Why the heavyweight division will continue to decline
By Bill Patrice Jones - It is no secret that the heavyweight division has currently been receiving some of the most intense criticism ever levelled at professional boxing. It is fair to place the real origin of this criticism with the retirement of universally recognised and undisputed heavyweight champion of the world Lennox Lewis and the subsequent failure to provide in his absence another seemingly worthy and dominant champion.
His vacated WBC belt fell into the hands of the respected but certainly only reasonably famous in America: Vitali Klitschko, whom Lewis had shared a titanic tussle with in his last defence. Though only one of four belt holders Klitschko was widely seen as the current heavyweight champion and his demolition of Britain’s overmatched Danny Williams in 8 rounds seemed to suggest something of a huge gap between himself and the rest of the division..
The only other rated champion was American Chris Byrd who held the IBF belt. Byrd had recorded a past win over Vitali Klitschko but it had been the result of a freak injury and few thought Byrd could realistically stand a chance in a rematch. We may have been happy to settle into a reign with Vitali, but unfortunately his injuries persisted and his career was suddenly in jeopardy as it emerged he was unable to make it safely through a training camp. His much anticipated clash with former champion Hasim Rahman was put on hold again and again, until eventually Klitschko was stripped of the title. There were probably myriad reasons for Vitali‘s retirement he may have been: Sensing little to accomplish in a division in which he was clearly the best by a long way, depressed by Lewis’s refusal to meet him in a rematch and struggling with persistent and debilitating injuries. It led our last recognised ‘champion’ into retirement. Leaving us the boxing fans with the unsavoury prospect of four largely unpopular and unheralded belt holders: Hasim Rahman, Chris Byrd, Lamon Brewster and John Ruiz. None of them was sufficiently dominant to get people particularly excited. People were getting increasingly desperate and looking in all sorts of places to find our next heavyweight idol. Samuel Peter the young Nigerian puncher was thought of commonly as heir apparent to Mike Tyson, but he was defeated by Wladimir Klitschko in his first major bout, went on to win a version of the title but was humiliated when defending it against Vitali. No Saviour found there! Chris Byrd’s reasonable success with his IBF belt led some inside the sport to think of him as a potential redeemer, but he was pummelled into submission by Wladimir Klitschko and saw his career destroyed in the process. No Saviour there either! Lamon Brewster was tough and entertaining, but lost his title to the lightly regarded Sergey Lyakhovich. Certainly no saviour there! John Ruiz meanwhile tediously led us through an uninspiring title run before being deposed controversially by the freakish giant Nikolai Valuev. Yet we needed no confirmation that Ruiz was no saviour!
These four belts would change hands in horrible contests until finally one man began to dominate: Wladimir Klitschko. He partially unified the belts and certainly began to appear head and shoulders above the rest of the division. Then Lo and Behold Vitali Klitschko came back to pick up another belt. The two brothers now reigning together.
Enough has been written about the Klitschko brothers in recent months. This article does not concern them alone. Certainly they have proven themselves the best of a very poor era.
This article concerns the single most important factor in contributing to the decline of quality on the heavyweight division: Weight!
For years now our heavyweights have become consistently heavier as the years have passed, until we have reached a point where the current heavyweights tip the scales in such devastating fashion as to dwarf many of their historical predecessors. Indeed if one looks at some of the last known weights of each of the top ten heavyweights here is what it looks like:
Wladimir Klitschko 240
Vitali Klitschko 253 (against Samuel Peter)
David Haye 220 (against Monte Barrett)
Nikolai Valuev 314 (against Evander Holyfield)
Ruslan Chagaev 240 (against Wladimir Klitschko)
Eddie Chambers 208 (against Alexander Dimitrenko)
Alexander Povetkin 241 (against Jason Estrada)
John Ruiz 239
Juan Carlos Gomez 241
Samuel Peter 263 (against Eddie Chambers)
With the exceptions of David Haye and Eddie Chambers, the sheer heaviness of each of our current top guys is truly staggering. People reminisce constantly about the days of Holyfield and Tyson but tend not to make the crucial connection between the slim athletic builds offered by the two and the non athletic and much higher weight offered by today’s heavyweights. I think that Holyfield Tyson II is arguably the last heavyweight contest in which the two combatants truly fought with good athletic movement and got up on their toes from the opening bell.
One needs to be directed back to such bouts as Tyson Spinks, Holmes Norton, Ali Frazier etc and be amazed at the level of athleticism on display. Just watch how Tyson jumps into Spink’s chest from the opening bell and then contrast that with Samuel Peter’s incredulously slow walkout against Vitali Klitschko.
There will always be good and bad eras of boxing, that is just life. Yet the reason why this new era of heavyweight boxing is so incredibly bad and why it sees no improvement on the horizon is because of the weight issue. Mike Tyson in his prime weighed in at around the 210-225 mark Evander Holyfield the same. A prime George Foreman’s prime weight was somewhere within the 217-225 region, Joe Frazier‘s between 203-209. The mean weight of today’s heavyweight is almost 30 pounds heavier than that. Just ask yourselves as viewers when was the last time you saw two heavyweights move at the pace anything remotely resembling the golden age?
The general disdain for today’s heavyweight boxing is not about racism or bias against Eastern Block fighters but about the lack of athleticism on display. Just take a look at the prime weights of former heavyweight champions:
Muhammad Ali 202-216
Joe Frazier 203-209
George Foreman 217-225
Kenny Norton 205-220
Larry Holmes 209-213
Michael Spinks 170-209
Mike Tyson 215-221
Evander Holyfield 187-218
Michael Moorer 175-222
Riddick Bowe 225-235 (though at times to his discredit much higher)
Lennox Lewis 225-239 (though at times higher resulting in poor performance)
This September Chris Arreola will square off against Vitali Klitschko in what will in all probability end up being a mismatch. It might bring one aged boxing fan in America to tears watching their ‘top guy’ in Arreola wobble around the ring carrying 30 pounds of excess baggage with him. Especially considering how long ago it now feels like when Tyson and Holyfield went at it in 1996.
Solution? Perhaps there is none, or perhaps the only foreseeable way of changing this trend is to introduce a limit on the weight of heavyweight boxers? Though this seems terribly extreme and may backfire. David Haye may be infuriating boxing fans worldwide but he has my utmost support purely on the basis of the athleticism he delivers in the ring. On the basis of him being a smaller heavyweight in an era of untalented bigger heavyweights.
Love them or hate them, the Klitschko’s are currently the two best heavyweights out there and more importantly are of the rare variety of big heavyweights who are skilled and well conditioned. Though not as good as Lennox Lewis (especially a young one) they are in the same vein. But where will we look to in the wake of their respective retirements? When all that we see on the horizon are seriously overweight non athletic competitors? The heavies are too heavy! If you look at the last 50 years of heavyweight boxing you can see in all fairness only four truly ‘big men’ in terms of weight who won the heavyweight title and were well conditioned and athletic in the process: Lennox Lewis, Riddick Bowe, Wladimir Klitschko and Vitali Klitschko. All of the other past greats we hark back to when reminiscing about the golden age were considerably lighter than our current modern heavyweight.
Article posted on 19.08.2009