Boxing


The Heavyweight Division: Can Anyone Step Forward?

25.06.06 - By Ryan Songalia: An old adage suggests that as the heavyweight division goes, so goes the sport of boxing. The heavyweight champion is generally perceived as being the toughest man alive. Former heavyweight champion James L. Sullivan once remarked "I can lick anyone in the house", a testament to the heavyweight championship being the greatest prize in sports. Similarly, Mike Tyson declared himself "The Baddest Man on the Planet", which is what the heavyweight champion has been interpreted as..

Historically, there have been heavyweight champions that transcended the sport, larger than life icons that became part of pop culture. Legends like Muhammad Ali and Joe Louis captured the imagination of the public, inspiring the next generation of fighters and remaining in the hearts of the fans. We are sorely missing that kind of champion. From 1999-2003, Lennox Lewis reigned as the heavyweight champion of the world.

Save for a brief period in 2001, when Hasim Rahman upset Lewis and held the distinction, he dominated the division, gaining universal recognition for his status as a champion. It didn't matter if Ruiz or Byrd had belts, the public looked to Lewis as The Man in the heavyweight division. Then, in early 2004, he announced his retirement, thus ending the Lennox Lewis era.

So the search for a new champion began, and immediately the public looked towards Ukrainian giant Vitali Klitschko. In 2003, Vitali Klitschko impressed the boxing public with his brave performance against Lennox Lewis, giving the champ all he could handle for six rounds before Klitschko was stopped because of a horrid gash above his left eye. Following Lewis' retirement, Klitschko was considered the front runner to replace the former champion as the ruler of the division, a dominant king that would rule over all that he surveyed. After picking up the WBC title by dismantling Corrie Sanders in 2004 and dismantling Tyson-conqueror Danny Williams, Klitschko prepared to silence his detractors by facing off with the rejuvenated Hasim Rahman. After several postponements due to injury which ultimately led to the cancellation of the bout, Vitali Klitschko retired, leaving the sport once again without a legitimate heavyweight champion.

Following Klitschko's retirement, I analyzed Ring Magazine's heavyweight rankings, and for the first time since glancing at a list that posted Bruce Seldon and Frank Bruno as champions, a feeling similar to discouragement came upon me. However, my journalistic integrity resolved me to set aside the mild depression I experienced and break down the heavyweight division, perhaps adding some clarity, and optimistically find a successor to the heavyweight throne.

1. Wladimir Klitschko, 46-3 (41): Prior to his 2003 encounter with journeyman Corrie Sanders, HBO commentator Larry Merchant remarked "Wladimir Klitschko seems so perfect, you almost wonder whats wrong with him." About ten minutes later, we found out what was wrong with him, as a series of left hand power shots dumped Wladimir onto the canvas a total of five times en route to a second round stoppage. After losing to Lamon Brewster by fifth round stoppage in 2004, most boxing pundits wrote him off forever as a contender. However, in such shallow heavyweight times, one big win can catipult you back to the top 10.

In 2005, Wladimir Klitschko faced off against the highly regarded slugger Samuel Peter. In that fight, Wladimir Klitschko was knocked down three times by the then undefeated prospect, but still managed to outpoint him. Off of the strength of that win, Klitschko earned a second fight with IBF titlist Chris Byrd. In seven brutal rounds, Klitschko dropped the champion twice on his way to a seventh round TKO. That fight is primarily the basis for Wladimir being ranked so highly on most heavyweight lists.

Wladimir Klitschko has both the best jab and the best right hand in the division. What has limited his success has been his durability. His stamina and chin will remain liabilities that will make his bid to become heavyweight champion of the world a very exciting trip.

Prognosis: There are rumors circulating about a possible title defense against Shannon Briggs, although nothing is official as of press time.

2. Hasim "The Rock" Rahman, 41-5-2 (33): Rahman is another fighter who had been written off by the boxing public, only to be called back into active duty to serve in the shallow heavyweight division. Rahman does bring a ton of experience to the division, which goes a long way in such dire times.

