Lennox Lewis in his prime
By Thomas Hauser
"The sweet science," A. J. Liebling observed, "is joined onto the past like a man’s arm to his shoulder."
When Liebling penned those words, he was referring to the lineage of boxing’s heavyweight champions. It was a glorious line of succession revered by fight fans with the same emotion that British royalists embrace the monarchy.
John L. Sullivan . . James J. Corbett . . Bob Fitzsimmons . . James Jeffries . . Marvin Hart . . Tommy Burns . . Jack Johnson . . Jess Willard . . Jack Dempsey . . Gene Tunney . . Max Schmeling . . Jack Sharkey . . Primo Carnera . . Max Baer . . James Braddock . . Joe Louis . . Ezzard Charles . . Jersey Joe Walcott . . Rocky Marciano . . Floyd Patterson . . Ingemar Johansson . . Patterson again . . Sonny Liston . . Muhammad Ali . .
These men were gods with a common bond. "Fitzsimmons had been hit by Corbett," Liebling wrote. "Corbett by John L. Sullivan; he by Paddy Ryan with the bare knuckles; and Ryan by Joe Goss, his predecessor, who as a young man had felt the fist of the great Jem Mace. It is a great thrill to feel that all that separates you from the early Victorians is a series of punches on the nose."
Even when the heavyweight champion was a fighter of limited ability, he was still the heavyweight champion of the world.
Then world sanctioning bodies began to proliferate and things got murky. But there was still a chain of command.
Joe Frazier . . George Foreman . . the return of Ali . . Leon Spinks . . Larry Holmes . . Michael Spinks . . Mike Tyson . . James “Buster” Douglas . . Evander Holyfield . . Riddick Bowe . . Holyfield again . . Michael Moorer . . George Foreman . . followed by an interregnum with Lennox Lewis emerging as the true heavyweight champion of the world.
Sadly, that lineage no longer exists. There are now four heavyweight “champions”. Since Lewis retired in 2004, the depressing total of thirteen men have been anointed by the WBC, WBA, IBF and WBO. In other words, the throne is vacant at present and will be for the foreseeable future. Greed and corruption have fragmented the crown.
The single most important thing that sports fans want is competition building to a meaningful championship.
Interest in a sport peaks during its championship season. That’s when even casual observers turn on their television sets and lifelong fans are born. The National Football League has playoffs leading to the Super Bowl. Major League Baseball crests with the World Series. The National Basketball Association and National Hockey League follow similar formats. Golf captures the public imagination during the Masters and United States Open. Wimbledon captivates tennis fans.
The people who run boxing have managed to deprive the sport of its signature moment: a fight for the legitimate heavyweight championship of the world.
Other sports have suffered similar lapses. The World Series was cancelled due to labor strife in 1994. There’s a smudge in the National Hockey League record book where the 2005 Stanley Cup playoffs should have been. But baseball and hockey quickly got their respective houses in order, as did golf and tennis after interruptions for world war.
Yet the powers-that-be in boxing continue to pursue selfish agendas without regard to the overall good of the sport. And the irony is that, in the long run, their greed costs them money. Boxing’s dwindling fan base and the lack of lucrative network television contracts trace in part to the absence of a true heavyweight champion. How much interest would the Olympics generate if there were four gold-medalists in four separate versions of the 100-meter dash?
Boxing will not regain its status as a major sport until there’s a legitimate universally-recognized heavyweight champion of the world. Until that time, there will be a gaping void where glory was once found.
And in the end, it’s the boxers (at least, those who are genuinely talented) who will suffer the most. The ultimate goal of any athlete in any sport is to become a true world champion. An entire generation of heavyweights is being deprived of the opportunity to achieve that goal.
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Two weeks ago, I expressed disappointment at Vitali Klitschko’s efforts to push ahead of Samuel Peter as the “mandatory” challenger for WBC heavyweight beltholder Oleg Maskaev.
On February 8th, there was a meeting in New York attended by WBC president Jose Sulaiman, Klitschko advisor Shelly Finkel, Tom Loeffler (Klitschko’s promoter of record), Dennis Rappaport (Maskaev’s promoter), Ivaylo Gotzev (Peter’s manager), Don King and Dino Duva (Peter’s co-promoters), DKP vice president Bob Goodman, and enough lawyers to create a feeding frenzy of monstrous proportions.
The WBC, Klitschko, and Maskaev want Klitschko-Maskaev to take place sooner rather than later. According to several meeting participants, Finkel offered $2,500,000 in step-aside money to the Peter camp. In addition, if Peter steps aside, he would be the mandatory challenger for the winner of Maskaev-Klitschko and given a fifty-fifty purse split. If the winner of Klitschko-Maskaev failed to fight Peter within 120 days, he would be stripped of his title and the belt would be given to Peter.
The Peter camp is uncertain as to its next step. Its attorneys are confident that they would prevail if the matter were resolved in its entirety in state or federal court. Their problem is that Peter is believed to have signed a contract with the WBC prior to his two “mandatory eliminator” bouts against James Toney that provides for compulsory arbitration in lieu of court action should a dispute arise. Thus, if the WBC orders that the matter be arbitrated, the Peter camp would first have to go to court in an effort to void the arbitration clause.
Also, the issue of how any step-aside money would be split among Peter, Duva, and King has yet to be resolved. And there are rumors that Maskaev might not be ready to fight until June because of elbow surgery, as well as questions regarding whether Vitali is physically fit to fight twice within the span of 120 days.
If Peter steps aside, one big loser will be Don King. DK is fond of saying that he has been the lead dog in boxing for more than three decades and that, “Unless you’re the lead dog, the scenery never changes.” The WBC-Klitschko-Maskaev-Peter confrontation is a direct test of King’s influence and power. If his fighter is pushed aside, a lot of vultures will be circling.
Meanwhile, the biggest loser in all of this is the public. Boxing fans bought tickets and turned on the television, not once but twice, to watch Samuel Peter versus James Toney in the belief that the winner would be the mandatory challenger for Oleg Maskaev’s WBC crown. Some of those viewers, particularly in Nigeria, were ardent Samuel Peter fans.
Suppose, at commissioner Roger Goodell’s urging, the National Football League announced to the world last month, “We know the Indianapolis Colts beat the New England Patriots in the AFC title game, but the Colts have accepted step-aside money to let the Patriots play the Chicago Bears in The Super Bowl.”
That’s what the WBC, in conjunction with the Klitschko and Maskaev camps, is now trying to lay on the public. Sleazy maneuvering like this is a primary reason why millions of sports fans have lost interest in boxing.
Thomas Hauser can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org