Stop Hating Today's Heavyweights

17.11.06 - By W. Gregory Guedel: It has become almost second nature for many boxing fans to forlornly criticize the "sorry state" of the Heavyweight division in the contemporary era. Casual observers who once were familiar with Muhammad Ali and Mike Tyson now eschew the sport because they don't know (or can't properly pronounce) the name of a current title holder. Even seasoned fight reporters are quick to pass merciless judgment on boxing's Big Men these days. On ESPN's website, head boxing reporter Dan Rafael refers to the quality of present-day Heavyweights as "poor" and "terrible" and asks "Is this what the Heavyweight division has come to?"

A better question to ask: Is this really true? As a group, are today's Heavyweights truly inferior in talent, skill, or desire to those of previous generations? Those who are exposed to the media's relentless lambasting of the present state of the division could certainly be led to believe this is the case. A favorite pastime of boxing neophytes is to compare present-day fighters with those from "the good old days", which might be any time period between last year and the title reign of James Figg.

Perhaps this pastime is so popular because it is an activity that requires no verifiable facts, direct comparative circumstances, or even basic logic from its participants. Almost inevitably, such comparisons result in the contemporary Heavyweight scene being scorned as unworthy of its predecessors. Yet when one objectively analyzes the current crop of Heavyweight champions and contenders, there is scant evidence to support such a dour outlook.

In the categories that are relevant to judging the overall quality of a boxing weight class and the individual athletes within it, today's Heavyweight class is eminently competitive.

Physical Talent

Athletes tend to represent the vanguard of the physical evolution of the human race, with ever-increasing size, strength, speed, and motor capabilities. Nowhere is this progression more evident than in the modern Heavyweight division. At 6'6" and 240+ pounds, Wladimir Klitschko would have dwarfed most of the great champions of the 20 th Century. Today, he's not even the largest of the Heavyweight title holders.

The new breed of "Dreadnaught" fighters like 7'0" 320+ pound Nikolai Valuev makes it almost astonishing to recall that the legendary Rocky Marciano ruled the division standing all of 5'11" and 184 pounds. There is no question that as a whole, today's Heavyweights step into the ring with physical advantages that place them at a more advanced level than those of previous generations.

Yet beyond raw bulk, many of these fighters also embody the applied physicality necessary for boxing success. It is clear that Klitschko's muscular frame can deliver punching power sufficient to test the most hardy chin, as the slow-motion replays of his shots to the head of Calvin Brock attest. Fighters like Lamon Brewster have demonstrated the ability to absorb an enormous volume of punishment and continue to persevere, displaying fortitude in the best tradition of Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali.

Chris Byrd's agility and elusiveness rank him among the greatest defensive fighters in any weight class, yet surprisingly has earned him mostly derision from hoary boxing commentators such as HBO's Larry Merchant. Regardless of one's view of the relative merits of a given individual fighter, today's Heavyweights bring at least as many physical tools to the squared circle as their earlier counterparts, and often present a presence that would intimidate even the most stalwart competitor from days of yore.

Boxing Skill

Contrary to popular belief, many of today's top-level Heavyweights are extremely skilled fighters. Much of this has to do with the emergence of competitors from the former Soviet Union. Coaching in the USSR was very advanced, and Soviet fighters received intensive training of the highest quality. They also generally received thorough and repeated exposure to international amateur competition.

By the time a fighter from the USSR (or the subsequent independent states) reaches the professional ranks, he often has more than a hundred amateur bouts against top-flight fighters from around the world. The experience and skills development imparted by an extensive amateur pedigree has contributed greatly to the professional success of current Heavyweights like Klitschko and Sergei Liakhovich.

This background has drawn consistent recognition and praise from world-class pro trainers such as Emmanuel Steward to the point that Steward has signed on as trainer to bring such fighters as Klitschko to the next level. Although the Soviet state is now only a memory, the athletic training system it fostered is still active in Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Kazakhstan, and elsewhere, and these countries continue to replicate its success in creating skilled competitors.

