Heavyweight Face-off 1985 vs 2005: Which era is worse??

12.08.05 - By Barry Green: Last weekend I was at an all-to-rare British barbecue, the regularity of biting into a piece of uncooked chicken followed by the cry of “I think this needs a couple more minutes” was somewhat appealing after the week of rain we had. As many beers were quaffed and steak kebabs devoured, the conversation invariably ended up talking the usual subjects: sports and sex (men) or shopping and kids (women). As a member of the inferior sex I was naturally drawn to the former.

After getting to grips with the current English soccer scene, mainly discussing how last season’s Liverpool team is the football equivalent of Leon Spinks- meager talent but in the right place at the right time, the chat soon turned to boxing; and in particular heavyweight boxing. I agreed with the ensemble that the current scene might just be the worst in living memory, even worse than those mid-eighties doldrums.

The next day I awoke to ponder two things: 1. Does too much red meat really contribute to bowel cancer? 2. Whether today’s scene really is as bad than the best-forgotten days of Berbick, Tubbs and Page et al? 2005 vs. 1985- which is worse?

To compare and contrast I have taken the current Ring magazine ratings and compared them with the Top Ten of August 1985, taken from its sister publication KO. No longer does Larry Holmes posses the best jab in heavyweight history, Pinklon Thomas is actually looking the goods and Tim Witherspoon is an inconsistent then as Hasim Rahman is now. What is worrying is that from December 1982 to August ‘85, EIGHT of the top ten contenders are the same. The only changes were Tony Tubbs and Carl Williams for Gerry Cooney and Renaldo Snipes. In some cases this could show the quality of those fighters but in reality it merely proved the dearth of top class heavyweights around this time. Fortunately by winter of ‘88, only three
would remain- Witherspoon, Dokes and Williams.

Fair play to the ‘Spoon mind (who appeared throughout and would still be ranked in the top ten as late as 1997) for showing some longevity. So, here I have pitted each contender and ‘champion’ against one another just for a bit of fun...and perhaps a few discussions and debates of your own. Yep, I know that 1975 vs. 1995 would be much more thrilling but this is a tad more relevant and ties itself in with Chris Acosta’s fine article below. Anyway, here’s my ‘tuppence’ worth. Remember these are the fights from exactly 20 years ago- August 1985 vs. Today. I shouldn’t have to remind you that Holmes is not the same version that beat Ali, Norton and Shavers. Got that? Ok, then let battle commence...

NO. 1: Larry Holmes vs. Vitali Klitschko

I recognize these two fighters as the best of their division during their respective tenures, even though Holmes is listed as Number One in August 1985 as opposed to champion. This month, Holmes is 48-0, one away from Rocky Marciano’s legendary record. He goes into this fight after receiving a razor-thin decision against Carl ‘The Truth’ Williams. If truth be known, Holmes is ready to be taken at this point in time, his 36-year old body does not move around so well anymore, his jab lacks the spark that not only scored points but controlled entire fights long enough until he let loose with his impressive right hand. That right-hand is still powerful but when an opening arises he cannot exploit it- thus negating its importance.

What good is power if one cannot land their shots? Larry had recently encountered some trouble with really tall guys and the giant Ukrainian is even bigger still. Vitali would use his strength and underrated boxing skills to score enough points in this bout even if he does lack Holmes’ class. The judges, who don’t want Holmes to equal the Rock’s record, do not give him any of the close rounds, favoring the aggressor in a fight that generally disappoints. In a KO interview in late ‘83 Holmes was quoted as saying: “Nobody will beat me for another two years,“ as if sensing his reign was coming to an end, which, prophetically it did against Michael Spinks at the year‘s end.

The Holmes that lost to Spinks would have lost to Klitschko. Don’t believe me? Then watch the aforementioned Williams fight to see how the Easton Assassin’s skills had eroded. Klitschko is not as smooth as The Truth but is a much better heavyweight all-round and it would have been he that proved to be Larry’s ‘black cloud‘ if they had met at this stage of Holmes‘ career. Even so, the verdict is split.

Result: Klitschko (Split Decision) If this fight had taken place any time before 1985, Holmes is a comfortable winner (even the 1991/92 version of Holmes was almost improvement on this tired version). However, Larry was fading fast and was about to be taken by any decent heavyweight, as Spinks would prove the following month. Thus, ending one of the greatest reigns in heavyweight history. Afterwards a bitter Holmes would say: “Klitschko couldn‘t carry Scott Le Doux’s jockstrap.”

