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21 SEPTEMBER 2018

 

The Heavyweights


Brock is KO'd (HoganPhotos.com)
Brock is KO'd (HoganPhotos.com)

By Thomas Hauser
On June 8, 2002, Lennox Lewis knocked out Mike Tyson in Memphis. Since then, there has been only one real heavyweight championship fight. That was Lewis's stoppage of Vitali Klitschko on June 21, 2003.

Nothing is as profitable for a heavyweight as having a championship belt. Unfortunately, four heavyweights now have one: Wladimir Klitschko, Nikolai Valuev, Shannon Briggs, and Oleg Maskaev. There have been eight so-called "championships" fights this year. Categorized by sanctioning body, they are:

WBC
March 18th, Hasim Rahman vs. James Toney, draw
August 12th, Oleg Maskaev KO 12 over Hasim Rahman

WBA
June 3rd, Nikolai Valuev KO 3 over Owen Beck
October 7th, Nikolai Valuev KO 11 over Monte Barrett

IBF
April 22nd, Wladimir Klitschko KO 7 over Chris Byrd
November 11th, Wladimir Klitschko KO 7 over Calvin Brock

WBO
April 1st, Sergei Liakhovich W 12 over Lamon Brewster
November 4th, Shannon Briggs KO 12 over Sergei Liakhovich

When promoter Bob Arum was asked recently to describe the state of the heavyweight division, he answered appropriately, "Two words; 'oy' and 'vey'." And November's title bouts did little to dispel the malaise that has engulfed the division.

In Liakhovich-Briggs, each man fought a safety-first fight with the crowd voicing disapproval throughout. Briggs pretended that he was fighting like the bigger man (making nasty faces and moving forward) but he wasn't. He rarely forced exchanges. Instead, he looked for openings that he could exploit one punch at a time without getting hit.

Liakhovich is not a good counter-puncher. He fights back if he's hurt, but that's different from effective counter-punching. And unless he's hurt, he tends to cover up when attacked without throwing back. With 26 seconds left in the fight, Briggs gave the highlight-reel people what they wanted when he knocked Liakhovich down. Sergei rose, was blasted through the ropes, and the fight was stopped with one second left. All three judges had Liakhovich ahead on points at the time. Afterward, Sergei said ruefully, "He fought his fight, and I fought his fight."

Klitschko-Brock at Madison Square Garden featured more action that its WBO counterpart, but there was little pre-fight drama. In all of MSG's history (including three previous incarnations dating back to 1874), there had been only one bout in which a heavyweight title changed hands. That was in 1986, when James "Bonecrusher" Smith knocked out Tim Witherspoon to claim the WBA crown. It was considered unlikely that Brock would effectuate another changing of the guard.

Calvin is a nice man with a degree in business administration from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, but there was little in his record to suggest that he posed a serious threat to Klitschko. Other than a ten-round decision over Jameel McCline (who was KO'd by Wladimir in 2002), his record was devoid of quality opponents.

Brock said all the right things in the days leading up to the fight . . . "I have a lot of respect for Wladimir Klitschko as a fighter, but I have a lot of respect for myself too . . . Wladimir is good but I foresee myself beating him without a problem . . . I know how good I am and I know how good he is, and I know that he's not good enough."

But at the final pre-fight press conference, Brock seemed inordinately nervous; much like Michael Grant before his fight against Lennox Lewis. And like Grant, he seemed to be relying more on Almighty intervention than on his own fists.

"Praying works best if you do your homework," Calvin Brock Sr (who helps train his son) acknowledged. "You have to take care of the practical side of things too."

Also, the normal ring at Madison Square Garden is a relatively small 18-feet3-inches squared. For Klitschko-Brock, both camps agreed to bring in a 20-foot ring. Some saw that as a tip-off with regard to Brock's mental state; that he wasn't going to crowd Klitschko as aggressively as he'd have to do in order to win.

Still, Klitschko himself observed, "Nobody knows the result before a fight. You can make a prediction, but nobody knows." And Brock's partisans took heart in the fact that Calvin is consistent with moderate power while Wladimir's chin is suspect.

When the bell for round one rang, Brock seemed nervous. He slipped and slid without getting hit and at one point actually fell to the canvas, although tangled feet might have been a contributing factor. In round two, he gathered himself and landed several good right-hand leads to the body. Meanwhile, Klitschko was having trouble getting his rhythm.

Finally, in round five, Wladimir began working his jab effectively and landing right hands behind it. In round six, an accidental head-butt opened a cut above his left eye; and in the last twenty seconds of the round, he seemed to lose form. At that point, visions of Klitschko-Brewster danced through the mind. But midway through round seven, Klitschko staggered Brock with a quick left hook followed by a sharp right, pursued him across the ring, and dropped him face-first to the canvas with a short, straight, picture-perfect right hand. Calvin rose couragously through an act of extraordinary will. But there were fifty seconds left in the stanza and referee Wayne Kelly wisely stopped it.

