The Heavyweight Division’s strength in depth


03.01.05 – By Ben Dunn: ‘Coming to America’ may not be the highpoint of Eddie Murphy’s acting career, but it does, nevertheless, provide me with my favourite boxing scene on celluloid: the barbershop discussion about heavyweight greats.

Exaggerating to extremes, a group of comic old-timers bounce around misinformation and downright nonsense to support their nostalgic ignorance for their personal favourite heavyweight champions, and as Homer Simpson would say: “It’s funny because it’s true.”

I’ve been hearing the same old misrepresented boxing history evidence ever since I read my first boxing magazine. And not only do these tired old diatribes grate my nerves, they have, on occasion, sent me into a semi-comatose state. My only saviour is that like a master hypnotist bringing his subject back to reality with the customary click of his fingers, I’m able to snap back into the real world upon hearing the ubiquitous old-timer’s finishing line: “Yep, things just ain’t what they used to be.”

But dozing through their whole tired argument doesn’t harm my ability to react; I’ve heard the these lazy, nostalgia filled clichés so many times that I’ve been known to mumble them in my sleep: ’There’s no strength in depth any more.’, and ’Where are the great fighters and fights?’

I don’t know from where these people have grabbed their ideas because there’s nothing in these negative theories; they simply aren’t true. But don’t take my word for it, study your history and you’ll find that the heavyweight division has always been in trouble. The same old problems have reared their heads over and over again, with the voices of discontent shouting out their objections for generation after generation, only pausing to alter the names in their well-thumbed scripts when a new group of fighters enters the fray. Holmes is a bum and Lewis is a joke, were all common phrases during their reigns, but now, after they’ve finished, they’re pined after by people remembering them as acting in a golden age.

It is obvious to see that the heavyweight division’s problems are circular because, just like flares in the fashion world, they keep coming back. The truth of the matter is that great fighters and with them great fights have only ever been periodic explosions during the march of mediocrity that defines heavyweight history. And yet we’ve never been able to see the present as anything but weak in comparison to a re-evaluated past.

Only recently I heard a colleague bemoaning the departure of Lennox Lewis from the Scene through retirement: “Who will fill the void?”, he whined. “Where’s the next Ali or Tyson or Lewis?”, he rather wistfully added. And all this from a guy who had backed every challenger to Lewis‘s crown to, “expose that bum of a champion.” Excuse me, but now that he has retired, he’s become a great? I thought rose-tinted spectacles were used to look into the distant past, but it appears they’ve now gone bifocal.

All this is reminiscent of Larry Holmes’s more than accomplished little stint as World Champion in the early eighties. O.K, I admit that his, ‘Marciano couldn’t hold my Jock-strap.”, was a badly thought out phrase, which didn’t help his popularity, and it contributed to the fact that throughout his impressive reign, Holmes was the recipient of an all consuming negativity from fans and press alike. But who now places Rocky over Larry on any all time list? No one who knows boxing.

That post-Ali, pre-Tyson era was viewed as a joke, an embarrassingly bad patch between their two injections of life-blood into the sport, but how can that be when it was occupied by an undeniable legend in Larry Holmes? And if you’re going to argue about the quality of match-ups between the groups of people, favouring the opponents of Ali and Tyson over those of Holmes, you’d be wrong again. Ali – Foreman, and Ali – Frazier were indisputably great, but Ali – Spinks, Ali – Wepner, Ali – Dunne, or Ali against any other number of no-hopers were all a joke; pitifully poor fights dressed up as meaningful contests. So while Ali provided his fair share of highs, he also made us sit through some of the worst mismatches-matches in the sport’s history. As to Holmes? He gave us fights with Spinks, the acorn, and Norton, while his fight with Cooney gave us an example of a genuine white hope – in a time when people were searching for one – instead of the succession of white no-hopers Ali chose to face for easy money.

