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Heavyweight History and The Incredible Klitschko Brothers, Part I
By Mikko Salo: In the aftermath of the Wladimir Klitschko vs David Haye megafight, one important aspect of the outcome has been given a fairly small amount of attention. Finally, after several years of suffering through utter disorganization in the heavyweight division, we have Undisputed Heavyweight Champions, who hold The Ring Magazine Championship and all the alphabet titles at the same time: The Klitschko Brothers.
The brothers have always conducted themselves as a team. Their main goal has been to unify the alphabet titles between them. That is what they have now achieved and are ready to defend, starting September 10th, when Vitali Klitschko takes on Poland`s Tomasz Adamek, currently #2 in The Ring Magazine heavyweight ratings.
The brothers will never fight each other, so in my opinion it is only appropriate that they together be recognized as The Undisputed Heavyweight Champions. The Klitschko Brothers` unprecedented feat is such an extraordinary display of dominance considering all of sports, that it demands some recollection, historic perspective and analysis. It also requires us to seriously make an effort to answer questions about their place in the history of the sweet science and its marquee division.
The most entertaining aspect of boxing debate is comparing different eras and fighters with each other. Therefore, to thoroughly understand the current state of boxing`s premier division, we have to look back at times and champions gone by. Times and champions, which many experts think were far more interesting and far superior compared to the state of the heavyweight division today.
This article has three parts:
Part I looks back on the last 30 years of heavyweight boxing, highlighted by several great fighters and fights, but also periods of confusion and disorganization, during which the boxing public has endured countless alphabet titlists with no claim to the real heavyweight throne.
Part II will chronicle The Klitschko Brothers` triumphs and defeats during the first part of their professional careers in the years 1996-2005 and their rise to The Undisputed Heavyweight Championship by unifying all the alphabet belts and winning The Ring Magazine Heavyweight Championship in years 2006 to present.
Part III will take on and analyze issues concerning The Klitschko Brothers` current and possible future place in the history of the heavyweight division: Among others it will cover the level of their competition in the path to The Undisputed Championship, the overall state of the heavyweight division after The Klitschko Unification, the impact of their previous defeats to their legacy, and the aspects concerning their boxing style.
Part I - Three Decades of Champions and Disarrays
The Disarray of the 1980s
The great 1970s era of the Undisputed Lineal Heavyweight Champions who ruled not only the sport of boxing but the whole sporting world came to an end in the early 1980s. The decline started when World Boxing Council stripped Undisputed Heavyweight Champion Leon Spinks of its title on 18th March 1978 and awarded the belt to its #1 challenger Ken Norton without a title fight. This happened because Spinks refused to defend his title against Norton, opting instead for a better payday from a rematch against Muhammad Ali.
After this incident, heavyweight boxing slowly started to drown in the chaos of feuding sanctioning bodies and promoters who couldn`t or wouldn`t stage fights to determine the Undisputed Heavyweight Champion. During The Disarray of the 1980s the division saw a plethora of more or less undeserving alphabet titlists. The period included the beginnings and ends of the title reigns of John Tate, Mike Weaver, Michael Dokes, Gerrie Coetzee, Tim Witherspoon (twice), Pinklon Thomas, Greg Page, Tony Tubbs, Trevor Berbick, James Smith and Tony Tucker. The public grew disgusted of the growing armada of so-called “heavyweight champions”.
Through the early 1980s there was one man deserving to claim the title of the true heavyweight champion, the remarkable Larry Holmes. He captured the Ring Magazine Lineal Championship (“the man who beat the man”) by defeating 38-year-old Muhammad Ali in October 1980 and held the Championship for almost five years. His WBC and later International Boxing Federation title reign from June 1978 to September 1985 lasted for 19 successful defenses and over seven years.
The only knock on Holmes is that despite his supremacy in the ring he wasn`t able to unify the alphabet titles and achieve The Undisputed Heavyweight Championship. The one time Holmes had a unification bout scheduled (against World Boxing Association titlist Gerrie Coetzee in June 1984), it fell through due to financial and legal troubles surrounding the event.
