Boxing

Is The European Heavyweight Era Here to Stay?

05.07.06 - By Ryan Songalia: April 22 was a cold night in Germany for Byrd, and an even colder night for the American heavyweight tradition. On that night, Wladimir Klitschko beat the championship out of IBF titlist Chris Byrd, leaving the Michigan-based fighter a bloody, defeated mess. Not only did Wladimir Klitschko acquire a title belt, but for the first time, the European fighters suggested a prolonged stake in the heavyweight division. Is the heavyweight landscape simply going through a phase, or is this an omen of things to come?

Since English heavyweight Lennox Lewis unified the title against Evander Holyfield in 1999, the upper echelon of the division has primarily been occupied by European fighters. After controlling the heavyweights until 2003, most pundits felt that Vitali Klitschko, of Ukrainian decent, was the most qualified pugilist to assume the ranking as itís top fighter. Following his retirement, the only eye-catching title belt transaction has been his younger brother Wladimirís destruction of Chris Byrd.

In the last seven months, three title belts have switched hands, all into the possession of Eastern Europeans. The first incident came in December of 2005, when Nicolay Valuev of St. Petersburg, Russia took the WBA title from John Ruiz via majority decision. Then came Sergei Lyakhovich's come from behind upset of Lamon Brewster for the WBO strap in early April. Then late in April, Wladimir Klitschko of Kiev, Ukraine manhandled the much smaller Chris Byrd and stopped him in seven one-sided rounds. For the first time in the history of the division, three-quarters of the heavyweight title belts are in the possession of European fighters.

Wladimir Klitschko is the number one ranked heavyweight contender in the world, with the most impressive resume of recent occurrences. Since his knockout loss to American Lamon Brewster in 2004, he has run off a series of impressive victories, including wins over Byrd and highly regarded Nigerian Samuel Peter.

The WBAís title claimant is Nicolay Valuev, a 7'0, 340 pound giant from Russia. Following Valuevís title gaining win over Ruiz last year, Valuev has defended his title once, disposing of the undeserving Owen Beck. Valuev is currently under the promotional umbrella of Don King, almost assuring himself the opportunity to retain his title by dispatching questionable opposition. While Valuev might be rudimentarily skilled, his Ruiz-like ability to blunt his opponentís effectiveness and promotional ties may make him a difficult titlist to unseat.

Sergei Lyakhovich of Belarus is the youngest titlist in the division. Lyakhovich made his statement to the division in surprising fashion, battering Lamon Brewster en route to a close decision victory earlier this year. On Lyakhovichís plate is a title defense with the mediocre Kevin McBride, followed by a rematch with Brewster. Should he repeat his winning ways against Brewster, Lyakhovich could find himself in a prominent position in the division, however diminished itís state.

The lone American heavyweight titlist is the enigmatic Hasim Rahman. Former heavyweight champion Rahman was awarded the WBC belt when Vitali Klitschko suddenly retired, relinquishing the title into the grips of Rahman. However, Rahmanís high ranking in the division may be a case of trading old news, as Rahman has not looked impressive over credible opposition since he won the heavyweight championship against Lennox Lewis in 2001. His next challenge will be a rematch with Kazakhstani expatriate Oleg Maskaev. In their first encounter in 1999, Hasim Rahman was ahead on all cards when he was sent through the ropes and into Jim Lampley's lap. Should Rahman lose, all four title belts will be in the possession of European fighters for the first time in the history of the sport.

The truth is that this situation is not isolated to boxing. After the fall of the Soviet Union, suppressed athletes from many different sports trickled out from the iron curtain and made a significant impact on several sports. Probably the most affected field has been basketball. The NBA has seen a dramatic influx of players of Eastern European descent. Dirk Nowitzki, Peja Stojakovich, and Tony Parker have become superstars in the sport after coming to America from European countries.

The difference may be the lack of emphasis on the amateur program. Since Tyrell Biggs took home Olympic gold at the Los Angeles Games in 1984, the Super Heavyweight Gold Medal has been won every year by a European fighter. In America, boxing is no longer seen as a major sport. By the time most American quality athletes over 200 pounds are adults, they are already committed to basketball and football.

Boxingís high risk, low reward odds are not favorable when juxtaposed to the lucrative deals that other major sports are doling out with frequent regularity. Boxing is a hard work sport that is less appealing to American athletes than better compensating sports leagues like the NFL and NBA. With more 6'+ athletes being imported from European countries, sports in general has been transformed into a global entity that is more evenly distributed among itís ranks with foreign athletes.

What I believe is the primary factor in the metamorphosis of the heavyweight division has been commitment. Coming from developing countries that are still recovering from political unrest, Eastern Europeans have been highly motivated by their disadvantaged surroundings, making them more hungry for success.

To illustrate the hunger of some of these fighters, look at former cruiserweight champion and heavyweight fighter Vasiliy Jirov. As a young man in his native Kazakhstan, his trainer used to build his speed and reflexes by unleashing wild dogs into a hallway and commanding his charge to elude them. And if that wasnít extreme enough, Jirov also built up some of his attributes by dropping out of a boat in the middle of a large lake and swimming back home. You wonít see that kind of dedication in many domestic gyms.

While European fighters may be more dedicated, America possesses the better trainers. Many foreign fighters, like Lennox Lewis and Manny Pacquiao, have attained greater success when pairing up with American trainers Emmanuel Steward and Freddie Roach, respectively.

There are some highly rated heavyweight contenders that may be primed to make a move on the division.

Former 2000 Olympian Calvin Brock is the the current American hope. While he is currently developing, it remains to be seen what his prospects are in the heavyweight division.

James "Lights Out" Toney is coming off of two heavyweight title opportunities in the last two years. In 2005, he soundly beat John Ruiz to win the WBA belt, only to have the decision overturned as a result of a positive steroids test. After drawing against Rahman for the WBC title in his last effort, Toney is the mandatory challenger for the winner of the Rahman-Maskaev showdown later this year.

While the division may be heavily populated by non-Americans, letís not forget that all three of these titles have been won in the last half year. With the division being as unstable as it is, the title belts can change hands on any given night. So Iíd have to say that American heavyweights are down, but not out.

Ryan Songalia is a syndicated columnist. If you would like to reach him, his e-mail is mc_rson@yahoo.com. His Myspace address is http://www.myspace.com/asian_sensation201. Special thanks to Kadyo and Flipside.

Article posted on 06.07.2006



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