And as for Tyson, who did he face exactly? Spinks? O.K, impressive name, but then who? Razor Ruddock? I don’t think so. And yet we are left with a situation which hails Tyson as a great despite not beating anyone of note, while Holmes’ legacy has been decimated because he never fought anyone of real class. Now there’s illogic for you. It is not any of these fighter’s fault that quality opposition didn‘t exist, but just the lack of depth in a division that, bar a period in the early seventies, has never been packed with talent on a continuous basis.

This damning verdict on the level of opposition, and the lack of any true depth goes right back to Joe Louis, too. His aptly named, ’Bum of the month tour’ saw him fight a succession of tomato cans, and sure, in 1936 he defended his title seven times, activity beyond all present day fighters, but had Lewis fought seven times in one year against that level of opponent, he would have had his effigies burning in the offices of every boxing publication around the world. And if you do bother to look up who Joe Louis fought that year, don’t be ashamed that you don’t recognise the names; nobody in the thirties knew who they were either, because despite what you might hear from the grizzled old boxing fan, the idea that back in the day every street had one world class heavyweight is a fallacy, there was as big a dearth of talent then as there is today.

If you pick out any time in the past the same is true. Before Ali we had the Patterson – Johanson trilogy, which was a great spectacle, but would you put those two up there with the greats, or down there with the Ruiz’s of the world? It has to be with Ruiz. And what about Walcott, Charles and Marciano?

Jersey Joe won the title at his fifth time of asking. In fact he’d failed gallantly so many times before that the general public had little to no interest in his title winning fight. And what is that if not an indicator of a lack of strength in depth at the time? To get five shots now, even with the proliferation of titles on offer, would be unimaginable; there are too many fighters out there for that to happen. I mean, how would you feel if Rahman kept getting shot after shot?

The problemis that the greats are always remembered, but the also-rans and the nearly men, are all but forgotten. So while the sixties is associated with Clay and Liston, and to a lesser extent Patterson, and hailed as a great period for Heavyweights because of them, the fighters who made up the numbers are only mentioned as those great contenders who put up a show. But take a look at the rankings and you’ll see a list which debunks this theory.

Forty years ago the Ring magazine’s top ten read:

Champ – Cassius Clay.
1 – Sonny Liston
2 – Doug Jones
3 – Zara Folley
4 – Ernie Terrel
5 – Eddie Machen
6 – Cleveland Williams
7 – Floyd Patterson
8 – Mildenberger
9 – Henry Cooper
10 – George Chuvalo

O.K, the champ and the number one contender, you got me, both greats, you can’t argue with that. The rest? Forgive me, Henry Cooper, but the rest were all solid types, who had little to no chance of becoming champion. They’d be your IBO, WBF or even WBO champions of today. Or, maybe even one of the big three, if any of the sanctioning bodies were stupid enough to strip Ali for any reason.

So I’m sorry, and you can call me ignorant if you like, but I don’t see the strength in depth there. Patterson could take the rest on a good day, but would never get the nod over Clay or Liston. Today, you could look at Tyson, or until two years ago, Holyfield as the aged ex-champs who could provide a test but have no real chance of re-claiming the crown; and if your saying that today’s top ten heavyweights aren’t comparable to this roster, then I would disagree wholeheartedly, the likes of Rahman, Tua, Ruiz, Byrd et al, while not the reincarnation of Louis, Johnson or Ezzard Charles, are world class performers who would hold their own against any former contenders, while the legacy that Vitali Klitschko will leave is undecided, but he too suffers from the same negative press that dogged Lewis and Holmes through their active careers.

What I’m saying is think before you judge. Picking out greats and championing them because they plied their trade in the past, is to miss the point completely – and I’m not interested in mythical match-ups; I don’t care if you think Holyfield would take Marciano if they had ever met in the ring – But be careful when you insult the present division, accusing it of lacking depth, talent, and fights, when these accusations are as relevant to the division at any time in the past: the heavyweight division has never, with the honourable exception of the period 1970 – 1975, had strength in depth, and today’s division is as representative of that fact as any other time in history, despite what the old-timers might tell you.