Boxing


Another Step In the Journey : Holyfield Takes On Valuev For A Piece Of The Heavyweight Championship

Evander HolyfieldBy Stuart Cornwell: Continuing on an odyssey that will end only when he reigns supreme once more as undisputed king of the heavyweights, Evander Holyfield will attempt to snatch the WBA title from the giant’s den Saturday night when he takes on Nicolay Valuev in Switzerland. The gargantuan Russian, who sports a professional record 49-1-1NC, will enter the ring an overwhelming betting favourite while American Holyfield will once again enter the ring installed as a target of protest and ridicule for a large section of the sports press and various respected voices in the boxing community. At 46 years of age, and having failed in his last three attempts to acquire one of the various world titles, Holyfield has attracted a legion of critics.

Critics who reckon he should have given up trying a long time ago and should now accept that the whole project has been proven impossible. Critics who say he has no business believing he can become top dog again. Critics who say Evander Holyfield, a credit to the sport if there ever was one, is now not only tarnishing his own legacy but is damaging the image of boxing. Holyfield for his part is polite enough to listen, polite enough to answer, respectfully disagree and get on with the job at hand.
The job at hand is no small thing, coming in the shape of WBA champion Nicolay Valuev. At 7 feet tall and weighing for this fight 310 pounds (96 pounds more than Holyfield), Valuev is probably the biggest man ever to inhabit the upper reaches of the heavyweight rankings. The sheer bulk of the obstacle facing Holyfield symbolizes the magnitude of the odds he will be attempting to overcome. Some boxing writers have given him exactly “zero chance” of winning, with the betting line not expected to cast a much more favourable picture. On numbers alone, with Valuev having lost just once in 51 fights, and Holyfield having lost four of his last eight, we should expect a win for the Russian. And while Holyfield has been inactive for 14 months following a 12-round decision loss to Sultan Ibragimov for the WBO title, Valuev has fought twice, registering wins over Serguei Lyahovich and John Ruiz that rate as two of his most convincing (of any significance) to date. Yet despite the fact that Holyfield is past his prime by closer to two decades than one, doomed by popular consensus, and with a recent form book that doesn’t say many good things, I for one rate his chances as being considerably better than they proved to be against Ibragimov, assuming he enters the ring in similar shape.

Styles make fights. Styles and strategies. Sultan Ibragimov employed a near-perfect strategy to beat the 21st century version of Evander Holyfield, and I have my doubts as to whether Nicolay Valuev can duplicate that blueprint. Ibragimov, who at 6’2 and 219 pounds presented a far smaller target than the one Holyfield will have in front of him Saturday night, rarely allowed Holyfield a chance to get set and fire in with the accurate counters he’s still capable of throwing and landing. Ibragimov constantly moved in the right direction at the right speed, taking advantage of that split-second delay that wedges itself between the brain and fists of old fighters. Holyfield doesn’t react as fast as he used to. In his prime he could pour multifarious combinations of punches into every conceivable opening quicker than he knew he was doing it. Even the most cagey and awkward opponents - defensive fighters who might make him labour and look ordinary - would eventually be worn down or outworked. But now he’s in danger of being rendered almost totally ineffective against any fighter good enough to score while moving away at angles that leave very few openings. But Valuev is slow, presents a massive target, and only really plods forward behind the jab. What Valuev has going for him is obvious - his size. On the end of that massive reach is where Valuev will want Holyfield. Beating the old man to the punch and slowly grinding out a win. That is what we can expect Valuev’s fight plan to look like. Holyfield will be wanting to side-step and counter, beat the giant with skill and sharp punching, displaying accuracy and balance and keeping Valuev off-balance. Holyfield has given hints and snippets of a grand strategy, he has clearly been studying Valuev. Holyfield knows how to beat him. Whether he has the speed and the sharpness to carry out that strategy and score with enough punches to actually win is left to be seen.