For some, the fact that former Light Heavyweights such as Roy Jones Jr. and James Toney have invaded the division and won matches or titles is indicative of a lack of skill among "true" Heavyweights. Yet no such conclusions were drawn from Light Heavyweight Michael Spinks' triumphs over Larry Holmes in the early 1980s. Nor are such conclusions justified in the contemporary era. The fact that a fighter doesn't naturally weigh 250 pounds does not diminish the accomplishment if he beats one that does nor does that victory diminish the overall quality of the division. Indeed, the competitiveness of smaller but highly skilled fighters like Jones and Toney at the Heavyweight level provides an interesting and instructive counterbalance to the "bigger is better" trend that seemed to be emerging in the division during the reign of Lennox Lewis and thereafter.

To the discerning observer, the emphasis on the development of solid boxing skills appears to be on the upswing among the Heavyweights. The performances of Wladimir Klitschko against Samuel Peter and of James Toney against Hasim Rahman and John Ruiz sent a clear message through the division that superior technique will prevail over pure power or size. It is reasonable to expect that the fighters who wish to contend seriously for a title belt will prioritize the enhancement of "old school" ring skills like slipping punches and the use of a controlling jab. That bodes well for the future skill-quotient of the division, as does the continuing influx of Eastern European fighters steeped in fundamental boxing techniques.

Entertainment Value

Although you wouldn't know it from reading the sporting press, there has been an abundance of riches for Heavyweight fight fans in recent months. The WBO title tilt between Lamon Brewster and Sergei Liakhovich in the Spring of 2006 featured so much grit, determination, and pure action that it became the consensus favorite for Ring Magazine's Fight of the Year. Oleg Maskaev's come-from-behind 12th round knockout of Hasim Rahman for the WBC title was a "life imitating art" event that seemed to channel the pulse-pounding drama of a Rocky Balboa film. Even in bouts that were not in league with "The Thrilla in Manila", there have been many compelling factors to engage the viewer. Samuel Peter's slugfest with James Toney offered a "who's going to fall first" intrigue; Klitschko's knockout of Brock posed the question "How can the human skull absorb such an impact?"; and every Nikolai Valuev fight has a visual element that must be seen to be appreciated (or believed).

It must of course be acknowledged that some fights (and some fighters) have proved to be disappointments, such as the recent bout between Shannon Briggs and the puzzlingly inactive Liakhovich. In terms of popularity, the maddening grab-and-hold style of John Ruiz ranks somewhere between Osama Bin Laden and an IRS audit in the minds of the average boxing fan, and not without reason. Yet just as every dog must have its day, every day must have its dogs, and it seems overly pessimistic to assert that the contemporary Heavyweight scene has more "dogs" than those of years past.

To be sure, there are some problems plaguing boxing's glamour division. The lack of a unified, undisputed champion or even the imminent prospect of one emerging is understandably frustrating for both the typical fan and the fighters themselves. Most people naturally yearn to know who is "The Man", and it is difficult to discern the legitimate holder of that mantle when at least four different people wear belts that say "World Champion". However, the fighters are not to blame for this condition.

If you are looking to point the finger, you can begin with some of the promoters. It is boxing's worst-kept secret that some of the promoters only sets up fights between fighters who agree to allow them to promote their future bouts, on terms that are favorable primarily to himself. If a fighter refuses to accept those terms, he doesn't get the fight, and that legal snake pit has delayed or scuppered many heavyweight clashes desired by the public.

After you've finished eviscerating the promoters, please turn your ire some of the boxing organizations and the other racketeers seated on the thrones of the various international sanctioning bodies. These organizations exist solely to collect fees for themselves, and almost pathologically refuse to recognize (or even rank) another sanctioning body's champion. It is therefore in their collective interest to keep the Heavyweight title fractured, as it allows each of them to regularly collect hefty fees to sanction bouts for their version of the "Heavyweight Championship Of the World."

It is important to be earnest and unbiased in analyzing the merits of the Heavyweight division. None of the current crop of Heavyweight fighters possess the almost magical pugilistic abilities of Muhammad Ali at his best. None exhibit the unbridled aggression of a prime Mike Tyson. There is no shame in acknowledging these facts, because those fighters were unique in their gifts and would have overshadowed any generation in boxing history. Yet the lack of a seminal personality in the current Heavyweight ranks is not cause for concern or disparagement.

Indeed, the relative parity in contemporary matches makes the fights more interesting and less predictable, and the fighters' lack of invincibility makes the outcome of each bout less certain and more intriguing. Aficionados of The Sweet Science should enjoy this competitive era in the Heavyweight division, and appreciate the fighters who now battle for its glories and your respect.

Article posted on 18.11.2006

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