Eastsideboxing’s Top 30 Heavyweights: Conclusion

05.01.04 - By Steve Trellert

7. David Tua
By mid-1997 David Tua had placed himself as the most likely to succeed amongst a new generation seeking to usurp the great generation of Evander Holyfield, Lennox Lewis, Riddick Bowe and Mike Tyson. In vanquishing John Ruiz, Darroll Wilson, David Izon and Oleg Maskaev he had placed himself at the forefront of his peers, and the fact that he fought in a style reminiscent of “Smokin” Joe Frazier and Mike Tyson did not hurt either. Then suddenly in Ike Ibeabuchi, Tua met an unknown upstart in a brilliant fight that in retrospect turned out to be a watershed point in his career. In an extremely close fight, with a tremendously high punch output, David Tua lost a decision suffering his first professional defeat. This loss ended the first phase of a career that proved highly promising and ushered in a second phase that can only be viewed as a disappointment. Outside of a controversial win over Hasim Rahman, David Tua’s career began to at first stagnate and then go into decline. Upon the Rahman win he secured a mandatory title shot. This lead to a long period of fights against non-threatening tomato cans that were selected for their innocuous nature so as not to risk the loss of the title shot. Of course these opponents did absolutely nothing in preparing David Tua for Champion Lennox Lewis who took him apart with extreme ease. This was followed by another loss against Chris Byrd that proved to be almost as one-sided. Although Tua clearly had a tremendous amount of power and durability in the ring, it became ever so obvious that against good boxers with mental focus he would struggle horribly. Currently David Tua resides within the third phase of his career that is in essence a second wind. A victory over a top-ten Fres Oquendo and a subsequent first round knockout over Michael Moorer has established that. Instead of desperately over-relying on his potent left hook he seems to be getting back on track in terms of using his overhand right and throwing more body punches. His most recent fight against Hasim Rahman though ended in a draw and recent management problems have led once again to a general feeling of stagnation. Uncertainty with management, his weight and questions about his ability to innovate as a boxer all hang over the Tuaman with little resolution in sight. What will be left when he returns is highly uncertain, at best he will re-enter the mix as a serious contender or at worst he will function as a gatekeeper to the top five before slowly fading out into pasture. His recent wins over Oquendo and Moorer are decent but not enough to get him higher.

6. Wladimir Klitschko
For years boxing pundits and prognosticators have awaited with baited breath the moment of adversity for the sports heir apparent in Wladimir Klitschko. The goal was to see how he would handle those moments of adversity where a true champion is determined, when one’s heart is in one’s trousers. They got it in a one-sided defeat to South African Corrie Sanders where Wladimir Klitschko failed horribly. So what exactly did this fiasco demonstrate? Is he a quitter? No, as he kept getting up after being knocked down repeatedly. Is he a frightened fighter under adversity? Clearly yes, as his reaction to Corrie Sanders under duress was a mix of trying to throw back and cowering at the same time. This was not a very reassuring response to a critical gut check. What was most amazing was the fact that Wladimir appeared almost infantile defensively once the initiative was taken away from him. It is remarkable that an Olympic Gold Medallist with a lengthy amateur career and forty-one professional fights completely forgot the basic art of holding the opposition in times of tribulation. Was he simply in such an astounding shock that he completely lost his mental faculties and embodied the half fetal position by instinct? If this is true then the future does not bode well for the more talented of the two Klitschko brothers. Luckily though there is room for optimism.

The previous fight Wladimir lost was to journeyman Ross Purrity where he simply exhausted himself through bad pacing trying to impress his hometown audience in Kiev, Ukraine. Soon after he demonstrated stamina and that problem never resurfaced. This in combination with his humble post (Sanders) fight interview where he assumed all responsibility and stated he “has much to learn” also bodes well. With past evidence of an ability to correct a flaw, and the right mentality moving forward, it seems a first step has been made and that more likely than not some improvement is in store. Disconcerting is the fact that Corrie Sanders exposed Wladimir’s weak ability to fight on the inside, once Sanders slipped inside his jab Wladimir was helpless. Not developing an uppercut up to this point may have cost him the fight, and his tendency to pull straight back on the defensive cost him even more. Despite the weaknesses it is clear that the vast majority of fighters have failed to get anywhere near taking the initiative away from Klitschko whilst in the heat of battle, and perhaps some of the Sanders debacle can be brushed off due to the fact that Corrie is a “styles make fights” anomaly in terms of being a southpaw with tremendous power and decent size. Nevertheless even against orthodox fighters Wladimir will once again find himself inevitably in the same situation and until that occurs skepticism will continue to reign. In terms of talent Wladimir is the crème de la crème of the Heavyweight division. He is big, strong, has good power, a potent jab and a great straight right and left hook. He is an intelligent man with considerably more natural athleticism than his brother Vitali. Where he is inferior is perhaps temperament. It is easy to see that Vitali is the more emotional of the two and hence has the fire to sustain him in situations where Wladimir is questionable. In terms of talent there is little question, in terms of heart there is. Not long ago his brother had arisen out of the very same pit after relinquishing a fight to Chris Byrd; will Wladimir do the same? Despite his loss to Sanders, Wladimir has one of the more impressive resumes among the heavyweights with a long list of victims including two top ten contenders in Jameel McCline and Chris Byrd. Since the loss to Sanders, Wladimir has come back to win two fights against Fabio Moli and Dannel Nicholson with little fanfare. It will take another top ten win and perhaps evidence of surviving a trial of fire before Wladimir gets back to where he was, hopefully that will take place this year.

