By Sean Waisglass: Many a boxing scribe switched to auto-pilot after Saturday's quadruple heavyweight showdown, and wrote up the tired "it was proof that the heavyweight division is in shambles" tripe that folks have been parroting since Lewis retired. (And by the way, the memory impaired folks seem to have forgotten that things north of cruiserweight weren't all that much fun when Lennox was on top.)
As Hunter S Thompson likes to say: Caveat Emptor. That's Latin for 'buyer beware': It was expected that Evander Holyfield would be depressingly outboxed by the stick-and-move Larry Donald, and it seemed pretty damn likely that John Ruiz would make his bout with Andrew Golota an ugly affair. Although first four rounds of Golota/Ruiz had some nice drama and action, and Ruiz's late fight charge after suffering three lost points and an ejected trainer made things a touch interesting, both matches lived up (or should I say down) to expectations.
The other two bouts on the card however, provided some of the right stuff, and added some more pieces to the heavyweight puzzle.
Rahman showed renewed vigour in overwhelming Meehan after a couple of exciting and brisk rounds, and Meehan provided a memorable end by showing a ton of heart and a concrete chin in staying on his feet and bravely trying to throw back despite taking a litany of right hands.
And the Chris Byrd v Jameel McCline bout was a real gem; a good back-story of two friends who have to put relationships aside and pound on each other, a David and Goliath size match-up, well-rounded skills on display, intense action, a knockdown, and a late rally. So what if it didn't establish either man as a front-runner for new king of the mountain?
McCline joined Hasim Rahman in re-establishing himself as a major player in the division, adding more flavour to an under-appreciated group already populated with interesting and evenly matched characters. The same goes for Golota, who after facing the tricky Byrd, kept his cool against the most frustrating guy in the division, and thus proved his comeback is for real, and that he's finally got his head together (or at least as together as can be expected). .
It didn't produce any of the heavyweight saviours that so many are crying out for, but the "Struggle For Supremacy" did make things more interesting north of 200 pounds. And that worth something - but not 50 bucks...
Heavy Afterthoughts: Golota vs Ruiz
Although Golota's infamous for twice using Riddick Bowe's protective cup for speed bag practice, the more recent cave-ins against Grant and Tyson were the ones that anchored the doubts in many minds during this comeback. It was downright painful watching him wave off the Grant fight after being knocked down by a late-fight flurry after he had scored early knockdowns and had used sharp combos to put himself way ahead on the cards in late '99. Then a year later, when given yet another chance, a knockdown from Iron Mike Tyson convinced him to quit after two rounds. Despite his corner's urging, he spit out the mouthpiece they tried to shove in, and refused to continue despite the fact that he had the skills at his disposal to outbox the past-prime Tyson, a scenario all the more likely if he were to jab and move and take his high-profile opponent into deep waters.
After self-destructively imploding in his four big bouts (five if you include his first round KO loss to Lewis), it seemed unlikely that the powerful Pole would ever be a top-shelf heavyweight again. Yet here he is, like a pale-skinned phoenix, facing off against two of the most frustrating opponents in the weight class (Byrd and Ruiz) and passing the test. After the Byrd fight, many still figured that when faced with a heavy hitter, Golota would fold. Yet he absorbed a bunch of hard shots as well as some hard fouls against Ruiz, and didn't. He not only avoided throwing away either fight via fouls or quitting, but actually won both bouts on many a card (including my own).
As shocking as it is to say - I'm a believer.
He's part of the plus-size heavies of today that aren't just good by virtue of being big. He has nice boxing skills, he's got pretty fast hands, a solid chin and momentum-changing power, and he's a big man who comes into the ring in shape. And when you look at all the action in his bouts - excluding controversies and such - it's apparent he's one of the most exciting guys in the division. Match him up with anybody other than Ruiz -say, the Klitschkos, or Rahman, or McCline - and you're going to get something well worth watching. Here's hoping he doesn't follow through on his threat to retire if he didn't win Ruiz's belt.
An interesting titbit: A plucky young Polish woman at the bar I watched the card at told my table she knew Golota back in Warsaw, and that he was nicknamed "The Volcano" by his Polish crew. Why "The Volcano"? Because of his eruptions of power that could floor any heavyweight? Because of his eruptions of panic that could sour his matches? Nope. Because of the bad acne that covers his back.
(Editor's note: what a lovely anecdote you've scooped, Sean!)
Ruiz is very good at making other fighters look very bad. It's not like we didn't know that already, but damn, this guy could even make Arturo Gatti part of a stinker if he was a heavyweight.
