Muhammad Ali’s skills were fading yet he was still THE man, the heavyweight champion of the world. “Ali was the champ, the leader of the pack, and we we’re all trying to catch up to Ali,” heavyweight contender Ron Lyle told this writer a year before his passing. This was the heavyweight division in the summer of 1976 – back when the heavyweight division really was a division crammed full of good, great and super-great fighters.
Have a look at the Top-10 in the summer of ’76, according to Ring Magazine:
Champ – Muhammad Ali
1: George Foreman
2: Ken Norton
3: Jimmy Young
4: Duane Bobick
5: Ron Lyle
6: Larry Holmes
7: Howard Smith
8: Johnny Boudreaux
9: Stan Ward
10: Joe Bugner
Bobick, Boudreaux (Whatever happened to that guy? A future story, perhaps) and Ward aside, each of these fighters would have had a superb shot at ruling the heavyweight division if they were around today. In fact, Ali, Holmes, Norton, Lyle, Young, Bugner and Foreman would likely have been dominant champions had they been plying their trade today.
Not wishing to be a pessimist, but today’s Top-10 is, by comparison, well, poor. In fact, it’s tough to come up with ten heavyweights who are deserving of being ranked as the best in the world at the weight today. Sure, we have good and talented fighters in Tyson Fury and Anthony Joshua, and we have a murderous puncher who just might have been able to shake things up had he been around in the 1970s, in Deontay Wilder. But that’s about it. Maybe Oleksandr Usyk, at around the 220 pound mark, would have been competitive back in the glory decade, the Ukrainian not dwarfed by monster-heavies the way he is today.
But is there really any fight fan out there who believes today’s Top-10 big men of the sport deserve to be rated alongside the Top-10 of 45 years ago? I certainly hope not. Ali, even the 1976 version, would have beaten the best around today. Foreman? The 1976 version – the man who showed so much heart and raw power in the epic battle he engaged in with Lyle, and who destroyed an admittedly faded Joe Frazier in their pretty pointless return fight – would have taken apart any 2021 heavyweight you care to mention. Yes, he really would have. Jimmy Young, with his quite unique bag of tricks, would likely have given Fury, AJ and Wilder absolute fits.
Holmes was an up-and-comer back in the summer of 1976, but we all know what a great fighter Holmes became. He too would have been far too much for today’s best. So what has happened to the heavyweight division? It’s a pretty long-established belief that the big athletes that would have been toiling away inside a gym had they been young and hungry back in the 1970s, this in an effort to become the next champ, are now earning millions on the football field, or on the basketball court.
So can this change? Will the lure of the ring once again prove more enticing than the lure of the far less painful and demanding field or court? We’d better hope so. Otherwise, those glory days, those years and years that consistently made up a talent-rich heavyweight division – a time when fights between the top contenders made for unmissable action, let alone world championship fights – will be a memory and nothing but a quite depressing one.
I don’t know about you, but these days I find myself watching old fighters and old fights from yesteryear far more frequently than I watch the current fighters and current fights. There’s got to be something wrong, right?