the paunchy Sanders ran out of gas. After defeating Corrie, Vitali defended his WBC belt once more, against England’s Danny Williams, whose only claim to fame was stopping a 38 year old, over the hill, one-legged Mike Tyson in four rounds. Dr. Iron Fist stopped Danny in 8. Vitali is currently on injured reserve after back surgery.

Finally, let’s take a look at Lamon Brewster. Brewster wasn’t even a blip on boxing’s radar screen when he signed to fight Wladamir Klitshcko in April of last year; but when he dropped the exhausted Ukrainian in the 5th, the whole sport took notice. The fight with Brewster was supposed to be a formality, a step to achieve the goal of both Wladamir and Vitali holding separate versions of the heavyweight belt; but the “Relentless One” had other ideas. Since upsetting young Wlad, Lamon labored against the pedestrian Australian Kali Meehan for 12 rounds before winning a decision with a broken jaw. The moment of truth for the Indianapolis native came a few weeks ago when he toed the line with Andrew Golota. Golota had pushed both IBF Champion, Chris Byrd, and WBA Champion, John Ruiz, to the limit in two consecutive title bids; drawing with Byrd and dropping Ruiz twice. Fifty-three seconds into round 1, Andrew’s third consecutive title shot came to a sudden halt. Brewster did in less than one minute what the WBO hasn’t been able to do in 17 years; bring legitimacy to the organization.

So, of the four, who’s the best? Byrd and Ruiz both share identical opposition: Fres Oquendo and Andrew Golota. Vitali, though he has the last belt credited to have been held by Lennox Lewis, has yet to face a top ten contender during his title reign. Brewster has beaten two top contenders, W. Klitschko and Andrew Golota and defended against Golota in more impressive fashion than either Byrd or Ruiz. On top of that, despite the record books, everybody knows John Ruiz just lost to a blown up middleweight. So, who’s the best? Personally, I think the strength of defenses favor Chris Byrd and Lamon Brewster; but popular sentiment, depending on who you speak with, and Ring Magazine would launch Vitali Klitschko into the top position. My solution is simple. Klitschko’s coming off and injury and Brewster’s coming off a title defense; let them fight each other next with the winner taking on the winner of Chris Byrd and Serguei Lyakhovich and throw James Toney into the mix somewhere along the way and titles be damned! The heavyweight championship of the world revolves around these four fighters: Chris Byrd, Lamon Brewster, Vitali Klitschko, and James Toney. It’s kind of like that DC comic book series after Superman died.

The heavyweight championship is the oldest and most respected sports title in the world and it’s slowly losing it’s appeal because the fans and the fighters have forgotten what gives it its’ magic. It’s not the politics or the belt that makes the champion, it’s the man who would be king proving it by challenging any other living pugilist to a go. The honor of being the heavyweight champion is not only talking the talk; but walking the walk. The division is currently in disarray because four men claim to be the best where only one can hold that distinction. At one time, any fan could walk into any bar anywhere in the world and start talking about the champ. I’ll bet money you’d be hard pressed to go into any bar right now any where in the world, outside of the hometowns or home territories of the current titleholders and find one person who could tell you who the “baddest man on the planet” is. Unfortunately, neither of the four can echo Riddick Bowe’s famous quote, “I beat the man who beat the man who beat the man and that makes me the man,” and that’s not their fault. The question is who can answer the great John L.’s call to arms, “I CAN LICK ANY SON OF A B*TCH IN THE HOUSE!” Well gentlemen, any takers?

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Article posted on 01.06.2005

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