In 2001, Rahman stunned the world with a one punch knockout of heavyweight kingpin Lennox Lewis, lifting the title from the champion in one of the biggest upsets in boxing history. However, later that year Lewis turned the tables, ending Rahman's reign with one violent right hand in the fourth round of their rematch. Following that loss, Rahman embarked on a puzzling downspin that included losses to Evander Holyfield and Ruiz, and a draw with David Tua on a night in which it appeared he deserved the better fate.

After signing with Don King, Rahman managed wins over no-hopers, which is sufficient credentials to earn you a title shot in the diminished state of the division. After waltzing with Monte Barrett, he signed to fight Vitali Klitschko for the WBC title. That fight fell through following Klitschko's abrupt retirement, awarding Rahman the WBC title. Seeking credibility, Rahman squared off with James Toney in the first defense of his title. Over twelve rounds, Rahman appeared to outwork and outmuscle the smaller Toney, only to have the fight declared a draw.

Hasim Rahman is a very physically strong fighter, who's jab and right cross are his most effective punches. While he took up the sport at a late age, he possesses natural athletic talent that has enabled him to adapt to the sport's demands fairly well. Rahman's shortcomings involve his average chin, having been knocked out three times in his career. He also lacks a definitive left hook and the ability to counter punch, which have made him vulnerable to be neutralized by technically skilled fighters. He has shown an increased desire to win, as evidenced by his excellent physical condition against Toney. However, his slow foot speed and defensive shortcomings will hinder his performances.

Prognosis: His next fight is a rematch with former knockout assailant Oleg Maskaev, and should he reverse the fortunes against Maskaev, a second bout with Toney is on the horizon.

3. James "Lights Out" Toney, 69-4-3 (43): Toney is a sure fire Hall of Famer looking to annex a heavyweight belt, while adding to his bank account. The former middleweight, super middleweight, and cruiserweight champion moved into the heavyweight division in 2003, with his one-sided schooling of a faded Holyfield. In 2005, he faced John Ruiz for the chance to become the third former middleweight champion to become a heavyweight titlist, following in the footsteps of John L. Sullivan and Roy Jones. During the course of that fight, Toney counterpunched and dropped Ruiz, and was declared the winner of the bout. However, when the post fight drug test came back, Toney tested positive for steroids and was stripped of the title, with the official verdict being altered to a no contest.

After putting on a boxing lesson against heavyweight enigma Dominick Guinn, Toney got his second shot at a heavyweight title against Hasim Rahman. Toney, who weighed in at a bloated 237 pounds. That figure was not a perfunctory statistic, as it showed up time and again. Toney's balance had been compromised by the extra weight and he had been reduced to fighting in spurts, which is partially the reason most ringside observers felt he lost that bout. Although he did not appear to deserve that victory, he did exhibit his world class talent, landing big counter right hands and remaining a hard target to hit.

James Toney is beyond a doubt the most gifted counter puncher in the sport today. Not since Archie Moore and Ezzard Charles had anyone been as adept as Toney at rolling his shoulder and countering with combinations. His punches lack power though, as he has only scored one knockout since his latest reincarnation as a heavyweight. He has incredible foot work and hand speed, always one or two steps from being in range to land one of his brilliant combinations. He is also one of the most gifted infighters in the sport, dominating nearly every opponent who stands in front of him in close. He will have to take his conditioning more seriously in the future if he is to succeed in gaining a heavyweight title. At 5'9, 237 pounds is not the weight that a professional boxer should be carrying around. He is 37 years old, and needs to act quickly before the sand runs out of his hour glass.

Prognosis: Possible showdown with Samuel Peter, followed by title shot with Rahman/Maskaev winner.

4. Serguei Lyakhovich, 23-1 (14): Talk about coming out of nowhere. In 2004, Lyakhovich was picked as a showcase opponent against Dominick Guinn, only to upset "The Southern Disaster" on national tv. After 16 months of inactivity, Lyakhovich met Lamon Brewster for the WBO heavyweight title. In perhaps the best heavyweight fight of the decade, Lyakhovich outfought Brewster, lifting the WBO title in impressive fashion.

