By Thomas Hauser
When Lennox Lewis retired earlier this year, it triggered a feeding frenzy that will continue into the foreseeable future. The heavyweight championship is a profitable commodity. As Ed Fitzgerald noted a half-century ago, "In the right hands, it generates money almost as fast as the United States Mint."
As for who would step into the void created by Lewis's departure, even before the first punches were thrown, a lot of people were conceding the belts to Vitali pic by Harry Rosenbluth
and Wladimir Klitschko.
The Klitschkos are remarkable individuals. Each has a Ph.D. in sports science from the University of Kiev. Their father was an officer in the Soviet Red Army; their mother, a school teacher. Vitali is 32 and compiled a 195-15 record as an amateur. He turned pro in 1996 and, at the time of Lewis's retirement, was 33-2 with 32 knockouts. Wladimir is 28. He won a gold medal in the super-heavyweight division at the 1996 Olympics and began his pro career with 42 wins, 2 losses, and 39 KOs.
Both Klitschko brothers are personable and charming. They now live in Los Angeles. Each speaks four languages; Ukrainian, Russian, German, and English. "But I'm married," Vitali notes, "so I go home to my wife and children and speak Russian. Wladimir is out meeting women, so his English is better."
In the wake of Lewis's retirement, the Klitschkos were not shy about voicing their aspirations.
"We have a dream to be world champions at the same time," Vitali stated. "After that, we have the goal to take the four most important world titles in the Klitschko family."
"This is about the heavyweight world title," Wladimir added. "This is about the story that we want to do. It has never been done in boxing history with two brothers holding the title at the same time. It is not easy and we know it, but we are ready to do it and we are on the way. Hopefully we get it."
One believer was Lewis's former trainer, Emanuel Steward, who began working with the Klitschkos as soon as the opportunity presented itself.
"I have always admired the Klitschkos because for such big men they have unbelievable coordination and they take their boxing very seriously," Steward said. "And I've never been in a camp where there's more hard work and serious training. The intensity that they bring to boxing combined with their size and skill is going to make it very difficult for anyone to beat them."
Not everyone agreed. Heavyweight contender James Toney grumbled, "It's like they (HBO) want a white heavyweight champ so bad, they're just trying to give these guys the belts."
One can argue about motives, but certainly HBO was planning to ride the Klitschkos. Gazing into the future, one insider at the cable giant declared, "Outside of Mike Tyson, the Klitschkos are the most marketable heavyweights in the world. How can we go wrong with four Klitschko title fights a year?"
Then came a two-week span starting on April 10th when all four heavyweight championship belts were up for grabs. And as one might expect, Don King was in the thick of it.
First up was Wladimir Klitschko against Lamon Brewster at Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas for the WBO crown. Brewster was in line for a title shot by virtue of his association with King, who promoted the bout.
Brewster's primary asset seems to be his inherently likeable personality. "When I was young, I tried everything other than being a fighter," he conceded shortly before the fight. "I'm not doing this because I want to. I'm doing it because I have to. I'm fighting to get out of boxing. I don't have a job at Microsoft with a check coming in every week. I'd like it if I could go to a big football game once a year and have everybody there give me five dollars. If I could make that happen, I wouldn't be here."
"I don't think I'm special," Brewster continued. "I'm just a good trier. I got determination; I got will; and above all, I got faith. What man gets up every morning and says he wants to be a fighter and have people hit him and maybe get knocked out? It has to be something in your spirit. I mean, you know you're gonna get hit."
Brewster said all the right things with regard to facing Klitschko. "I'm going to test him at every level," he claimed. "I'm going to test his skill; I'm going to test his body; and I'm going to test his spirit. I'm not going to say things where I'm stepping on other fighters that he's fought. But true American fighters, we fight. We move our head. We take punches and we give them back. When he hits me, he can expect to get hit back with everything I got, every second of every round. If his hand is raised at the end, it won't be luck. It will be because he's the better fighter."
Few members of the boxing intelligentsia took Brewster seriously as a threat to the Ukrainian giant. But Lamon took himself seriously, and it was his mindset that mattered. "I've done everything possible to get ready to win this fight," he said on April 9th. "Now it's time to take the blanks out of the gun and put the real bullets in. I feel like the spirits of people who boxed before me are in me. And when I'm done, I hope my spirit carries on to the next generation."