Valuev needs to win to retain any credibility he’s managed to earn in a 15-year career that has been, since his breakthrough to the world rankings in recent years, something of a battle to shake off the image of a manufactured novelty fighter of the circus freak variety. Prejudice against giants runs high still in this day and age, sad as it is. Valuev is not a great heavyweight by any means, but he’s been beating some men who are considered contenders in this era, so he deserves to be recognized as legitimate. He’s ranked number 4 in The Ring magazine’s current heavyweight ratings, and that seems a fair placing.
There have been many comments made within the boxing community and media criticizing Valuev and his promoters for accepting Holyfield’s challenge. While all those hysterically negative same old whiny anti-Holyfield articles are frankly a load of rubbish and infinitely more sad and boring than anything Holyfield himself is personally responsible for, the critics do find themselves making sense on one important point : surely there must be men who are considerably more deserving of a shot at the WBA title. Well, there are surprisingly few, and perhaps fewer still who would have been prepared to take on Valuev in a fight that was made and finalized at little over 5 weeks out. The heavyweight division is a strange place at the moment. Ruslan Chagaev, the only man to own a win over Valuev, had to relinquish the title due to illness or injury, but has been re-instated as “Champion in recess” (whatever that means), resulting in the WBA now choosing to recognize two men as world’s champion. (Where that leaves the status of the winner of this match regarding post-fight obligations is yet to be seen). Alexander Povetkin, the undefeated former Olympic champion, was forced to pull out of a challenge to Wladimir Klitschko, the IBF and WBO champion, allowing Hasim Rahman to be brought in at “late notice” (actually over 6 weeks notice, more time than Holyfield and Valuev has been arranged for). Rahman these days is barely a more viable opponent than Holyfield, and far from as driven by ambition and a desire to win, but at the relatively young age of 36 and a holder of one of these alphabet titles as recently as 2006 I guess he’s not quite as obvious. The Klitschko-Rahman fight was at first greeted with a bit of protest and disbelief but nothing like the levels of contempt and derision reserved for Holyfield and Valuev, which is somewhat unfair considering Wladimir Klitschko is rated as number 1 and seriously touted as the most legitimate of the current world champions. Barely had the sweat dried (if indeed there was any) than Klitschko’s manager was telling the media the Valuev-Holyfield match-up is a “disaster” for boxing, and criticizing Valuev for fighting “weak” opponents. For those of you who witnessed Rahman’s dismal effort last weekend I need say no more.

Over at the WBC, the powers that be bent over backwards to return Vitali Klitschko straight into a title bout off an injury-induced retirement of four whole years which he repaid by handing a disappointing Samuel Peter a beating to wrest that title, thereby legitimizing his dubiously-earned title shot. Promising young fighters and seasoned perennial contenders are either AWOL or non-existent. David Haye looks set to be inactive another 6 months before taking on Vitali Klitschko in a big fight in London next summer, his convincing win over Monte Barrett deemed enough of a campaign outside of cruiserweight to warrant him a title shot. Chagaev, the “other” WBA champion, is scheduled to come back to defend whatever it is he holds against an obscure Costa Rican fighter in February, after a year-long layoff. It is in such a climate that Evander Holyfield finds himself challenging Nicolay Valuev, who, to be fair, maintains a relatively busy schedule for a contemporary heavyweight, albeit not always against the best opposition. But that’s just splitting hairs, and Valuev-Holyfield is about standard for an alphabet title “filler” defence. No one says Klitschko-Rahman and Chagaev versus The Costa Rican are in danger of damaging boxing, we just accept that’s what boxing has become - or always has been. This fight is no different.

In truth, the only fight out there right now that could begin to register any truly great significance - in terms of the best fighting the best - is Klitschko versus Klitschko, and that’s unlikely to happen. We can talk about several other fighters who are or are not more deserving than Holyfield to challenge Valuev (and ironically, many of the 11 names ahead of Holyfield in the latest WBA ratings would NOT be on most of your lists of “more deserving”. For example Kali Meehan is the WBA’s number 1 contender. The ‘BA has its own way of doing things.), but who of them was as willing, desperate and available to fight Valuev on December 20 ? Holyfield pushed for this fight, and got it.

Win, lose or draw we should expect Holyfield to continue on his quest to become undisputed champion of the world. And if he keeps going maybe his chances get better. At 46 he’s possibly every bit as good as he was at 40 and he can possibly maintain a similar level for some years to come, amazing as it seems. Fighters who were enjoying their primes when Holyfield was already attracting the same bad reviews and “retirement encouragement” he’s getting now are already past it and finished. Chris Byrd might have out pointed him six years ago, but who would you bet on now ? Or six years from now ? James Toney struggles with the same guys Holyfield struggles with now, and perhaps one or two who Holyfield wouldn’t struggle with at all, yet it was only five years ago that Toney looked commanding and impressive in giving Evander what looked like a “career-ending” beating. And how good are the next generation of heavyweights expected to be ? The age of the division’s key players increases as steadily as the quality of the new not-so-young up-and-comers seems to fall. It’s not inconceivable that Holyfield could outlast the whole division. He may even outlive the sport. Even if he doesn’t beat Valuev (and I wont be surprised either way), who’s to say Valuev and his peers wont be replaced by a steady line of progressively more beatable successors? Eventually Holyfield must rise to the top simply by virtue of the competition sinking beneath him. You can only hope I’m joking.

Article posted on 20.12.2008



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