Lennox Lewis versus Vitali Klitschko, held on June 21, 2003, was the last time I recognized the winner of a bout as being boxing’s “true” heavyweight champion of the world.
How Lewis obtained that status is up for debate. For some, such status was obtained when he unified the 3 major belts of his era (those being the WBC, WBA, and IBF belts – the WBO still straddled the line of relevance at the time).
For others, Lewis’ championship status was derived from having earned his place in the lineage of this sport’s great line of heavyweight kings. Lewis defeated Shannon Briggs, who defeated George Foreman, and further preceded by Michael Moorer, Evander Holyfield, so on and so forth – a line of champions that had remained unbroken since the Floyd Patterson defeated Archie Moore to claim the championship mantle after the retirement of Rocky Marciano in 1955.
The latter is a title of status that stands above sanctioning bodies or politics. If anything, the path is simple: the champion is “the man who beat the man,” and in doing so, is cemented in the annals of boxing history.
In theory, filling the vacant spot shouldn’t be difficult. By unifying all of the major belts, there ought to be universal consensus as to who is the world’s top heavyweight. To note, once Lewis retired, boxing fans accepted the relevance of the WBO belt alongside the ones Lewis had held, and the chase began.
While many people recognized Wladamir Klitschko’s status as universal champion through his obtaining of the WBO, IBF and WBA belts, let’s not forget that our acceptance of Wlad’s status was under unique circumstances on account of the impossibility of Wlad unifying the the 4th belt against his elder brother, then WBC champion Vitali Klitschko. Vitali’s retirement did not resolve this issue as a string of mandatory defences for Wlad, alongside boxing’s (unfortunately) accepted political turmoil prevented us all from getting the universal clarity that we sought. Deontay Wilder picked up the elder Klitschko’s former title in April of 2015 and we, the fans, were essentially left with a better known and more established European champion in Klitschko, and a lesser known American Champion in Wilder who still sought a career defining fight.
Tyson Fury, hailing from Manchester, England, defeated Wladamir Klitschko in November 2015, and with that, the belts and adulation of defeating a respected champion. The narrative that followed his triumph was far from epic after his victory, as the promotion for Saturday’s fight has well noted Fury’s fall from grace which includes battling depression, obesity and substance abuse. His journey back from his life’s hellish abyss is nothing short of inspiring, as is his desire to reaffirm his place at the top of the heavyweight heap.
It wasn’t politics that stripped Fury of his belts; he did that on his own. His two comeback fights have been less than inspiring against non-descript opposition. He knows this.
However, as we count down to Saturday’s bout, Fury’s willingness to challenge Deontay Wilder and add the WBC belt to his trophy case is a feat that his “sanctioned” successor, another Brit, and current WBA, IBF and WBO champion Anthony Joshua, has demonstrated an aversion to – much to the dissatisfaction of the boxing community.
Respected veteran coach/trainer Nazeem Richardson recently stated in an interview on Fighthype.com that the winner of this bout will be entitled to hold Mike Tyson’s old moniker of being “the baddest man on the planet” by virtue of noteworthy wins on their respective resumes. A win for Wilder would allow him to boast victories against Tyson Fury and his recent, come from behind, triumph over previously undefeated Cuban amateur standout Luis Ortiz in April of this year. Fury’s victory would allow him to cement his legacy by way of having won all four major titles in the ring against Wilder and Klitschko.
For Fury to win this fight, he’ll have to be back to the same form he was when he defeated (and dominated) Klitschko three years ago. While styles make fights, I’d bet the house on that version of Fury to render Joshua’s skillset ineffective. Joshua’s still developing legacy is also highlighted by his own win against Klitschko, though Joshua’s battle with Klitschko was a life-and-death, see saw affair that, although thrilling, showed Joshua struggle against a 41 year old former champion coming off of his loss against Fury and 17 months of inactivity.
As far as the heavyweight picture goes, there is no comeback story that compares to the one Tyson Fury hopes will unfold on Saturday night. History has not been kind to past champions who retired on top and attempted to return to their former glory. However, this story isn’t that of Jim Jeffries coming off a 6 years of inactivity to return as America’s Great White Hope to challenge Jack Johnson in 1908, nor is it the story of a 36 year old Joe Louis returning from a 27 month layoff to challenge Ezzard Charles in 1950. We’re talking about a 30 year old, 6’9” giant who, in this part of his career, has shown the fortitude to overcome near insurmountable adversity, take the steps he felt necessary to return to top form, and challenge the man who many consider the most dangerous boxer on the planet.
As the odds narrowly suggest, Deontay Wilder is expected to come out victorious on Saturday night with many people already prepared to criticize him for facing a man who is merely a shadow of his passed prime. However, the fact that the odds are so close despite Fury’s inactivity signify the level of respect for his boxing acumen within the pugilistic community, provided he’s as ready as he claims to be.
On Saturday night at the Staples Center, the same site where Lennox Lewis made his final successful defence of the heavyweight crown before retiring, this writer will be rooting for Fury to bring clarity to the heavyweight division. Within the modern era of boxing where multiple titles and politics have managed to confuse the masses and push boxing to the brink of fringe status in North America, a win by Fury would not only re-establish his status as being “the man to beat,” but he would also be the reigning, undefeated WBC Heavyweight Champion of the World whose trophy case also includes the WBA, WBO, and IBF titles.
For this fan, a Tyson Fury victory will finally bring clarity to who stands on the mountain top of our sweet science.