No. 2: Pinklon Thomas vs. Chris Byrd

Perhaps the best of the forgotten class of the 1980s, Thomas had a division-best jab around this time, as was considered a very dangerous opponent for an ageing Larry Holmes. Byrd, meanwhile, has been the recipient of some major gifts in the past year or two and appears to be running on borrowed time. This chess match would be a one strictly for connoisseurs who
enjoy the finer points of professional boxing. Thomas would initiate the action with rapid combinations and doubling up of the jab. Byrd’s main success would be in making Pinklon miss but would not attack enough to capitalize on the brief opportunities he is offered. Byrd, recovering from a flash knockdown at the midway stage would rally late but a fading Thomas hangs on to receive the nod in a surprisingly competitive contest.

Result: Thomas (Unanimous Decision) While Byrd is cute, his offence cannot match that of Thomas- Pinklon was a better boxer than a lot give him credit for. Here, the jab is key- and Thomas has the more effective weapon.

No. 3: Tony Tubbs vs. John Ruiz

This fight, labeled ‘The Bore at the Shore’ is for the undisputed Dull-But-Effective championship of the world. Tubbs’ nickname of TNT has to be boxing history’s biggest misnomer this side of feather-fisted Herol ‘Bomber’ Graham. Ruiz on the other hand fits his moniker exactly. “The Quiet Man” has been putting people to sleep for years with his awful jab, grab and wrestle style. Put your mortgage on this one going the distance. At this time Tubbs was undefeated and a lot quicker than his rotund shape suggested.

He also had recently annexed the WBA crown from the head of Greg Page. After 12-rounds, the judges require smelling salts, but when they come-to, the verdict is split. One votes for the aggression of Ruiz, the other likes TNT’s ring generalship. The third judge is yours truly. I have never liked Ruiz’ style and often find it hard to give any close round to him. Tubbs’s flashier work earns the close rounds in my book and he gets the nod- just.

Result: Tubbs (Split Decision) Tubbs was a smooth boxer when at his best, especially when robbed against Riddick Bowe in the twilight of his career. Back in 1985 he was undefeated until losing his ‘0’ later that year when fighting Tim Witherspoon, but would have kept it if he had faced Ruiz instead.

No. 4: Tim Witherspoon vs. Hasim Rahman

This battle of the right hands is possibly the toughest one to call. Both fighters had their moments and flattered to deceive on many others. Rahman could be the most overrated heavyweight out there at this moment, after all, his best win other than the Lewis upset was a TKO over Corrie Sanders five years ago. In fairness though, ‘The Rock’ would be a difficult opponent for most when he’s on song. This result would hinge on which of the fighters was up for it the most, both could be perform lackadaisically on many an occasion.

The feeling here is that Witherspoon is the more talented fighter and, having never being floored at this juncture of his career, would welcome an exchange of right-hand power. The deciding factor being that ‘Terrible’ Tim has the better chin, therefore a trade off may be beneficial. Although his right will not score a KO, it does enough damage floor Rahman twice late-on. Thus swinging the bout in the ‘Terrible’ one’s favor, enabling him to eke out a close decision.

Result: Witherspoon (Majority Decision) A very evenly matched contest with two of the fight game’s enigmas. Just how good are/were they? Nobody still really knows. Witherspoon has the better chin- that is the only real difference in winning this contest.

No. 5: Carl Williams vs. James Toney

Former middleweight king Toney is perhaps the most talented fighter on display here (following the recent demise of Larry Holmes) he has a plethora of skills and has a chance against anybody in the division. Williams’ is coming off a narrow defeat to Holmes in which he displayed fine boxing skills and a penetrating jab, but his chin was a question mark at that time- a question that would definitely be answered by Toney. Williams’ tall and rangy style gives him an early lead but as the bout progresses Toney is warming up nicely.

In the second half of the fight “Lights Out” steps into third gear and uses all his ring savvy to take control of Williams with the full repertoire of his arsenal, therefore testing and exposing The Truth’s chin. Williams is down late in the 8th but saved by the bell. Coming out for the 9th, Toney realizes his foe has not recovered in time and rains down blows on his quarry, forcing the referee’s intervention.

Result: Toney (TKO 9) Despite his advancing years, Toney could still enjoy a decent tenure as a major heavyweight player. His defense is the best in the division and can open up whenever the mood takes Williams would discover. At the post-fight press conference Toney calls out a challenge to Vitali Klitschko saying “You European fighters, y’all bums.”