What makes his victory over Brewster more impressive is the fact that he had been written off as a journeyman fighter with average talent. Following his puzzling loss to gatekeeper Maurice Harris in 2002, most thought the Belarus native would not have a significant impact on the division. Since that loss, he has been undefeated, going 7-0 and earning himself a stake in the heavyweight division.

Lyakhovich has tremendous upside in the division. He is only 30 years old, the second youngest besides Brock in a division filled with veterans. Lyakhovich possesses quick hands for a heavyweight, maybe the quickest hands among the big boys. His combination punching and busy style are a rarity among the plodding, one punch at a time standard in the division. He has a very sturdy chin and a ton of heart, but his tendency to throw wide punches and defense need some work.

Prognosis: August title defense against unworthy Kevin McBride, followed by highly anticipated rematch with Lamon Brewster.

5. Lamon Brewster, 33-3 (29): Lamon Brewster, like the man who took his title earlier this year, also seemingly came out of nowhere. In 2004, Brewster faced off with Wladimir Klitschko for the WBO version of the title. After four rounds of vicious punishment from Klitschko, Lamon Brewster turned the fight around with one left hook, stopping Wladimir and announcing his presence on the heavyweight scene.

In his first title defense, Brewster's performance hinted that his win over Klitschko may have been a fluke and not an accurate reflection of his own potential. After struggling with fringe contender Kali Meehan and having his jaw broken, many ringside observers felt that he had been at the right place at the right time against Klitschko. Feeling the need to prove himself once again, Brewster blew out Andrew Golata in less than a minute, influencing many pundits to declare Brewster to be the front runner to become the next dominant heavyweight champion. After a tough, come from behind knockout of Luan Krasniqi, Brewster squared off with heavy underdog Serguei Lyakhovich. Over twelve brutal rounds, Brewster pounded away with vicious body shots and left hooks, while Lyakhovich came back with combinations of his own. When the decision was announced, Lyakhovich was awarded a unanimous decision victory that added more confusion and another name to the heavyweight melting pot. During that bout, Brewster suffered a detached retina that could keep him out of the ring for some time.

Brewster's greatest gifts are his left hook and chin, both of which are the best in the division. His beard was instrumental in his breakthrough win over Klitschko, as he was taking brutal punishment for the first four rounds before stopping Klitschko. For commentary on his left hook, one must only look at his first round blitz of Andrew Golata. He works very effectively to the body, which is rare in the division. His shortcomings have come when he appears lackadaisical in fights. There have been times in the past in which he simply did not show up to fight. He also has had stamina liabilities in the past. His defense is porous and he lacks head movement, but his chin has enabled him to take the incoming flack as a result of his deficiencies.

Prognosis: When his eye returns to health, a tune up fight followed by a rematch with Lyakhovich.

6. John Ruiz, 41-6-1-1 (28): Perhaps the least telegenic titlist of the last 20 years, John Ruiz has become a poster child for this lackluster era of heavyweights. He first appeared on the scene in 1996, being blown out in 19 seconds by David Tua. Fighting in obscurity over the next 4 years, he somehow found himself the beneficiary of a title shot, when the WBA’s shady politics stripped Lennox Lewis of the belt. In a close, difficult to watch fight, Evander Holyfield defeated Ruiz for the vacant title belt. After their first encounter, the WBA played masochist, ordering a rematch. In the second fight, Ruiz picked up the pace and outhustled the older Holyfield, knocking him down in the eleventh and winning a title belt. After drawing in a third fight with “The Real Deal”, Ruiz sleepwalked through several title defenses before meeting Roy Jones Jr. Over twelve one-sided rounds, Jones outclassed and humiliated the larger Ruiz, becoming the second former middleweight champion to win a heavyweight title belt.