Then Brewster voiced a refrain he had repeated often during the week. "Klitschko might think he's in for an easy night, but I plan on changing his mind. When the rabbit's got the gun, do you still want to hunt?"
In boxing, once the bell for round one rings, everything is up for grabs.
Despite his superior athletic ability, Klitschko looked like a fighter between styles. He fought with his feet wide apart; held on awkwardly when Brewster got inside; and bailed out whenever Lamon threw punches. Still, Wladimir was able to control the early rounds with his jab. Then, in round four, he landed a huge right hand that put Brewster on the canvas. Lamon rose from the first knockdown of his career and barely finished the round on his feet.
At the start of round five, Brewster looked like a man walking in waist-high water, but Klitschko was moving as though his legs were set in concrete. Then Lamon landed a solid left hook; referee Robert Byrd gave Klitschko an eight-count; the fight resumed; and Klitschko collapsed at the bell.
Lamon Brewster was the new WBO heavyweight champion; although in truth, it wasn't so much a case of Brewster looking good as it was of Klitschko looking like a shot fighter.
Then the scene moved to New York for two more heavyweight "title" fights: John Ruiz versus Fres Oquendo (WBA) and Chris Byrd versus Andrew Golota (IBF). In reality, both titles were tainted. Ruiz got his by default when Roy Jones relinquished the WBA belt rather than fight a meaningless rematch against the man he'd thoroughly dominated in March 2003. And Byrd should have been on the losing end of the judges' scorecards in his bout against Fres Oquendo last September. Still, King was in his glory. Brewster's victory had given him control of the WBO crown, while the WBA and IBF titles were already in his pocket.
Don King fills up a room with his voice and his physical presence. With a Don King show, even if the fights are dull, the action that surrounds them is entertaining. Thus, DK began the final pre-fight press conference at Madison Square Garden by extolling Lamon Brewster's virtues and his own success: "It's great to be number one for three decades . . . HBO did such a great job of building up the Klitschkos that they started to believe their own press releases . . . Lamon Brewster is a black Rocky . . . I love talking. I'm so happy."
Where his upcoming fights were concerned, King tried to build enthusiasm for Ruiz-Oquendo. "It's not just Puerto Rico that's excited," he told the assembled media. "All of Latin America is talking about this fight. They'll be streaming across the borders to see it."
But no one except the Ruiz and Oquendo camps seemed to care about the WBA title fight. Byrd-Golota was the ticket-seller and also a source of controversy.
Golota's history is unsavory and wellknown. On July 11, 1996, he was disqualified for repeated low blows in a fight against Riddick Bowe at Madison Square Garden. A riot followed. Five months later in Atlantic City, the two men met in the ring again. Again, Golota was well ahead going into the late rounds. And again, he was disqualified for deliberately fouling.
Golota also quit after two rounds in an October 2000 fight against Mike Tyson and has bitten two opponents. An argument can be made that his fights should be officiated like NBA basketball games. That is, with three referees; one on either side of the fighters and a third moving around the ring.
Also, as of early March, Golota wasn't ranked by the IBF among its top fifteen heavyweights; a prerequisite to fighting for the IBF crown. Then, on March 13th, the IBF released its new ratings. Low and behold; Golota was number fifteen. That led to a storm of protest over the besmirching of the cherished IBF crown. However, the controversy seemed a bit much given the fact that, at present, the IBF championship isn't a real heavyweight title. And let's not forget some of the championship-bout opponents for Joe Frazier (Terry Daniels and Ron Stander), George Foreman (Jose Roman), Larry Holmes (Lorenzo Zanon, Leroy Jones, Lucien Rodriguez, and Scott Frank), and Muhammad Ali (Brian London, Jean Pierre Coopman, and Richard Dunn).
Needless to say, King played on the controversy. After labeling Golota "the white Mike Tyson," he solemnly declared, "I must confess; I didn't make this fight. God made it. I thought that Chris Byrd would be fighting Derrick Jefferson, but Derrick got cut in his last fight. Right after that, I was staring at the clouds in despair when a bright religious light shone down from heaven and a voice said unto me, 'Put Chris Byrd in against Andrew Golota.' And that moved me deeply," King continued, "because coincidentially, Andrew had just come to me and confessed his sins and said he had been vilified, castigated, and humiliated, and that he had repented. And I said to myself, 'Give the white fighter a break.' So I signed Andrew and absolved him of all his sins. I know he had some wayward ways, but I love all people, and I know what it's like to suffer the slings and arrows of discrimination and be judged by people on the basis of perceived past wrongdoing rather than my present state. Nothing could be more fitting in this Holy month of April, the time of The Resurrection, than to resurrect the career of Andrew Golota."
