Assessing the Current State of Heavyweight Boxing

02.11.03 - by Paul Ruby: Although fight fans are notorious for never being able to agree on anything, I feel confident in saying that nearly all fans are in agreement that today’s heavyweight division is neither as talented nor as deep as the division during its hey-day in the late-60’s and early-70’s. The character of that era will be difficult to ever replicate. It possessed three legitimate all-time Top-10 fighters in Muhammad Ali, Smokin’ Joe Frazier, and Big George Foreman (when he was known more for ferocious punching attack than his lean, mean grilling machine). Ron Lyle and, even more so, Ken Norton were relegated to 2nd class citizenship in the division despite the fact that they would have been dominant, title-winning fighters in nearly any other era. The heavyweight boxing was also full of memorable figures in heavy-hitters like Earnie Shavers and tough-guys like George Chuvalo. It was certainly a great era for boxing, for boxers, and for fans.

Heavyweight boxers today lack the talent and personality of many of the men mentioned above. Still, as fans, that’s something we must accept. I think we spend too much time pining over the greatness of the past and too often miss out on the fact that, although deficient in some areas, we live in a very competitive era of heavyweight boxing. In this article, I will trace the evolution of the business side of boxing because I believe that the business aspect of the sport has proven itself as the impetus behind many of the changes and shifts we see inside the ring. I will then assess the strengths and weaknesses of the division as a whole and make some predictions for the future. My goal here is not to convince anyone that we’re living in the greatest era of heavyweight boxing because we certainly are not. My goal here is to evaluate the heavyweight division as it stands today, bring its strengths to the forefront of the discussion, and get fight fans fired up for what I’m quite sure will be an exciting and unpredictable 2004.

Part One- Evolution of the Division

I believe three main reasons exist for the changing nature of heavyweight boxing over the past 30 years--economics, advances in sports science, and the decision to move from 15-round to 12-round championship fights. In the dressing room before their first blockbuster fight in 1971, Muhammad Ali was laughing-- he couldn’t understand how he convinced a group of promoters to pay he and Joe $2.5 million apiece. Two-and-a-half million dollars! And that was before the days of Pay-Per-View. March 8, 1971 set a new standard for pay in championship boxing. It ushered in the days when top 20 fighters fought 2 or 3 times a year instead of 6. Fighters could make a healthy living fighting every six months instead of risking their health and reputation every six weeks. I don’t fault them for cashing in and making as much money as they can, because I would certainly do the same, but the end result of this is that there are fewer marketable heavyweight fights every year and naturally fewer fights that captivate the public’s interest. At the same time, fewer fights leads to incomplete knowledge of opponents and this leads to the unpredictability within the division today that I will discuss shortly.

Advances in sports science have also impacted heavyweight boxing. The men are bigger and stronger than ever. George Foreman was thought to be a very big heavyweight in his prime and never entered the ring heavier than 229. A prime Joe Frazier was around 205 and still held enormous power in his left hand. Today, a big heavyweight weighs over 260 pounds. Lennox Lewis and the Klitschko’s can be in great shape and weigh 250 pounds or more. I recall seeing Lennox Lewis during his fight Mike Tyson and thinking to myself, ‘Wow. I had no idea a human being could be that enormous and still be properly proportioned and in great shape.’ Of course, it is possible, and I think that advances in knowledge about diet and supplements have impacted the world of boxing tremendously and their most obvious impact can be seen in the size of today’s heavyweights.

I believe that the decision to go from 15-round championship fights to 12-round fights has also increased the size of heavyweights at the detriment of their conditioning. Through the mid-80’s, a fighter knew that, if he couldn’t KO an opponent, he would have to take a beating for a full 15 rounds to leave the ring with a championship belt. Fifteen-rounders demand a significantly better conditioned athlete than a 12-round match, especially among larger boxers. Fighters today have no need to go the extra mile (literally) when training for a championship fight and, thus, do not show up in the same cardiovascular condition that Ali, Frazier, or Marciano would. I think conditioning, not size, is the most significant difference between great heavyweights of the past and top-tier fighters of today.

