Will Holyfield’s Next Fight Be For A ‘World’ Title ? (What Has He Done To Deserve It ?)

14.11.06 - By Stuart Cornwell: Last week, a day before Evander Holyfield took on Fres Oquendo in a heavyweight clash at San Antonio’s Alamodrome, I commented that, “beating a fighter like Oquendo is actually a better than par claim for a title shot in today’s heavyweight climate.” .... Well, here we are less than a week later, with Holyfield the official winner over Oquendo and with rumours circulating that Holyfield and his co-promoter Murad Muhammad are targeting the respective holders of the IBF, the WBA and the WBC heavyweight titles - the three belts Holyfield once held in unison..

The nature of Holyfield’s win over Oquendo - disputed by some, and deemed lethargic and unimpressive by the majority of those who saw it - will go some way to diminish the value of what is actually a very satisfactory result. Oquendo was, on paper, a fighter of reasonable caliber, a fringe contender who had only ever lost to genuine top-10 opposition and had proved himself more than worthy in doing so. Most bookmakers had Oquendo the favourite. Many writers were expecting an easy win for Fres, a humiliating defeat for Holyfield.

Regardless of how far this win can go in redeeming Holyfield in the eyes of the negative sections of the media who regard the continuation of his career as a blight on the landscape, it has to be regarded as a step up the ladder by any objective follower of boxing. A win is a win, and sometimes wins are ugly, unimpressive and contentious, especially where heavyweights are concerned. At a time when the heavyweight division is stacked with fighters who specialise in inconsistency and inactivity, Holyfield’s win over Oquendo would persuade me to position him somewhere in the world’s top 15 or 20. While I would hesitate to say he has re-established himself as a truly world-class fighter I have no qualms in saying he sits firmly on the fringes.

So, does this mean Holyfield deserves a shot at one of the titles ? Well, not exactly. But he is certainly at least as deserving as a few of the challengers who have being given a shot at these titles in recent months and years. Last month the WBA champion Nicolay Valuev successfully defended his title against Monte Barrett. What were Barrett’s credentials for a shot at that title (aside from being signed to the right promoter) ? A 14-month layoff preceded by a lacklustre points loss to Hasim Rahman in a decidedly lethargic fight - that is all that Barrett had to justify his right to challenge. Barrett had not won a fight since February 2005, when he had TKO’d the little-known Owen Beck.

Speaking of little-known Owen Beck, he got to challenge Valuev for the WBA title before Barrett was given his chance. I suppose Beck’s slightly better activity had given him the right to leapfrog his conqueror Barrett in the race to the title shot. Beck had fought twice after losing to Barrett, and had even managed to win one of them ! He was 1-2 in his last three as he stepped into the ring with Valuev, but to be fair the win there had been his most recent fight. Compared to Barrett and Beck’s credentials, Holyfield’s run of two straight wins in a three-month period does not seem so bad. If Valuev was to fight Holyfield next you could certainly say he would be stepping up the level of opposition.

The caliber of the challengers for the WBC title has been generally somewhat better than that of Beck and Barett. However, next month the WBC champion Oleg Maskaev is due to defend the title against one Peter Okhello, apparently a Ugandan fighter based in Japan. Inexplicably this Okhello is ranked number 10 contender by the WBC. Okhello has only twice fought outside of Japan, and on both those occasions he lost. He has not beaten anyone remotely close to world class. I wish Mr.Okhello all the best in this upcoming fight and the rest of his boxing career but no way does he deserve to be ranked anywhere near the top 10 or 20. If the WBC consider this guy to have earned his top 10 ranking then I think Holyfield has a right to ask to be ranked number 9, at least !

Finally, a look at the latest (October 2006) IBF ratings reveal several unspectacular fighters with no big wins on their records. Ray Austin is currently rated as the top fighter to Wladimir Klitschko’s title. The best results on Austin’s record are draws - one with Larry Donald, who easily beat Holyfield two years ago, and one with Sultan Ibragimov, an undefeated southpaw. Calvin Brock, who lost in his challenge to Klitschko at the weekend, was rated number three, and undefeated in 29 fights. The best win on paper was perhaps where he had scraped past big Jameel McCline, a genuine contender. If Austin and Brock’s achievements warrant top 3 standing in the IBF lists then surely no one can cry corruption if Holyfield’s win over Oquendo earns him a place in the top 10.

Still, the current general line on Holyfield is that he should be barred from challenging for one of these titles at the moment. There seems to be a hysterical campaign among boxing writers and the more emotionally-fuelled boxing fans to set Holyfield at the back of the queue. Some fear for his life. Others resent his ambition, his refusal to just quit his dreams and grow old in front of the fire, in slippers and rocking chair. Personally, I would like to see Holyfield test himself against another fighter of Oquendo’s caliber before challenging for one of those titles but I am not going to say he does not deserve his shot right now. Come to think of it, I am not sure if a couple of those champions (Valuev and Maskaev) are even much better than Oquendo - and they both look bigger, slower, easier to hit.

The best of the champions is certainly the IBF champion Wladimir Klitschko (Note : I have refrained from mentioning the WBO title because it seems Holyfield does not consider it a worthy title - he never held that belt when he was ‘undisputed’ champion). If rumours are correct, and words are to be taken at face value, Murad Muhammad has already offered Klitschko $20 million to fight Holyfield in the new year. Most would view this fight as a blatant mismatch. Some gossip on the internet boxing forums has suggested this would kill boxing, and some distateful comments suggest Holyfield himself will be killed. The fact that Klitschko has faced and beaten far less capable fighters than Holyfield without any unfortunate tragedy occurring seems to have eluded the gossipers.

Another thing that has eluded the gossipers is the fact that Wladimir Klitschko is far from invincible himself. He ran out of gas and was stopped by Lamon Brewster in five rounds about two-and-a-half years ago. Brewster’s record and status going into that fight was as lowly as Holyfield’s is now - he was a massive underdog and a journeyman fringe contender who had lost to journeymen non-contenders. A year early Klitschko was stopped in two rounds by massive underdog Corrie Sanders, 37 years old, flabby and considered washed-up and semi-retired at the time. And back in late 1998, the young Klitschko ran out of gas against the tough but strictly low-level journeyman Ross Purrity, who was of course an off-the-scale underdog. Wladimir Klitschko has improved of late and I have no hesitation in calling him the best in the world. But there is no miracle cure for the vulnerability he showed in those dramatic defeats, not in the world of heavyweight boxing.

Holyfield’s chances against Oleg Maskaev, the WBC champion, would seem reasonably good to me. I would not bet against Holyfield beating him. But I suspect someone else will get there before Holyfield, possibly James Toney or Sam Peter. And the WBA champion Nicolay Valuev does not impress me much either, but with him being 7 feet tall and 325 pounds it makes it hard to predict how any fighter will deal with him. So far he is officially undefeated, but as I mentioned earlier he is so far avoiding any sort of high-risk opponent (perhaps his handlers will fancy Holyfield as a suitable soft touch ?).

I think the likelihood of Holyfield fighting for a world title in his next fight is reasonably high. As my quick study of the alphabet rankings and the challengers to those titles shows, Holyfield now has some sort of legitimate claim to press for such a fight. Of course in the business of boxing it often comes down to the contractual politics and backroom bargaining. There are certainly more than a few people who are opposed to Holyfield getting a title fight (or any sort of fight for that matter). But, on the other hand, I think he can still potentially draw a bigger crowd than any other active heavyweight fighter. If he does not fight for one of those titles next expect him to fight another alphabet-rated opponent in the near future. Probably in Texas.

Article posted on 15.11.2006

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