5. John Ruiz
If anybody is the pariah of the Heavyweight division it is most certainly John Ruiz. His style is pure anathema to most viewers, more reminiscent of a root canal than entertainment. The ‘Quiet Man’s strategy is almost anti-boxing as it consists of jab and hold, jab and hold. Since his jab is fairly quick and he is successful at imposing himself on his opponent through a brawling/smothering style there is no reason to think he will change what has largely been very successful for him. Outside of his loss to the supremely talented Roy Jones Jr, Ruiz has not lost any of his last four fights against legitimate top ten Heavyweights. Nobody gave him a chance against Evander Holyfield and he won and draw the last two of their three fights (and one could argue he was robbed in the first fight). He was the underdog against Kirk Johnson and arose the victor. In his most recent fight against former Champion Hasim Rahman he stunk out the arena in terms of aesthetics but yet again won a fight most thought he would lose. This man has consistently been labeled a talentless bum and yet again and again he gets the job done despite his detractors. Though it can be difficult, one must look at John Ruiz objectively and realize he actually has more qualities than most would like to acknowledge. He is clearly durable, tough and willing to do whatever it takes to win. The speed of his jab is underrated and his right hand’s power similarly so. The latter weapon rattled Johnson and Rahman a few times and even floored Evander Holyfield. The fact of the matter, though most do not want to admit it, is that John Ruiz is very difficult to defeat and most have no idea what to do to defeat him. Of course some weaknesses do exist as seen against Roy Jones. Ruiz is a terrible fighter when he has to stalk his opponent; against Jones he was reminiscent of a bull against a matador and had little ability to block off the ring. Additionally, Roy was intelligent enough not to stay right in front of Ruiz which most do again and again to their detriment. John Ruiz seems to struggle against fighters who use their angles properly, something Holyfield and Rahman seemed too slow to do and Johnson too inept. Many will proclaim I should be guillotined for placing Ruiz this high but viewed objectively its difficult not too. Like Wladimir he has lost a recent major fight in an embarrassing manner while previously defeating two top ten fighters. Unlike Wladimir Klitschko, Ruiz jumped right back into the mix against another top ten fighter in Hasim Rahman and garnered a victory, for that some degree of respect must be given despite his terribly boring and unpleasant style. As usual emotion wants this man out of the top ten altogether, but objectively he is getting the job done and that, however distasteful, is the bottom line. Some may argue how could John Ruiz be ahead of David Tua who defeated him in 19 seconds, simple, that was an eon ago and has little relevance at this point in time.

4. Roy Jones Jr.
Some may claim that Roy Jones Jr’s fight against John Ruiz was a simple one way excursion into the Heavyweight division against a fighter that was ‘made to order’ and they are probably right. Nevertheless, Roy must be given credit for doing what no other Heavyweight has been able to do to this version of John Ruiz, defeat him. Not only have they been unable to defeat him, but also they have been put to further shame by witnessing Roy do it so very easily. It was quite simply a walk in the park. One could argue that RJJ does not deserve to be this high in the rankings, as he has no Heavyweight pedigree beyond this fight. This is true, but he did defeat a fighter who was arguably in the top five at the time and one could similarly claim that James Toney, and even Corrie Sanders, have little pedigree at this level as well. Outside of Evander Holyfield, Toney has fought a few tomato cans and that amounts to little here. Similarly if one were to really look at Corrie Sanders record, outside of his win over Wladimir Klitschko what does he have? Very little outside of wins over journeymen and a loss to Hasim Rahman. In terms of depth Jones, Toney and even Corrie Sanders deserve to be lower, but in terms of quality of the recently vanquished RJJ deserves to be amongst the top five Heavyweights in the world even if it is a brief excursion. Clearly in terms of talent RJJ is one of the best of all time even if one can argue successfully that his career has been one of general caution and reluctance where opponents are concerned. From here Jones has indicated its either a fight with Mike Tyson or retirement. A win over Mike Tyson at this point would prove little sans the fact that one of the most talented fighters in boxing history has always seemed to be more a businessman than boxer, and more interested in lira than legacy.