Thought to be finished as a heavyweight entity, the corrupt WBA once again awarded Ruiz a title shot, against fellow undeserving challenger Hasim Rahman. In a terribly boring hug affair, Ruiz won a decision and regained the devalued WBA title belt. After two more snoozefest wins over Fres Oquendo and Andrew Golata, Ruiz once again played victim to a former middleweight champion, this time against James Toney. After being beaten and whipped by Toney, Ruiz was reinstated as champion when Toney tested positive for steroids. His fortune was not to last, as Nicolay Valuev unseated him by a close decision and ended the second title run of Ruiz.

John Ruiz's talent, in a word, is limited. He is not exactly the most gifted fighter athletically, lacking speed of hand and foot. His power, while not overly impressive, is underrated and has been instrumental to his success in recent fights. His style is unappealing, as Ruiz typically employs a jab and grab style that makes him very difficult to watch. While he has been knocked down several times in his career, he is a durable fighter.

Prognosis: Deserves a rematch with Valuev, and will likely get it.

7. Chris Byrd, 39-3-1 (20): Sometimes skill can compensate for a size disadvantage, and Chris Byrd has done so. Beginning his career as a super middleweight, Byrd packed on mounds of muscle to compete with the heavyweights, and has for the most part done well. In his first significant fight as a heavyweight, he was knocked out by Ike Ibeabuchi in five rounds. After putting together a win streak against pedestrian opposition, Byrd met Vitali Klitschko in Germany. After being dominated for 9 rounds, Klitschko pulled out of the contest with a shoulder injury, awarding Byrd a win by stoppage. The issues he experienced against Vitali carried over into his next fight, as he was dropped twice in a one-sided loss to younger brother Wladimir Klitschko. Two years and an upset of David Tua later, Byrd outboxed a faded Evander Holyfield and won the vacant IBF title.

In his first title defense, Fres Oquendo outhustled and outpunched Byrd, only to be dealt the short end of the stick by the judges. The disappointments continued as in his next fight, he could only salvage a draw against the back from the dead Andrew Golata. After climbing off the canvas to decision Jameel McCline, he won a sparring session against Davarryl Williamson. His title run came to a sudden and violent end when he renewed acquaintances with his former tormenter Wladimir Klitschko. Over seven brutal rounds, Byrd was dominated and knocked down twice, then mercifully rescued by the referee after a fight hand tore his face up.

Byrd's once remarkable reflexes have faded considerably in recent years, as a man once considered invisible to most opponents has been hit more frequently then ever before. Byrd's biggest downfall has been his lack of punching power, having scored only 2 knockouts in his last 11 fights. Byrd's southpaw style and Olympic experience have befuddled opponents in his career, but at the age of 36 he has become a more stationary target, susceptible to incoming fire.

Prognosis: With his advancing age and ring wear, retirement may be his next move.

8. Nicolay Valuev, 44-0 (32): Some undefeated records are a testimony to a fighter's greatness, while some shroud a fighter's identity and leave questions to be answered. Valuev's unblemished mark inspires the latter. Fighting out of Germany, the Russian native Valuev has been fighting hand-picked opposition in the safety of his home turf for the duration of his career. At a freakish 7'0 tall and weighing in at around 320 pounds, Valuev's height and weight advantage over his opponents is always sizeable. Since turning pro in 1993, Valuev turned back anonymous opposition before breaking out in 2005.

In that pivotal year, Valuev stopped both Attila Levin and Clifford Etienne, dispatching both in three rounds. In a close fight, Valuev received what many consider to be a gift decision over Larry Donald. Next up for Valuev was WBA titlist John Ruiz, and in another lose fight, Valuev once again got the benefit of the doubt and a title belt. In his first defense, Valuev disposed of undeserving challenger Owen Beck in three rounds.