No: 6: Trevor Berbick vs. Monte Barrett

Berbick was a half-decent heavy back in his day, unless he was fighting a murderous puncher that is. Whether the Canadian would enter the ring in adequate condition or not was another thing all together. Almost ALL the heavies from ‘85 had motivation problems it appeared. Berbick was nearly as inconsistent as any of his peers but had been in with many of the top boys at this stage in his career- Ali, Holmes, Tate- and it would be his experience only that gives him a slight edge down the home straight against another of boxing‘s surprise packages.

Barrett’s deserved win over the much hyped Dominic Quinn has given him an unusually high ranking but a split-verdict over a badly faded Tim Witherspoon does not bode well here and he also lacks Berbick‘s impressive body strength, which would be a prominent factor in a messy contest such as this. Although Barrett gives his all and is still punching at the final bell, it is Berbick’s that claims the decision.

Result: Berbick (Unanimous Decision) Berbick would eventually claim the WBA trinket in early ‘86 (mind you, is there anybody that didn’t win it?) but would soon lose it in spectacular fashion later that year some guy from Brooklyn.

No. 7: Greg Page vs. Lamon Brewster

Page was the ‘can’t miss kid’ that missed. Bags of natural talent, fantastic amateur discipline. Even Muhammad Ali tipped his fellow Kentuckian for great things- before he signed with Don King! Brewster is the opposite, the plucky underdog who never gives up and is finally earning some filthy lucre as reward for his perseverance. Page’s burgeoning weight, lack of effort and wasted talent virtually give this fight to Brewster, who basically just had to turn up to win. Forget his gift decision against Kali Meehan, the Brewster that survived an early hammering against Wladimir Klitschko and butchered Andrew Golota. He has come on leaps and bounds over this past year- he really is up for this.

Nicknamed ‘Relentless’, Lamon uses his moniker to good effect by turning this into a survival of the fittest- a contest Page would rarely win. It’s a sad state of affairs when natural talents throw away their god-given skills and Greg Page could write a book on the subject. A real Page turner it would be too. Sorry! I’ll get my coat.

Result: Brewster (Unanimous Decision) How can a man who lost a decision to Clifford Etienne turn his fortunes around so quickly? Brewster’s story thus far is a classic Rocky tale that boxing plucks up more often than any other sport. At his best Page would be too skilled to lose to a limited boxer like this. One problem- he was never at his best! Page is the classic example of what Don King can do to fighters if their face doesn’t fit.

No. 8: Gerrie Coetzee vs. Calvin Brock

The talking point in this proverbial crossroads fight is whether Coetzee’s ‘Bionic Hand’ will hold up or not after umpteen fractures and operations. The South African was constantly plagued with such problems to his money punch, but when it was good it possessed feared knockout power. Coetzee had some good wins on his resume: he iced Spinks (Leon) in one, held Pinky Thomas to a draw and stopped Michael Dokes to claim the WBA title in 1983. This was counterbalanced by decision losses to John Tate (fair) and Renaldo Snipes (robbed) and KO defeats to Mike Weaver and Greg Page. Brock is an unknown quantity but is coming along nicely as not only a fighter but a banker and a tap dancer (his hero is Gregory Hines.) Calvin Brock has been called a jack of all trades but can he master this one? Time will tell but here the Boxing Banker would be too wary of Coetzee’s big shots to perform any sufficient damage. However, his boxing smarts and the stealing of rounds would do enough to impress many an aficionado. The South African wins fewer rounds but the ones he does are bigger and at the finale it is honors even. After 12 eventful stanzas, one judge votes for Brock, the other scores dead level. It is again left to me and I chicken out and call it a draw. The Nevada State Commission then bans me from ever judging a bit fight again due to excessive celebrity watching: “Oooh look, there’s Tootsie and Popeye Doyle”.

Result: Majority Draw. In 1986 Coetzee would be eliminated from title contention when he was destroyed by Frank Bruno less than three minutes. Before that he decisioned James Tillis, so he still had some skills left in him. Brock is largely untested at this time (McCline is no longer a threat, in my opinion) but he has a bright future ahead of him and has shown fine boxing skills in the past. At this present moment in time the jury is still deliberating.