Overall, fighters today are bigger and stronger than they were 30 years ago, but they aren’t in the same type of physical condition. They also fight less regularly. Those are the realities of today’s heavyweight division and, as fans, we have two options- cry about it, or look for the positives and accentuate them. Let’s do the latter…

Part 2- The Heavyweight Division as It Stands Today

Can you remember a less predictable time for any division in boxing? I actually think that this is an important by-product of guys fighting fewer times each year--we don’t really know everything about a fighter until pretty late in his career. In the past couple years, very few would have forecast Hasim Rahman knocking out Lennox Lewis, a southpaw South-African journeyman knocking out Wladimir Klitschko, or a guy moving up from super middleweight to become only the second man ever to stop Evander Holyfield. No heavyweight has the combination of dominant skills, an iron chin, and the supreme motivation to keep them atop the division for years at a time. Every heavyweight has at least one weakness that can be exploited. That makes the match-ups very exciting and increases the importance of fighters and trainers formulating game-plans and sticking with them. Watching a young Muhammad Ali dance around his opponents or Joe Frazier cut off the ring and stalk his prey were great experiences, but you could almost always foresee the end result. Today, on the other hand, you can see wide ranges of opinions easily by glancing at this site’s message board. Before Holyfield-Toney, the debate was between whether or not Toney could handle Evander’s power as a natural heavyweight. Fans argued passionately and cogently on both sides of the issue. Right now, fans are contrasting the quick hand-speed of Kirk Johnson with the clubbing, plodding style of Vitali Klitschko and predicting their December 6 fight.

Earlier, I stated that fans and opponents do not know as much about fighters because they fight with less frequency than in the past, and I think that’s a fair assessment. I believe this makes the up-and-coming generation of fighters more interesting and it forces fans to dissect their performances much more carefully. I remember being profoundly depressed after the second time I watched Baby Joe Mesi steamroll DaVarryl Williamson. I was obviously impressed by the volume and precision of his punches, but I wanted a couple more rounds (although certainly Williamson was not in a position to give them to us). I recall being excited about Dominick Guinn’s victory over the tough Nigerian Duncan Dokiwari. Guinn took a beating for four rounds. He then began exhibiting the heart and brain of a champion and began out-thinking Dokiwari who, concurrently, was a little too large to sustain his work-rate and early precision. Guinn dominated the rest of the fight in my opinion, and I thought he easily won the last six rounds. The point is this-- excitement is created by the unknown. That’s why, to this day, Mike Tyson (his outside antics aside) is still the biggest draw in boxing. He’s the unknown. Fans don’t know whether he’s going to tear his opponent apart, or bite his ear off. I equate Mike Tyson’s popularity to what I call ‘the NASCAR principle.’ You know something bad is going to happen and you’re not sure what it is, but you’re 100% positive you want to be there when it does.

Two other wars within the heavyweight division create intriguing match-ups with exciting consequences. They are the clashes between the old and the young and the battles between the smaller, slicker, more skilled fighters and the bigger hitters with more power-packed punches. We don’t know what the new generation in Mesi, Guinn, Purlette, etc. has to offer; at the same time, we don’t know how much the older generation in Lewis and Tyson has left in the tank. We’ve seen two fighters who started their careers at middleweight in Roy Jones, Jr. and James Toney step up to heavyweight and utilize superior skills and defense to knock off a pair of former champions. We’ve seen Chris Byrd, despite a monumental size disadvantage, win and defend the IBF belt through slick defense and fearlessness- who else has fought both Klitschko’s and David Tua?

The old adage says ‘styles make fights,’ and this proves itself true time and time again. Heavyweight boxing may not possess the depth and talent that it once did, but it is as competitive as ever. The heavyweight division today is like a Baskin-Robbins- whatever your taste, you can find something that suits it. There are huge hulking fighters, hard-hitters, slick boxers, unproven up-and-comers, wise veterans, and every other type of fighter you could fathom. Despite its shortcomings, boxing’s heavyweight division offers countless intriguing match-ups. As fans, we should accentuate the division’s strengths- it is very competitive and unpredictable. In other words, we should follow the immortal words of the Facts of Life- theme song: “You take the good, you take the bad, and there you have…The facts of life.”

Article posted on 02.11.2003

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