In other words, God intervened and, through His grace, spared boxing fans the agony of Chris Byrd versus Derrick Jefferson. But would Golota go psycho in the ring again?
"Andrew has promised me that he'll fight fair and square," King assured the media. "And I promise you that Andrew will not hit Chris Byrd in the testicles. How do you prevent that from happening?" King asked rhetorically. And then he answered his own question. "You prevent that from happening by talking to Andrew and telling him to visualize that Chris Byrd's testicles have been taken out of his scrotum and are now in his chest."
And there was one more precaution as reported by Golota: "Don said to me, 'If you do that shit again, you don't get paid.'"
In the end, a surprisingly large crowd of 15,195 filed into Madison Square Garden. Lennox Lewis, Mike Tyson, and Evander Holyfield were in attendance. Then came the fights.
Ruiz-Oquendo was probably the most boring heavyweight "title" fight in boxing history and as bad as any bout that this observer has ever seen. Words like "dreadful", "stultifying", and "horrendous" come to mind, but it was worse than that. Fifty-nine seconds into round one, the crowd began to boo. Whistles and catcalls were heard at the two-minute mark. That was followed later in the fight by chants of "bullshit" and "Don King sucks." For ten rounds, all either fighter did was jab and hold. There wasn't one moment of excitement. Then, late in round eleven, Ruiz staggered Oquendo and drove him to the ropes with a right hand followed by a flurry of punches, and referee Wayne Kelly stopped the fight. The stoppage was premature, but Kelly should be forgiven since it spared fans three more minutes of agony. Also, it should be noted that Ruiz was going to win anyway. After ten rounds, he was ahead on the judges' scorecards 96-94, 96-94, 95-95; and round eleven had been a good round for him.
As for Byrd versus Golota, the pre-fight fear was that Andrew would be frustrated by his foe's elusiveness and resort to low blows. Lennox Lewis said as much when he opined, "Golota will be boxing against a guy who's going to frustrate him, and he doesn't react well to being frustrated."
But Evander Holyfield sounded a different note. "This is a dangerous fight for Byrd," the Real Deal observed. "Golota doesn't like pressure. That's the way to beat him; especially since, when you hit him, he freezes. But Byrd isn't the kind of fighter who applies pressure, and Golota's losses were against big guys or big punchers."
Golota isn't as good as he once was. But in recent bouts, Byrd seems to have lost some of his handspeed and quickness. As their fight progressed, Golota realized that his opponent couldn't hurt him, and that gave him confidence. Also, while Byrd had the faster hands, he consistently let Golota get off first.
Byrd spent most of the fight on the ropes, making Golota miss but rarely countering with much in return. In boxing, it's not enough just to avoid blows. You have to hit the other guy to win. The three judges scored the bout 115113 Byrd, 115-113 Golota, and 114-114 even. This writer gave it to Golota by a point, but few observers quarreled with the draw.
After that, it was on to the Staples Center in Los Angeles for Vitali Klitschko versus Corrie Sanders for the vacant WBC crown. This one was promoted by Klaus Peter Kohl and K2 Promotions. And it was a grudge match of sorts, since Sanders had knocked out Wladimir Klitschko last year. That was a surprise, since Corrie had been ready to retire at age thirty-seven after working as a golf pro in his native South Africa and fighting only twice in the preceding two years.
Vitali came into the fight against Sanders as the most likely successor to Lennox Lewis, in large part because of his effort against the champion last June, when he gave the out-of-shape Lewis all he could handle before succumbing to cuts after six rounds. In the aftermath of that fight, many commentators dwelled on the fact that Klitschko was ahead on the judges' scorecards 58-56 when the bout ended. But as Lennox noted, "I didn't hug him to give him those cuts. I punched him."