Golota's bout against Byrd in his previous fight was one of the better heavyweight scraps of the past while, and fellow Saturday night fighter Rahman was in an underrated duel with David Tua in his pre-Ruiz fight and looked fast and viewer-friendly last weekend. Even Holyfield book-ended his Ruiz trilogy with nice tussles with Lewis and Rahman.
There's an obvious lesson to be learned here, and it's not the well-known fact that Ruiz makes for bad fights: it's that we can't judge a book by its cover, particularly when that book happens to be a guy in the ring with Ruiz.
Ruiz deserves credit for notching another win against a top heavyweight by beating Golota (although it should be much more disputed than it seems to be in the aftermath - Golota only won three rounds? You gotta be kidding me...), but jeez, this guy is the poster boy for those who want to lambaste the division. When Ruiz fouls on a regular basis, yet hams it up and consistently complains any time he tastes his own medicine, it just adds to the potent mix of unlovable in-ring qualities he already possesses in abundance. Example: He griped the loudest when hit on the back of the head by Golota while down on one knee, yet had no problem committing the same infraction in just as blatant and possibly a more brutal manner when facing Kirk Johnson.
But with wins over Evander Holyfield, Kirk Johnson, Rahman, Fres Oquendo, and Golota, it looks like Ruiz is going to be sticking around awhile. Although one of the reasons he's been able to do so is that nobody seems to teach heavyweights uppercuts these days - notably, a punch that was key in Lewis ruling the roost. With Ruiz's constant lunging and clutching, he's open for the punch, yet few heavies use it regularly in their arsenal, and Ruiz has been the more successful for it.
The only guys that may be able to handle Ruiz's imposing style in the current crop are the inside-boxing genius James Toney, and the long-armed and wilful Vitali Klitschko. Although if David Tua can come back and like his nemesis Rahman, get in shape physically and mentally, he has a real claim to being next in line, having been the only other man than Roy Jones Jr. to dominate Ruiz.
The laughable irony is that even though technically nobody wants to watch the notoriously unmatchable WBA champ, he's become so commonly despised for being unwatchable, that everybody wants to watch him because they're hoping to see him get beat.
Heavy Afterthoughts: Byrd vs McCline
He may not be having an easy time against the giants (see Ibeabuchi, the Klitchkos, and these last two close ones) but give him credit for trying.
The gustiest boxer around put in another solid performance against a much bigger man with serious skills, and combining this McCline battle with his previous one with Golota, Byrd has now been involved in two of the best heavyweight bouts of the past while. Not bad for a guy commonly shunned for being boring.
Now with another main event-worthy bout under his belt, maybe hype-master King should start trying to maximize Byrd's blossoming marketability. A class act with brass balls, the IBF title holder is a small guy with soft punches who's willing to take on all comers in the heaviest division. That's a great "Little Engine That Could/Horatio Alger" type angle. If King can make Ruiz a known commodity and a consistent headliner, he should be able to make Byrd a star.
After being loudly criticized and taunted as too tense and timid when he seemingly froze against Wlad Klitchko, McCline fell off boxing's radar as a legit heavy contender. Rough rounds against Charles Shufford on ESPN and Cedric Boswell on Showtime before stopping both didn't help his creditability either. But it's now apparent that his three round intense shoot-out with Shufford and his come-from-behind charge against Boswell, - when mixed with the taunts he suffered post-Wlad - finally taught the normally cautious-boxing McCline how to get in there and fight.
True he couldn't stop the much smaller Byrd, but remember that Byrd is no pushover: he lasted the distance after taking a brutal beating from offensive destroyer Wladimir Klitschko, and got up and was arguably stopped a little too soon while still on his feet after getting blasted by the crushing hook of Ibeabuchi. Besides, it's apparent that despite his size, McCline's not about knockouts. Although he's one of the largest men in the division, and often puts some bad intentions behind his punches, McCline is more boxer than puncher - When's the last time you saw a guy weighing 270 pounds rip swift four-punch head/body combos? Not even Lewis was making those kinds of moves.
What remains to be seen is whether this new version of McCline's will hold up when faced with a guy who can punch. Admittedly, it can be argued that McCline stayed in close and took shots from Byrd because he knew the former middleweight Olympian couldn't seriously hurt him, but nonetheless, he took some flush shots that if were thrown by some of the other guys around...
Heavy Afterthoughts: Rahman vs Meehan
Coming in at a good weight for the first time in years against Meehan, the former undisputed champ Rahman looked recharged and ready to erase the 'one-hit wonder' tag attached to his name. Not only did he use his piston jab and drop his hard right hand behind it with a lot of verve and hunger, he also mixed in a very respectable number of body shots, expanding his often limited arsenal of punches.