Although the unification didn`t happen for Holmes, it has to be remembered that during his reign he defended successfully against Mike Weaver (TKO 12), Muhammad Ali (RTD 10), Trevor Berbick (UD 15), Leon Spinks (TKO 3), Tim Witherspoon (SD 12) and James Smith (TKO 12), all former or future heavyweight champions or titlists at the time of fighting Holmes.
Holmes`s hold on the heavyweight crown slipped, when the Undisputed Light Heavyweight Champion Michael Spinks unanimously outpointed the 35-year-old “Easton Assassin” for The Ring Magazine Lineal Heavyweight Championship and IBF heavyweight title in September 1985.
Spinks held the IBF title until February 1987, when the sanctioning body stripped him of it for refusing to defend against their #1 challenger Tony Tucker. “The Jinx” probably wasn`t too disappointed, since he received a much better payday fighting former title challenger Gerry Cooney, whom he TKOd in the 5th round in June 1987 retaining his Ring Magazine Lineal Championship with curiously no alphabet titles at stake.
The Tyson Unification
In the end, The Disarray of the 1980s was solved with an astonishing speed and power. The savior of heavyweight boxing arrived in the form of a 20-year old man-child named Mike Tyson, who won the WBC belt by knocking out Trevor Berbick (TKO 2) in November 1986. In the HBO-staged unification tournament he dominated the other titlists and unified the alphabet titles by beating James Smith (UD 12) and Tony Tucker (UD 12). All this happened in a ferocious 9-month span from November 1986 to August 1987. The final word for Tyson`s dominance came in June 1988, when he emphatically KOd the undefeated Ring Magazine Lineal Champion Michael Spinks in the 1st round and became the first Undisputed Heavyweight Champion in over 10 years.
The See-Saw Decade of 1990s
Even with the chaos that was heavyweight boxing for most of the 1980s, we saw only four fighters hold The Ring Magazine Lineal Championship during the decade – Ali (RingC 1980), Holmes (RingC 1980-85), Spinks (RingC 1985-88) and Tyson (UndispC 1988-89). In 1990 The Ring Magazine discontinued its championship policy but The Lineal Championship still existed. And it was about to change hands with a frenzied pace.
The Tyson Unification had brought order to the division but then came the biggest heavyweight upset of all time, when James Douglas KOd Tyson in the 10th round in February 1990. Douglas was in turn KOd by Evander Holyfield (KO 3) in October 1990. After three successful defenses Holyfield lost his Championship to Riddick Bowe (UD 12) in November 1992. During the Disarray of 1980s there had been a 10-year absence of an Undisputed Heavyweight Champion and now we had four different Undisputed Champions in a four-year span!
The clarity in the heavyweight division lasted until December 1992, when Riddick Bowe dumped the WBC belt in the trash can refusing to fight their #1 challenger, former olympic champion Lennox Lewis. This led to a new wave of alphabet reigns (IBF, WBA or WBC without The Lineal Championship) with Lennox Lewis, Oliver McCall, Bruce Seldon, Frank Bruno, Mike Tyson, Michael Moorer and Evander Holyfield holding the various belts at various times.
The See-Saw Decade of the 1990s had us witnessing several memorable heavyweight fights with Holyfield, Tyson, Lewis and Bowe as the headlining stars. Arguably the most integral part of the See-Saw Decade was Evander Holyfield, who faced the other three biggest heavyweight stars in title bouts a combined seven times between November 1992 and November 1999, with The Undisputed and/or Lineal Championship on the line in four of those fights. He was also the first fighter since Muhammad Ali who was able to regain The Lineal Championship after losing it by out-pointing Riddick Bowe (MD 12) in November 1993 in “The Fan Man Fight”.
Despite the numerous megafights throughout the decade, the emotional high of the 1990s for the boxing public might have come with a single right cross in November 1994. That is when 45-year-old George Foreman KOd Lineal Champion and IBF & WBA titlist Michael Moorer in the 10th round and captured the heavyweight crown 20 years after losing the Undisputed Heavyweight Championship to Muhammad Ali in “The Rumble in the Jungle”.