In the days leading up to the fight, Sanders seemed like a man ready to retire with one foot already out the door. "Vitali is a good fighter," he said. "But I believe I'm better." Then, in the next breath, he added, "As long as I keep winning, I will probably be in the ring. But obviously, age is not on my side so the time may come to call it a day. Either way, whatever happens, I can now say I've had a nice career."
Klitschko, for his part, declared, "This fight is very important for me for two reasons. It's for a world title and also for Wladimir. I don't want to make the same mistake made by my brother. I don't want to underestimate Corrie Sanders. He is a very tough fighter. He has speed, power, and a hard punch."
But in truth, Sanders had fought only five rounds in the previous four years. And except for a knockout loss to Hasim Rahman, he had gone past the second round only once since 1997. His credibility was based almost entirely on his having knocked out Wladimir Klitschko; a credential that lost its luster after Wladimir was stopped by Lamon Brewster.
When D-Day arrived, Sanders was overweight and unprepared to fight four hard rounds, let alone twelve. Klitschko was in better shape but looked like a lumbering version of Jess Willard in old fight films. The result was an inartistic, sometimes entertaining brawl during which Vitali battered his foe until referee Jon Schorle stopped it in the eighth round without either man going down. Sanders showed courage but that's about all, as he was hit repeatedly with right hands and landed only six punches per round. Klitschko also tired badly at the end, which lent credence to the view that Lennox would have knocked him out had their fight not been stopped on cuts after six rounds.
So where do the past few weeks leave boxing?
For starters, there's a credibility gap in the heavyweight division and the heavyweight throne is now vacant.
There are two kinds of champions in the sweet science; alphabet-soup and real ones. At the moment, there's no real heavyweight champion and talk to the contrary is nonsense.
WBC titleholder Vitali Klitschko is champion of the Klitschko family but not of the world. He's big, strong, well-motivated, and probably the best of today's heavyweights But at present, his credentials are based largely on a fight that he lost. Claims that Vitali is the "lineal" champion are spurious. Yes, the belt that Lewis relinquished last was the WBC title; but the WBC is no more credible than any of the other alphabet-soup organizations. If Vitali had fought Corrie Sanders for the WBO title and Juan Carlos Gomez fought Joe Mesi for the WBC crown, would the winner of Gomez-Mesi have been the lineal champion? Not at all. Indeed, due to its precarious financial position and ongoing bankruptcy proceeding, the WBC might not even exist a month from now.
WBA titleholder John Ruiz was thoroughly dominated by Roy Jones. IBF titleholder Chris Byrd lost his last two fights in the ring, if not on the judges' scorecards. WBO titleholder Lamon Brewster has shown no signs of greatness. It's a nice group of guys, but none of them rate recognition as the true heavyweight champion.
And more significantly, the public doesn't care. John Ruiz acknowledged as much when he recently declared, "People are losing their faith in the heavyweight division. Nobody knows who the champions are. Nobody knows who's coming up. Everyone used to know who was fighting for the title. Now you mention the name and everyone says, who the hell is that?"
Nor is there much hope for the immediate future.
A year ago, Wladimir Klitschko had dominated Chris Byrd, Jameel McCline, and Ray Mercer and was being touted as the next great heavyweight. Now he's being mocked as "a white Michael Grant."
After Wladimir's loss to Lamon Brewster, his attorney sent a letter to the WBO expressing concern about "the possibility of foul play" and suggesting that an immediate WBO-mandated rematch was in order. Cutman Joe Souza was dismissed, and conspiracy theorists had a field day with rumors about foreign substances in Vaseline and switched water bottles. One report went so far as to claim that Wladimir's blood sugar level after the fight was "three to four times" normal levels. That was untrue. "Normal" is 130. Wladimir's blood sugar count was 240, which is high but explainable by virtue of body chemistry and the fact that doctors put an IV-line in him on the way to the hospital after he was knocked out.
Wladimir himself added fuel to the fire when he declared, "I have absolutely no explanation why I became so weak during the fight. From the middle of the first round, I was totally exhausted. My legs felt like rubber. I did not have the feeling as if I punched myself out. The feeling was much much different. I know fighters can punch themselves out and overpace themselves, but that doesn't happen in the first round."
But Klitschko didn't looked drugged when he put Brewster on queer street with a big right hand in round four. Rather, Wladimir appeared to fall apart in the manner of Shannon Briggs against Darroll Wilson.
