As a kid, I spent many weekend afternoons watching boxing on free television. Back in the seventies and eighties, ABC, CBS, and NBC all had championship fights on every couple of weeks or so. And, if they weren’t championship fights, they were fights involving guys that would go on to become big stars in the sport. Of course, that was when the sport actually mattered.
I grew up at the tail end of Muhammad Ali’s career, so the guys I grew up watching were Sugar Ray Leonard, Marvelous Marvin Hagler, Ray ‘Boom Boom’ Mancini, Thomas Hearns, Hector Camacho, and of course, the heavyweights. Ali would pass the torch on to Larry Holmes. Holmes was the man until being beaten by puffed up light heavyweight champ Michael Spinks. Spinks might have been the next big thing in the heavyweight division, but he decided to fight stiffs like Gerry Cooney after beating Holmes in a rematch. While he was fighting stiffs, Mike Tyson emerged as the baddest man on the planet. Tyson was boxing’s biggest star, and when he finally got Spinks in the ring, he disposed of him in less than 90 seconds.
That was twenty-one years ago. Boxing hasn’t been the same since Tyson was in his prime. In fact, it’s pretty much on its deathbed as we speak. Oh, don’t get me wrong. There are great fighters out there these days – Manny Pacquiao being at the top of the list. But unlike the 70’s and 80’s these guys fly much lower on the radar.
Why is this? What happened to boxing?
Of course, there are plenty of reasons why boxing isn’t spoken about as often as it used to be. It’s only talked about these days when there are big fights on Pay Per View. And, PPV is actually part of the problem. The purses for the ‘superfights’ are so huge – so outrageous – that promoters charge over fifty dollars (sometimes) for people to watch the fights. In the economy we are in these days, there aren’t many people that have that kind of cash sitting around just to spend on a fight.
There are other problems boxing has faced. Don King and other promoters being one of them. Too many organizations giving fighters championship belts that they don’t deserve was another. The rise of MMA (which I don’t get into but I don’t rip on people who do) hasn’t done the sweet science any favors.
But the biggest problem boxing has these days is in the heavyweight division.
There really is no true heavyweight champion. There is no dominant fighter. There is no Ali, Holmes, Tyson, Lennox Lewis, or anyone else that you could consider dominant. Wladimir Klitschko, who owns two of the numerous belts that are out there, just knocked someone named Ruslan Chagaev out Saturday night in ten rounds. Sure, the fight drew 61,000 to a soccer stadium in Germany, but how many people here in the U.S. even knew that there was a heavyweight championship fight? Not many, that’s for sure. Back when I was a kid – heck – even six years ago when Lewis was the champ – if there was a heavyweight title fight, you knew about it.
Klitschko might be a good fighter, but he hasn’t faced anyone that could really do anything to him. One of the reasons for that is that when he was coming up and actually faced someone who punched back – he was knocked out. In fact, he was knocked out twice. If this guy is considered ‘best in class’ as many experts believe, it’s not saying much.
It also isn’t saying much that Klitschko’s brother Vitali was out of the sport for a few years then came back and won a belt without really working his way up the ladder. The WBA champ – Nikolai Valuev – is a bear of a man at seven feet tall and over 300 pounds. But, he’s not the most skilled guy in the world, and for a guy that big, actually has very little punching power.
This is a division that allowed Evander Holyfield to fight for a belt (Valuev’s) about six months ago. Yes, the same Holyfield who is in his mid forties, and hasn’t been in his prime since beating Mike Tyson eleven years ago.
If you take a look at the rankings, you also notice something that hasn’t been the case before – a lack of American heavyweight contenders. None of the champs are from the United States. Eddie Chambers is regarded as the best American heavyweight, but most people wouldn’t know him from Adam. This is a division in which John Ruiz is still seen as a contender. Ruiz was the guy Roy Jones beat for the heavyweight title years ago – in Jones’ first fight as a heavyweight!
People want a heavyweight champ they could recognize. People want a heavyweight champ with some personality. One who can punch and knock guys out. It’s why Tyson was viewed as a contender when he met Lewis in Memphis six years ago – which may be the last heavyweight title fight anyone cared about.
The division is in shambles, and boxing is in shambles as a result. Pacquiao is the best fighter in the sport, but he can’t carry the flag for boxing. Neither can Floyd Mayweather, who had to postpone his comeback fight because of injury.
Boxing needs not only a dominant fighter, but a dominant personality. And, it would help if he was a heavyweight. Preferably an American heavyweight. One who can knock guys out. One who will get the average boxing fan in the country to care as they did a couple of decades ago, when Tyson ruled the division and the sport.
Until then, boxing will continue to die a slow death.
It’s a shame. A damn shame.