In the end of the 1990s Britain`s Lennox Lewis restored order in the heavyweight division. First he beat Oliver McCall for the vacant WBC title in February 1997. In defending his WBC title Lewis beat The Lineal Champion Shannon Briggs (TKO 5) in March 1998 (Briggs had curiously won The Lineal Championship in November 1997 by outpointing George Foreman (MD 12) in a non-title bout after Foreman had been stripped of both WBA and IBF belts) and then unanimously out-pointed IBF & WBA titlist Evander Holyfield for the rest of the alphabet belts and The Undisputed Heavyweight Championship in November 1999. Lewis became the first Undisputed Heavyweight Champion since Riddick Bowe in 1992 and the first non-American Heavyweight Champion since Sweden´s Ingemar Johansson held the crown in 1959-60.
All in all, The See-Saw Decade had five different fighters holding the Undisputed Heavyweight Championship and eight different fighters holding The Lineal Heavyweight Championship – Mike Tyson (UndispC 1990), James Douglas (UndispC 1990), Evander Holyfield (UndispC 1990-92, LinealC 1993-94), Riddick Bowe (UndispC 1992, LinealC 1992-93), Michael Moorer (LinealC 1994), George Foreman (LinealC 1994-97), Shannon Briggs (LinealC 1997-98) and Lennox Lewis (LinealC 1998-99, UndispC 1999).
The Disarray of 2000s
Lewis`s reign as the Undisputed Heavyweight Champion came to an end in April 2000 after just five months. That is when he relinquished the WBA title after being ordered by a New Jersey court to choose between making the next defense against John Ruiz or giving up the WBA title.
After this incident, heavyweight boxing slowly started to drown in the chaos of feuding sanctioning bodies and promoters who couldn`t or wouldn`t stage fights to determine the Undisputed Heavyweight Champion (does this sound familiar?).
Lennox Lewis lost his Lineal Championship and IBF & WBA belts getting KOd in the 5th round by Hasim Rahman in April 2001. After winning The Championship and the belts back from Rahman (KO 4) in November 2001, Lewis was acknowledged by The Ring Magazine as its Champion, when the magazine continued its championship policy in 2002.
The 38-year-old Lewis retired in February 2004, vacating The Ring Magazine Lineal Championship and the WBC title he was holding at the time. The lineage that had started with Floyd Patterson defeating Archie Moore after Rocky Marciano`s retirement in 1956, had come to an end.
The championship lineage was started anew, when Vitali Klitschko defeated Corrie Sanders (TKO 8) for The Ring Magazine Championship in April 2004. Klitschko in turn retired in November 2005, vacating The Ring Championship again, leaving the new lineage short-lived. In the end of the decade a new Ring Magazine Champion was crowned with Wladimir Klitschko defeating Ruslan Chagaev (RTD 9) for The Championship in June 2009.
The 2000s saw four different Lineal and/or Ring Magazine Champions – Lennox Lewis (UndispC 2000, LinealC 2000-01, LinealC/RingC 2001-04), Hasim Rahman (LinealC 2001), Vitali Klitschko (RingC 2004-05) and Wladimir Klitschko (RingC 2009).
The Disarray of 2000s included the beginnings and ends of the alphabet (IBF, WBA, WBC without The Ring/Lineal Championship) title reigns of Evander Holyfield, John Ruiz (twice), Chris Byrd, light heavyweight-great Roy Jones Jr. Hasim Rahman, Nikolay Valuev (twice), Oleg Maskaev, Ruslan Chagaev, Samuel Peter and David Haye.
The World Boxing Organization, which was formed in the late 1980s, has also recognized heavyweight titlists since Francesco Damiani became its first titlist in May 1989 and it is nowadays recognized by The International Boxing Hall of Fame as one of the four major sanctioning bodies. In its first 20 years of existence, the WBO belt was never held by the reigning Ring Magazine or Lineal Champion. This gives me enough reason to ignore the WBO beltholders in this instance and spare the reader from more confusion.
The Disarray of 2000s was probably even more confusing to the boxing fan than the 1980s version. Despite the several alphabet titlists in the 1980s, there was always one man holding The Ring Magazine Lineal Championship. In 2000s, there was a significant period of time (from November 2005 to June 2009) without a true heavyweight champion as The Ring Magazine Championship was vacant and championship lineage didn`t exist. The thought of having an Undisputed Heavyweight Champion was far and away. The Klitschko Brothers changed all that.
August 19, 2011