Power matters in boxing, but not as much as having a chin. Wladimir has now been stopped by Ross Puritty, Corrie Sanders, and Lamon Brewster, and the word on him is "no stamina, weak chin." Not a good combination for a fighter. Also, state of mind is huge for a boxer. A fighter can be physically superior and more skilled than his opponent. But if he's intimidated, he forfeits that edge. And some fighters can't seem to come back in a fight. Once they get hurt, they stay hurt.
Thus, Don King's gleeful rant. "The Klitschkos are complainers," DK chortled after Brewster's knockout triumph. "They complained after Lennox Lewis beat Vitali, and they complained after Lamon Brewster beat Wladimir. But it wasn't the water that Wladimir drank. It wasn't the soup he ate at Mandalay Bay. It wasn't the Vaseline they put on his face or the deoderant he used under his arms. It was Lamon Brewster."
As for the rest of the heavyweight division --
Vitali Klitschko has a mandatory defense coming up against Joe Mesi. But Mesi is expected to retire because of head injuries, and Juan Carlos Gomez is next in line. Yuk!
John Ruiz faces a mandatory challenge from Hasim Rahman. Yuk again. Ruiz-Rahman II should be as entertaining as Ruiz-Rahman I, which was only slightly better than Ruiz-Oquendo.
King has talked about a rematch between Chris Byrd and Andrew Golota. But the IBF has named Jameel McCline as the "leading available" mandatory challenger for Byrd and notified the fighters' respective camps that the fight must take place on or before June 20. McCline, one might recall, was previously discredited by Wladimir Klitschko.
Lamon Brewster would like to fight Mike Tyson, but that would require a settlement of the lawsuit between King and Tyson. Meanwhile, the WBO has ordered Brewster to face James Toney within 120 days or forfeit his title. Toney is recovering from surgery and says he'll be ready to fight in August.
There is, of course, no guarantee that any of the above-mentioned mandatory defenses will occur. King says that he wants to take the four current beltholders and match them in a heavyweight elimination tournament. But that won't happen unless Vitali Klitschko and Klaus Peter Kohl are willing to give King options, because DK isn't about to risk what he perceives to be his rightful share of the heavyweight crown. Meanwhile, Klitschko has said that he doesn't want to be tied promotionally to King.
Roy Jones has the potential to reinject life and talent into the heavyweight division. But boxing's reigning "pound-for-pound" king is more likely to stay at 175 pounds or retire. David Tua is experiencing managerial problems and is out of the current mix. Most of the other ranked heavyweights are has-beens or never-weres. And then there's Mike Tyson, who has been in the ring for 49 seconds since June 2002, but remains the most compelling figure in boxing and is still capable of whacking out anyone with one punch.
In other words, the heavyweight division is up for grabs. It's almost as though a stranger could walk in off the street and become heavyweight champion of the world. As Tyson himself said earlier this month, "Anybody can beat anybody."
Parity might work in the National Football League. In boxing, it's not good. Still, as Chris Byrd noted recently, "Lennox is gone, and people have to get used to that." Thus, for the moment, there's one star in the heavyweight division and his name is Don King.
King thrives on situations like this. The two heavyweights he covets most are Tyson and Vitali Klitschko. At present, he doesn't have either of them. But with three belts and the deft use of smoke and mirrors, DK will rule the heavyweight division for the forseeable future.
King's critics say that fighters sign with him out of desperation or to cheat their way to the top. King counters, "I'm in the hope business. A lot of these guys never would have had a chance if it weren't for me. These are the untouchables; the persona non gratas. I reach out and heal them."
Right now, the Mother Theresa of boxing is in the process of gathering as many toys as possible. Young fighters like Kali Meehan and Owen Beck are being groomed as cannon fodder. And at the other end of the spectrum, King just resigned Evander Holyfield, who acknowledges, "I know I said I wouldn't sign with Don again, but it's a business decision. I can fight regular guys or I can sign with Don and fight for a title."
Look for King to keep those titles fragmented for a while. That way, as devalued as they might be, he'll control three of them. Lamon Brewster puts the matter in perspective when he acknowledges, "We're all pawns on a chess board." And King himself declares, "Like me or dislike me; I'm still here."
So sit back and enjoy the show. Don King has been on top for three decades and there's no end in sight.
Thomas Hauser can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.