No. 9: Mike Dokes vs. Samuel Peter

Easily the most exciting contest featured here. The Dokes of 1985, despite his cocaine addiction, was still a live contender and would throw everything at Peter in a fight reminiscent of Dokes’ slugathon with Evander Holyfield in ‘88. Dokes, shaking off his Columbian Flu from the previous night’s party, opens the fight much like he did with Mike Weaver- by throwing bombs. A strategy that worked then and has worked many times for various fighters when faced with obscenely big hitters (Quarry against Shavers, Hagler vs. Hearns being two prime examples). Dynamite’s tactics bring him early success as the Nigerian Nightmare is shaken and stunned, partly by Dokes’ blinding speed and partly by surprise. However, as Dokes has no real killer power, Peter would gladly slug it out with him and eventually his brute strength would show through. After the initial brawl Dokes, realizing his punches can’t hurt Peter, decides to use his impressive hand speed and box his way out of trouble. At the halfway stage Dokes is narrowly ahead on all three scorecards. Sensing a long fight, Peter opens up in the seventh causing Dokes to stumble across the ring and is hit hard into the body, causing him to double over, limbs akimbo. The Nigerian then unloads a fusillade of blows that renders his opponent helpless against the ropes, despite having a dependable chin, the sheer volume of punches sends Dynamite down for a standing-eight count. When the action resumes, Peter is all over Dokes like a bad case of impetigo, eventually flooring him for the full count.

Result: Peter (KO 7) A thriller from the first bell, Dokes was in the midst of a successful comeback at the end of 1985, one which culminated in his heavyweight ‘Fight of the Decade’ match with Holyfield. Indeed, Dokes would receive a shot for the title in 1993- a 1st round loss to Riddick Bowe. But at his peak was a pretty good fighter. Peter, meanwhile would see this fight as a stepping stone to his eliminator with Wladimir Klitshcko later this year. A fight I think he can win.

No. 10: Mike Weaver vs. Wladimir Klitschko

Of all the fighters listed it’s the younger Klitschko that divides most opinions. He’s either the most underrated heavyweight in the Top 10 or the most overrated, depending on which side your bread‘s buttered. Some questions that are still in the air- How weak is his chin? Will it crack the next time it’s tickled? Hard to say, but maybe Wlad has a ‘Ken Norton’ type beard? The type that is comfortable taking major shots off great boxers (Ali, Holmes) but when facing huge-hitting heavyweights (Foreman, Shavers and even Cooney) it was usually “canvas time”. Weaver at his peak would only need to land once and the fight would most likely be over. However, this version of ‘Hercules’ had just been KO’d by Pinklon Thomas and was fighting only for paydays. Here, Klitschko would turn into the reincarnation of Joe Bugner and box very cautiously knowing that he has to avoid Weaver’s massive hooks. He would stay out of range enough to make Weaver miss consistently and the muscle-bound ex-champion would be spent by the end. His corner halting the contest while their man was on his stool between rounds suffering from exhaustion and swollen around the eyes.

Result: Klitschko (TKO 11) This fight would be Weaver-John Tate all over again...sans the 15th round. ‘Baby Brother’ would get back into contention after this win. But sooner or later, that fragile chin will again be tested- then it will be Goodnight Kiev.

Final Score: 2005: 5 wins, 1985: 4 wins, 1 even

I actually surprised myself when I realized that the Class of 2005 had the slight edge, although I admit to the cop-out on Coetzee-Brock. In the end, the determination of the current crop overcame the problems that the class of 1985 were suffering from- an ageing champion, contenders and ex-champions with drug, weight and motivation problems (especially the Don King promoted fighters). What is worrying is that many of the ’85 school probably would have beaten the present-day fighters if they were at their respective bests: Holmes was a far superior fighter to Vitali, Page was easily more talented than Brewster, maybe Coetzee would have been too seasoned for Brock, and even Mike Weaver would only have to land on Wlad’s chin once to render the Ukranian prostrate.

It could have easily been 8 to 2 in favor of the old boys as some fights were too close to score. Perhaps I have been a little kind to the ‘05 brigade, but some are not yet at their best and they unquestionably have more desire than their predecessors. Hopefully, that is what may see some of them carve a name for themselves in this division and put an end to the malaise that is damaging boxing’s premier weight class. Boxing needs the heavyweights like Laurel needs Hardy, like Mick Jagger needs Keith Richards, like the chicken that needs a couple more minutes on the barbecue. Klitschko is a decent enough heavyweight, Peter- a great banger and if James Toney can put his recent positive drugs test behind him then maybe in 20 years we’ll still be using the Class of ’85 as a barometer of poor heavyweights rather than the Class 0f 2005.

Article posted on 12.08.2005

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