Valuev’s incredible size enables him to manhandle and maul his opponents. He is also a very tough fighter, having never been knocked down in his career. He has been on the receiving end of some hometown officiating, which may account for some of his recent fortunes. He does lack hand and foot speed, and his style is less than flashy. His main form of defense is stretching his arm out in an attempt to keep the smaller man at bay. However, once past that guard, he is rather easy to hit. For a man his size, he lacks one punch power.

Prognosis: He will be managed carefully by Don King, and will make his Big Apple debut soon.

9. Calvin Brock, 28-0 (22): In this diverse, globalized new look heavyweight division, Brock is seen as something of an American hope. "The Boxing Banker" is another heavyweight prospect who has been ordained out of convenience. A 2000 Olympian, upon turning pro he was met with relative indifference until all other logical prospects turned up busts. In his first big test, Brock climbed off the canvas to decision former title challenger Jameel McCline. In his first showcase on HBO Boxing After Dark, Brock failed to impress the public with his boring clinchaton against Timor Ibragimov.

If I had to summarize Calvin Brock in one word, that word would be average. Possessing average speed, power, and chin, he hardly inspires me to refer to him as the next big thing. His mediocrity has been overlooked by the powers that be because he is an American with Olympic credentials, which is apparently all you need to be awarded the mantle of potential heavyweight savior. In his most eye catching moment, Brock demolished Zuri Lawerence with one left hook, leaving him unconscious and the audience frightened for his well being. As impressive as that moment was, it was preceded by subpar work from Brock, who should have gotten to Lawerence a few rounds earlier. Brock has iffy balance inside, but overall is a solid fighter. If he can improve his balance and timing, he can probably beat most of the top heavys.

Prognosis: One or two more buildup fights, followed by a title shot sometime next year.

10. Samuel Peter, 26-1 (22): Only a year ago, the dynamite fisted Peter was considered to be the future of the division, the possible savior to the heavyweights. Well, after being outboxed by Wladimir Klitschko last September, it appears that he is the next David Tua. Out of the 2000 Olympics, Peter was outshined by Joe Mesi and Dominick Guinn as the leading lights of the next era of heavyweights. After Guinn and Mesi’s disappointments in recent years, the public looked to Peter almost by default. After a frightening knockout of Jeremy Williams, he generated the attention and buzz of boxing fans and became a suddenly hot entity.

Following a pair of knockout wins over nondescript opponents, he faced off with the fragile Wladimir Klitschko. While he dropped Wladimir three times, he also was on the receiving end of a humbling boxing lesson, dropping a decision to the Ukranian giant.

After being exposed as a one dimensional slugger, “The Nigerian Nightmare” went on his first trip to the comeback trail against pedestrian opponents. He is young and still learning, so he may still have his best stuff ahead of him.

Samuel Peter is a thunderous puncher, forget everything else, that’s what he’s about. Peter is very much a one-trick pony, with his violent left hook being his best attribute. He is wide open with regards to defense, and he is almost completely void of effective jabs. His lack of head movement makes him an easy target to hit, while also making it difficult for him to get inside on taller opponents. Peter needs to go to the body more, which is what would take his technique to the next level. He also possesses a very sturdy chin, and has never been off his feet in his career.

Prognosis: A possible showdown with James Toney in the fall will determine where he goes from there.

A rundown of the division reveals four former Olympians, three former titlists, a 7'0 foot giant, and a fat former middleweight champion. While I would love to lie and tell you that there is one sure fire savior in the division, the truth is that if he exists, I have yet to detect him. With Lyakhovich, Klitschko, Peter, and Valuev in the top ten, the division has ceased to be an American institution, but instead has evolved into a global scene. The heavyweights of today may be mediocre compared to the legends of yesteryear, but if the division can provide exciting fights like Brewster-Lyakhovich and Rahman-Toney, the public will remain attentive while the big guys figure themselves out. How long that will take remains to be seen.

Ryan Songalia is a syndicated columnist. If you have any feedback or questions, his email address is mc_rson@yahoo.com. His Myspace address is http://www.myspace.com/asian_sensation201 . Special thanks to Matt Nash.

Article posted on 26.06.2006



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