Kayoing The Myths: The Heavyweight Division Is As Strong As Ever
14.06.06 - By Jeff Meyers: Hand wringing and wailing over the so-called sorry state of the heavyweight division has become de rigueur over the past few years. It's time to dispel the myths and explain why we don't need Mike Tyson chewing on someone's ear to prove the heavyweight division is entertaining.
Article posted on 14.06.2006
Myth No. 1: The Heavyweight Division Is In A Dismal State. Everyone loves to talk about the 70s being the golden age of heavyweight boxing, and wax nostalgic for the 80s when Tyson dominated the division. Today's heavies, as a group, are just as good. We've got Wladimir Klitschko, James Toney, Lamon Brewster, Serguei Lyakhovich, Samuel Peter, and a host of other ex-Soviet heavies with polysyllabic and consonant-rich surnames and undefeated records to boot knocking on the door.
Let's start with the '70s. First, we can stop comparing everyone to Muhammad Ali. Ali was not only one of the greatest fighters to ever lace up the gloves, he transcended the sport to become a world icon.
His skills in the ring and charisma outside it were unparalleled and are unlikely to be matched any time soon. That being said, outside of Ali, Joe Frazier, George Foreman and Larry Holmes, the talent pool was nothing like it is today. And the '80s. Aside from Tyson, who was really impressive in that era? We had a few glimpses of potential (Ray Mercer, Buster Douglas, Tommy Morrison, etc.) but not much else. Some proof: name three great fights from the '80s off the top of your head that didn't involve Tyson.
Myth No. 2: The Lack Of A Dominant Heavyweight Proves The Sorry State Of The Division. Several factors have prevented a dominant heavyweight from emerging in the twenty-first century, none of which compel the conclusion that the heavyweight division is in shambles. The two biggest factors are (1) fighters simply not fighting; and (2) what I like to refer to as the "Ibeabuchi/Vitali factor."
- Fighters Not Fighting. In the '70s and '80s, fighters used to actually fight more than once or twice a year. Even Tyson used to box about once a month early on in his career. Today's fighters are much more hamstrung than their predecessors when it comes to scheduling bouts, because of the influence the ever-expanding sanctioning bodies and promoters wield in selecting a fighter's opponents. It's a tad difficult for a linear champion to break out of the pack when Don King forces us to watch Andrew Golota fighting for a belt every couple of years.
- The Ibeabuchi/Vitali Factor. People seem to forget we had two opportunities for a heavyweight to dominate the scene yanked from underneath us in the past decade. Let's start with Ikemefula "Ike" Ibeabuchi. Prior to his conviction for battery and sexual assault of a Las Vegas stripper in 1999, Ike "The President" Ibeabuchi was poised to take over the heavyweight division. Six foot two and about 240 lbs. of mesomorph muscle, Nigerian-born Ibeabuchi had it all: colossal power, an igneous chin, and intelligence in the ring. So strong he once knocked a heavy bag off the wall, after hitting it so hard that the whole frame came off. And forget about hurting The President: for a glimpse of what could've been, check out his 1997 fight with undefeated David Tua. In only his seventeenth professional fight, Ibeabuchi outlasted the Tuaman over twelve rounds for the victory and withstood enough of Tua's legendary left hooks to drop an elephant. The two went toe to toe in a nonstop action fight that set a record for punches thrown in a heavyweight fight that stands to this day.
After Ibeabuchi's majority decision over Tua, Ike took on Chris Byrd in 1999. This is where Ike showed his ring smarts, demonstrating an ability to dissect his opponent's style and adjust his own accordingly. Aside from Vladimir Klitschko, no one has dropped Chris Byrd in such a cold, powerful way. Ibeabuchi bided his time, putting pressure on Byrd, trying to get his hands apart and looking for a hole in his defense. Finally, Ike landed a vicious uppercut that lifted Byrd up off his feet and had him literally drooling on the canvas, staggering and foaming around the ring like the author during his fraternity house days back in college. Even Vlad couldn't do that to Byrd.