3. Corrie Sanders
Corrie Sanders victory over Wladimir Klitschko was the shock of the year in the Heavyweight division last year. But when one looks closer at the natural attributes at hand that shock diminishes somewhat and is partially replaced by a sense of wasted potential. Corrie Sanders is a rarity in that he is a tall Heavyweight southpaw with a tremendous amount of power in his straight left hand. The potency was first demonstrated against a highly durable slugger in Al “Ice” Cole who up to then nobody could knockout. The fact that Corrie blew him out in one round definitely garnered some attention where power is concerned. This was followed by an extremely entertaining fight between himself and the soon to be Heavyweight Champion Hasim Rahman. Although Sanders lost that fight one could not have helped to have been impressed by his performance in the early rounds where he seemed to be doing a number on the Rock with crisp combination punching and even knocking him down before losing the fight largely based on poor stamina. Although most recognized Corrie had a punchers chance against Wladimir Klitschko, many discounted it due to excessive age and inactivity. The end result was a shock indeed for the heir apparent. Since then Wladimir has fought twice while Corrie once again has lulled into a position of inactivity. Much of the blame for this can be attributed to political problems with the WBO etc but there is also the lingering sense that Corrie really has never had his heart focussed on boxing as he has such varied interests outside of the sport This in combination with an advanced age (he is in his late 30’s) makes him once again into an unknown quantity at this point in time. Whether he will even fight again, never mind have a rematch with Wladimir Klitschko, is in question and that is somewhat a shame considering the fact that his fights are almost always very entertaining. This of course is a lingering question along with another more interesting one, what would Corrie Sanders have accomplished if boxing was his main focus and not viewed almost as a part time job? We will never know. Even if Sanders does come back, his age, focus and stamina will always be at question even if his punching power will not be. Corrie Sanders ranking is based on a one-sided victory over the clearly 2nd best Heavyweight in the World at the time in Wladimir Klitschko. One could quite rightly argue that he should be penalized and placed lower due to inactivity but that time is not quite yet. Hopefully he will be in the ring again in early 2004.

2. Vitali Klitschko
There is little doubt right now that the hottest fighter in the Heavyweight division is Vitali Klitschko. His performance in a loss to Lennox Lewis garnered him much in the way of respect for heart and determination. Among all the judges scorecards at the time of the stoppage Vitali was winning the fight four rounds to two and many to this day feel he was cheated and would have won that fight if it was allowed to continue. This appearance along with a recent second round knockout over top ten contender Kirk Johnson has brought Vitali to the forefront in inheriting the mantle from the currently inactive Champion Lennox Lewis. This is almost unbelievable within the context of a year ago where Vitali was still being heavily derided due to quitting on his stool against Chris Byrd in a fight he was clearly winning. Although the derision has been converted to respect after a display of courage there remains something in the way of puzzlement. When one watches Vitali in the ring he seems to have many weaknesses. He is highly robotic in movement; he pulls his head straight back in defense and keeps his hands very low. Nevertheless while the signals say he is vulnerable nobody has been able to exploit it. There are two basic explanations for this, one is his height that makes it very difficult for shorter fighters to even get anywhere near in range to do any damage, and even when fighters do Vitali has demonstrated a strong chin. The second reason is of course the tremendous amount of power Vitali has. Although Larry Donald and Vaughn Bean are by no means world-beaters; they are both very awkward to defeat and nearly impossible to knockout and Vitali succeeded in doing both with little trouble. Perhaps Vitali’s best attribute, though more difficult to spot, is the fact that he is very conscious of the distance between himself and his opponent. He knows where to be to enable him to gain maximum leverage on his punches. Vitali’s rating is based on a large assortment of ‘B’ level Heavyweight victims and his recent domination of Kirk Johnson. Those below him either have less depth or have had recent serious setbacks. Choosing between Vitali and Chris Byrd was difficult but it came down to certain key factors that cannot be overlooked. Despite the fact that Vitali Klitschko was winning the fight when he quit, he still quit and so conceded defeat to Chris Byrd. Additionally, Chris Byrd has defeated 3 top ten Heavyweights (including Vitali) to Vitali’s one in Kirk Johnson. Finally, even if one discount's Byrd’s win over Fres Oquendo, Vitali nonetheless lost his fight to Lennox Lewis despite a brave performance. Fundamentally Lennox inflicted enough damage on his opponent to justify the referee stopping the fight in Lewis’ favor. When one takes all of these factors into account one must give the nod to Chris Byrd despite his poor performance against Fres Oquendo.