At age thirty, Klitschko is the youngest of the four beltholders and probably the best. He's coordinated and fast with power. "Throwing punches is an art," he says. And the righthand he knocked Brock out with was a work of art. He has genuine one-punch knockout power.

Klitschko-Brock was Wladimir's fiftieth professional fight and marked his tenth year as a professional boxer. His critics point to knockout losses suffered at the hands of Ross Puritty, Corrie Sanders, and Lamon Brewster. But Wladimir responds, "There were many conversations out there about my stamina, my chin, my guts; but I never lost my confidence. It's important to have success and failure. You have to know both sides to be a real champion. My answer to my critics is in my performance. I understand what is necessary to be a professional fighter."

There are no great heavyweights on the scene today for Klitschko to beat. The only way that he can prove his greatness is to beat the other champions and establish himself as the dominant heavyweight of his time. Maybe he will; maybe he won't.

If Klitschko is the best of the lot, Valuev is the most interesting. He's 7-feet-2-inches tall, weighs 328 pounds, and is undefeated in 45 fights. Yes, he's a one-dimensional fighter, but it's quite a dimension. He has good stamina, paces himself well, and seems to be improving with each fight. Don King (Valuev's promoter) speaks the truth when he says, "Nobody knows what's going to happen with Valuev. And anybody who says they know, don't."

Briggs is something of a con artist in and out of the ring. But he commands attention because he has charisma, he's exceedingly verbal, his hair is orange, and he can fight a bit. Discounting the decision over George Foreman that he was unfairly awarded in 1997, Shannon had never beaten a top-ten heavyweight prior to Liakhovich. In his present incarnation, he's bigger and more physically imposing than in the past. Against tough opponents, he's a boxer, not a puncher. And as is the case with Klitschko, his heart has been questioned.

"All those labels that people put on me," Briggs says; "lack of heart, lack of courage, no guts. They hurt. People don't believe it but I suffer from asthma. The whole fight against Sergei, I was breathing bad and having trouble. You can go without food and water for a long time. Check out how long you can go without breathing."

Earlier this month, Briggs said of Klitschko, "He's a good boxer, but he's not a fighter. He has decent boxing skills, but he doesn't have the heart that it takes to be heavyweight champion of the world. I want to see what his ticker is like when he gets cracked and it's coming all night."

Klitschko might say the same thing about Briggs. It would be nice if they settled their differences in the ring.

Meanwhile, of all the heavyweight beltholders, Maskaev (who is scheduled to fight Peter Okhello in Moscow on December 11th) appears to have the most options. That's because he's free and clear of Don King (more on that later) and also because he's considered the most vulnerable. Oleg is 37 years old and has been knocked out five times. Each of the other champions wants to fight him So do Bernard Hopkins, Evander Holyfield, and the winner of the upcoming "elimination" bout between Samuel Peter and James Toney. James, by the way, is the only heavyweight who really will fight anyone and also the only heavyweight who can come in over the weight limit.

The bottom line is, these days virtually anyone can be a player in the heavyweight division. There's John Ruiz, Rusian Chagaev, Ray Austin, Sultan Ibragimov, Hasim Rahman, Lamon Brewster (whose eye might prevent him from fighting again), even David Tua. That's just for starters. And hovering above it all is Don King.

King turned 75 earlier this year and is on the rebound from a series of medical procedures, including an angioplasty. Ruminating on the worst of them, he said recently, "I've been shot, bombed, and stabbed, but there ain't nothing as painful as a kidney stone."

Once upon a time, King controlled the heavyweight division. Now he promotes Briggs and (with Wilfred Sauerland) has a piece of Valuev. Klitschko is self-promoted. Maskaev is promoted by Dennis Rappaport.

Earlier this year, King was vocal in attacking HBO for not being fully supportive of his vision. "The networks have taken away our fighters," he said. "They're the true promoters now. The dates they give you are what determines who fights, where, and when. Promoters are being eliminated because HBO is eliminating us. They're putting promoters out of business because they are the promoter. It's hypocrisy and it's not a level playing field. What they are doing to the promoter is unfair. But if you speak out against them, you'll be destroyed. There's more honor on the streets with the value of a handshake and a man's word than there is with all this corporate bullshit."

Then King found a new target for his anger; Klitschko "advisor" Shelly Finkel.

King had wanted to put the October 7th title bout between Valuev and Monte Barrett in Madison Square Garden. But the Klitschko camp seemed to fear that, if Valuev fought at the Garden, Wladimir would become an after-thought. Given the five weeks between fights, that didn't show much confidence in the marketability of a fighter who's backed by HBO and is arguably the best heavyweight in the world. Nonetheless, Team Klitschko insisted on enforcing a contractual clause that precluded Valuev-Barrett from taking place at MSG.