Rahman has been getting taking a lot of flack from a lot of analysts for a while now, but when you look at the performances he's taken heat for, they don't hold up that well as proof he was solely "lucky" when he won the undisputed championship of the world.
His first "loss" to Tua came via a very controversial stoppage, when he was clocked after the bell by the crushing power puncher. He was well ahead on the cards at the time. Their second bout was a controversial draw that many felt should have been a win for Rahman. And notably, the only fighters to beat Tua have been the cream of the crop of this generation.
When he was KO'd by the world-ranked Maskaev, Rahman was near the ropes and fell through them when he was nailed. Hitting a table and concrete floor after getting hit by a right hand would indeed help hurt and disorient anybody. There's no saying for sure what would have happened if he went down inside the ring and was given time to collect himself and rise. He may not have been able to do it against Lewis, but he took some serious hits from Corrie Sanders and came back to win.
And then there's Lewis. I've never understood why everyone decided that Lewis' victory settled the matter when in fact they went even up. Rahman KO'd an under-focused Lewis before the half-way point of their match. He became a media darling, had a falling out with his trainer, and was as under-focused in their rematch as Lewis was in their first, and was KO'd before the half-way point himself. Proof: Had you ever before, or have you ever since seen Rahman use that bizarre defensive tactic of holding his arms straight out to ward off punches? (Which is precisely what he was doing when knocked out).
It didn't help his case that he lost that technical decision to Holyfield. But consider that the Real Deal was coming off a controversial draw against Ruiz that most thought he won. Ruiz has since proven himself a difficult night for anyone, including Rahman, so it could be said that Rahman lost a close and inconclusive bout on an early stoppage against a legit top ten heavyweight. Rahman indeed looked lacklustre and ordinary against Ruiz, and legitimately lost, but it's now been established that that's how Ruiz keeps on winning - not by what he does, but buy what he doesn't allow his opponents to do. Only a rare few have escaped such a fate...
The thing is, after all this time and all those bouts, when you break it down, we still don't know who the real Rahman is. At 32 years of age, signed up with King, and apparently ready to get down to business for what will surely be his last run, we're going see him mixed back into the competitive current stew of heavies and finally get some answers. If he stays focused and in shape, and sticks with Thell Torance, the latest in a steady stream of trainers, it says here he's even odds against any of the top tier of the division.
Meehan showed that in addition to having some decent skills - as displayed against Lamon Brewster and in the first two rounds against Rahman - he has an abundance of heart. Most guys would have wilted against the steady stream of hard shots he took from Rachman.
Not everyone can be a contender, but all divisions need their gatekeepers, and Meehan looks to be a good candidate for the position. At worst, he'll make for some good fights and tough nights for some of the division, and at best, he might still be able to pull off a few of the underdog upsets that make the sport so lovable.
Heavy Afterthoughts: Donald vs Holyfield
It just didn't make sense. Even with Holyfield's rep in shambles, the former champ and future hall-of-fame resident still had some marketability. Even if he was a shadow of his former self, a decent showing last Saturday could have set up one last giant cash grab for promoter Don King. The Real Deal could have fought a rubber match against fellow fallen heavy Tyson, who settled his lawsuits with King this year. Why the hell would he feed the Real Deal to a low-profile stick-and-mover like Donald?
Sure, the plan was to match Holyfield with WBO champ Brewster only for Lamon to be sidelined through injury but, really, why call on Larry Donald?
I seem to recall King, exasperated, wondering out loud why Holyfield was fighting an unranked former cruiserweight in James Toney. It was Holyfield's first bout after his contract with King had ended, and King was holding up the match as proof that Holyfield needed him to guide his wayward career. Holyfield had nothing to gain, said King, and everything to lose. Yet in his first bout back in the King fold, Holyfield was put in a remarkably hypocritical similar match-up by the promoter.
Why throw Holyfield, still one of the sport's big names, into a career-crushing bout like that?
A guy I was watching the card with hit the nail on the head: revenge, he said. King's star boxer had jumped ship and been disloyal, and this was the payback. It's the only logical explanation for why a shrewd and still-hungry promoter would ruin what remaining profitability Holyfield possessed. The multi-millionaire chose payback over greenback.
And by the way, after again announcing he wasn't throwing in the towel after what is - in proper context - the worst loss of his career, Holyfield's quixotic quest to win back the titles has officially crossed over into being just plain weird.
The New York State Athletic Commission has since suspended him indefinitely.
Larry "The Legend" was given a gift by King: a real legend to put on his mantle as a trophy. Now instead of just being "the guy Bowe clobbered bare-fisted at a press conference", he's also "one of the guys that beat Holyfield".