Unfortunately, Ibeabuchi also lacked another quality most heavyweights possess. Sanity. Ticked off after a low WBC ranking following the Tua fight, Ibeabuchi decided to drive his car into a concrete pillar in Texas with his ex-girlfriend's 15-year-old son riding shotgun. The boy suffered horrible injuries and Ike was charged with kidnapping and attempted murder. Stories arose about Ike and his mother seeing demons, and Ibeabuchi's ex-promoter had to literally drag Ike onto airplanes before fights because of perceived demonic forces. It all came crashing down for Ike in 1999 at the Mirage in Vegas after he held a stripper captive and beat her after a dispute over, er, proper payment. Ibeabuchi barricaded himself in the bathroom and the cops had to discharge pepper spray under the door to get him to surrender. Ibeabuchi won't be eligible for parole until December of 2007, when he'll be 34 years old.
Vitali Klitschko also deprived us of another potential dominating heavy. Dr. Iron Fist had one of the best knockout percentages of all time (34 knockouts in 35 wins) and had a right hand that kicked like a mule. Intelligent (an advanced degree and multilingual), Klitschko also had something his technically superior sibling Vladimir did not: a concrete chin. Watch Vitali's fights. If you can pick out a single instance where Vitali was seriously rocked by a punch, looking like he was in danger of being knocked down, IĄŻll buy you a ringside ticket to the next fight I attend. Look it up: Vitali is the only heavyweight champion who has never been knocked down.
Vitali only lost twice: one I will never forgive him for, and the other won't let me forget him. His first loss (to Chris Byrd) was a slap in the face to American sports ethics, i.e., playing through the pain. For nine rounds, Klitschko leaned and (albeit clumsily) smacked Byrd around and was winning the fight by a mile, with a torn rotator cuff in his shoulder. Perhaps using his educated mind too much, Vitali figured preserving his injured shoulder with only a few rounds to go (in a fight he was winning by a mile) was the smart thing to do instead of toughing it out for three more rounds. Doing the latter would have garnered him not only a victory but also respect among boxing fans everywhere.
Vitali later redeemed himself in a valiant losing effort with champ Lennox Lewis. Vitali was ahead on all scorecards when the referee and ring doctor halted the bout due to a ghastly cut over Klitschko's left eye after the sixth round. Sadly, Klitschko wasn't given the opportunity to slug it out for just one more round to go for the knockout (which frequently occurs in close championship bouts). Instead, the fight tantalized us with what could have happened had it been allowed to continue. Klitschko was lauded for his bravery and guts after the loss to Lewis, but later opted to retire instead of fighting his WBC title defense against Hasim Rahman after nagging injuries kept him from training. Once again, we were deprived at seeing a dominating, top heavyweight in the world.
Sorry state of the heavyweight division? Oh, please. To say the heavyweights lack talent or excitement contravenes the facts. James Toney and Chris Byrd are as slick as they come. Burgeoning boxers like Brewster, Lyakhovich, Peter, and Calvin Brock have demonstrated tremendous heart and the willingness to mix it up.
And let's just tally up the undefeated ex-Soviet bloc fighters: one undefeated Uzbekistani (Ruslan Chagaev); two undefeated Ukrainians (Alexander Dimitrenko and Volodia Lazebnik); and five undefeated Russians (Nikolay Valuev, Sultan Ibragimov, Denis Boytsov, and 2004 super heavyweight gold medal winner Alexander Povetkin). Speaking of Valuev, the world has never seen the likes of him: a seven-foot, three hundred plus pound boxer who actually has some skill. Call him a freak show, Primo Carnera incarnate, but the guy has . . . not . . . lost, yet. And he's beaten a European champion (Paolo Vidoz) and an American one (John Ruiz) to boot. I cannot wait to see him fight another belt holder to see how he responds to the challenge.
Finally, Wladimir Klitschko appears to be headed down the road of dominant heavyweight champ as we speak. I predict that, in ten years, people will be comparing the career of Wladimir Klitschko to Lennox Lewis, one of the best heavyweights of all time. The similarities are eerie: both were knocked out hard, twice, only to come back with strong victories under the brilliant tutelage of Emanuel Steward. Both were accused of having less-than-stellar chins and stamina when hit hard, but persevered to reclaim championship belts. It's too early to compare Wladimir to Lennox, but the handwriting is on the wall.
Take that, '70s and '80s.
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