Meanwhile, Briggs had been told in June that he'd be fighting Klitschko on November 11th for a pay-day of $750,000 plus $250,000 worth of tickets. He withdrew from a July 26th fight in reliance upon that belief and waited for the Klitschko-Briggs contract that never came. Finally, Shannon signed with King and (for considerably less money than he would have received for fighting Wladimir) took the Liakhovich fight.

Both King and Briggs held Finkel responsible for their woes and, at the September 18th kick-off press conference for Liakhovich-Briggs, they voiced their displeasure. King expended considerable energy attacking Shelly; at one point likening him with great hyperbole to Joseph Goebbels (Adolf Hitler's minister of propaganda). When it was Briggs's turn to speak, the fighter opined, "They always talk about how Don King is the worst thing to ever hit boxing. But in my opinion, it's guys like Shelly Finkel who have taken boxing to where it is. In my opinion, Shelly Finkel is a scumbag."

One should note, it's unlikely that King or Briggs intended their comments to be taken literally. King understands that there's considerable difference between the conduct of Finkel and Goebbels (Goebbels was much worse). And Shelly has never transformed himself into a latex or sheepskin receptacle to block the flow of seminal fluid during sexual intercourse.

Be that as it may; King defined the battle for control of the heavyweight division as "us against them" and prophesied that, ultimately, he would prevail. "It ain't over till the fat lady sings," he proclaimed. "So all you got to do is keep feeding the fat lady so her mouth is full and she can't sing."

There's sad irony in the fact that boxing, which is the most universal of all sports, has become a niche sport. The current heavyweight mess is one of the reasons why.

Boxing should be about fighters fighting fighters; not promoters fighting promoters, managers fighting advisors, and networks fighting networks. When casual sports fans can't name the heavyweight champion of the world, the sweet science has a problem. And with four "champions", the problem is magnified. Klitschko himself acknowledges as much when he says, " I don't see myself as the real champion because there are three other guys holding belts. As long as other heavyweights have titles, there is no champion. I am only one of four."

Last month, HBO Sports president Ross Greenburg invited representatives of each heavyweight champion to attend a meeting at his Manhattan office. His goal was to cobble together a unification tournament to be televised by the cable giant. But the meeting never took place, and a tournament is unlikely to occur because of (1) demands by the promoters involved for options on other promoters' fighters; (2) demands by the fighters for rematch clauses to protect themselves should they lose; and (3) demands by the various sanctioning bodies that "mandatory" defense obligations be fulfilled lest a title-holder be stripped of his belt.

Meanwhile, although HBO has a continuing commitment to boxing, it can no longer be counted upon to perpetuate what is best for the sport. Yes, the network is backing the May 5th pay-per-view megafight between Oscar De La Hoya and Floyd Mayweather Jr. But HBO Championship Boxing has some questionable fights ahead and Boxing After Dark is in shambles.

There was a time when the people behind BAD trusted that their viewers would appreciate good match-ups whether or not "name" fighters were involved. Now, either they don't know what a good match-up is or they don't have that trust. The Boxing After Dark mission statement ("competitive fights between exciting young fighters on the rise") reads like the Republican Party platform on "healthy forests" and "no child left behind."

And more significantly, in search of a younger audience demographic, HBO is on the verge of finalizing a deal with UFC. If consummated, that would bring "ultimate fighting" closer to the mainstream of American sports. It would also have the longterm effect of undermining HBO's boxing franchise, just as Showtime's recently-announced agreement with Pro Elite to televise mixed martial arts ultimately will chip away at Showtime Championship Boxing.

Such is life. HBO and Showtime are for-profit corporations. Their bottom line is not supposed to be about what's best for boxing.

Meanwhile, there's one final point to be made with regard to the Klitschko-Brock fight card at Madison Square Garden. The semi-final bout was a horrible mismatch between Laila Ali and Shelley Burton that showcased women's boxing in the worst way possible. But there was poignancy to the moment because of the presence of Muhammad Ali at ringside.

Ali is not well. His physical condition today belies the electrifying persona that he once had. The true nature of his contribution to American society grows ever more hazy in a fog of historical revisionism for economic gain. It was strange to watch Ali watch his daughter deal out the same sort of damage to an overmatched opponent that he himself suffered in his ring career.

But there was another former heavyweight champion at ringside on November 11th. Lennox Lewis walked away from boxing while heavyweight champion of the world. He turned down $15,000,000 for "one more fight" and who knows how much money for how many fights after that because he understood that the time to retire was at hand. Lennox is now healthy and strong with a full life ahead of him. Muhammad Ali is deserving of enormous praise. So is Lennox Lewis.

Thomas Hauser can be reached by email at thauser@rcn.com



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