1.Chris Byrd
Despite Vitali’s recent rise the number one challenger to Lennox Lewis remains the defensive wizard Chris Byrd. His relatively one-sided and recent victories over Mo Harris, Evander Holyfield and David Tua impressed many and demonstrated that the best defensive fighter in the division is once again also a potent counterattacker and ring technician. In his most recent fight against Fres Oquendo though he struggled horribly and was completely baffled by Oquendo’s unorthodox style. Oquendo’s unpredictability forced Byrd, who is naturally a counterpuncher; into the aggressor role and in that he was uncomfortable and relatively ineffective. Although Byrd won the decision it is hard to deny the fact that his stock has gone down in the eyes of many and when one considers his previous victories he may in fact be somewhat overrated. Despite the win over Vitali Klitschko; Byrd struggled quite badly against both Klitschko brothers due to their size and was lucky to come away with an even record against them. Since they could essentially keep him on the outside with their longer jabs Byrd was forced to go on the offensive and generally struggled doing so. When one looks at his best victories over Evander Holyfield and David Tua both were against fighters relatively one dimensional and relatively slow. Is Chris Byrd therefore overrated or is this a misconstrued observation? Whatever the answer Chris Byrd is now residing in a “show me” situation where he has to prove the Fres Oquendo performance was just an anomaly. His next fight is tentatively scheduled for March and his opponent has been hinted to be Monte Barrett, which really should not be much of a threat to this highly skilled technician. Nevertheless what happens if Monte just stands in front of him and does not initiate in a similar manner to Fres Oquendo? Will Byrd be effective taking the fight to Monte once again in an aggressor role generally not suitable to his style? All of these are interesting questions at hand hopefully answered in 2004. If one were to consider Chris Byrd’s intelligence, one would have to assume the answers would most certainly be in his favor. Despite some doubts one must give kudos to a fighter who will fight anyone, anywhere, at a physical disadvantage in terms of height and power without hesitation. He is a credit to the sport.

C. Lennox Lewis
There is little doubt that we still reside in the Lennox Lewis Heavyweight era. Whether he fights again or not he must be considered one of the top two Heavyweights of his generation along with Evander Holyfield. He has defeated every man he has ever faced and despite two egregious defeats has produced top quality results within the context of longevity. That is the good news, the bad news is that Lennox is currently holding the Heavyweight division hostage to his own ego so that he can continue to receive the accolades associated with being Heavyweight Champion of the World without actually defending that title. One fight in 19 months is more reminiscent of selfishness than a “Champion”. Nevertheless what exactly does Lennox Lewis have left in the tank? Hard to say, some think the Lennox that fought Vitali Klitschko looked like he aged overnight while others suggest he was off his game and chose the wrong strategy. The most likely answer is that it is a little bit of both. Of the two though it appears that the latter has more validity. Lennox Lewis fought Vitali as if all he had to do was land a big punch and Vitali would either collapse like his brother Wladimir against Corrie Sanders or quit. The gameplan was too simplistic in its assumptions and was somewhat condescending to his opponent. Lennox Lewis has always fought according to the perceived danger of his opponent, against Zeljko Mavrovic and in his first fights with Oliver McCall and Hasim Rahman he took his opponents lightly and that seems to be the case again here with Vitali Klitschko. Will a better-prepared Lennox Lewis therefore easily dispose of Vitali Klitschko in a rematch? Probably not as Vitali’s equally long jab and awkward style may make boxing Vitali a difficult proposition as well. A rematch would be highly anticipated but then probably any fight involving Lennox Lewis would be at this point in time. Most are hoping that the torch is passed via a fight rather than via retirement and this is understandable. Equally understandable is if Lennox Lewis chooses to retire rather than fight due to the risks associated with continuing to fight at an advanced age. With all this uncertainty at least one thing is certain, the Lennox Lewis reign is in its twilight and the advent of a new era is upon us. Will a fighter amongst those listed here arise to dominate the landscape or will the next era be a mixed bag of mediocrity. At this point it is difficult to say but either way 2004 should see the end of a reign by a generation that has dominated the Heavyweight landscape since Mike Tyson arose in the mid-1980’s.

Article posted on 05.01.2004

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