Eubank and Benn super middleweight rivals
By Danny Winterbottom: The super six boxing classic, Showtime’s unique tournament involving six of the world’s best at 168lbs reaches its conclusion on December 17 when British warrior Carl “The Cobra” Froch and American former Olympic gold medallist Andre Ward meet in a mouth watering clash to determine the No.1 in boxings second youngest division.
The tournament has seen both men face and defeat some of the best fighters at the weight including Mikkel Kessler, Artur Abraham, Jermain Taylor and Andre Dirrell, and although there have been some withdrawals due to injury and retirement, the tournament has been a rousing success, a jewel in the crown of a division already steeped in talent, action and drama despite its relatively short 27 year history.
Below we take a look at how the division was created, the fights, the main players and the greatest champions.
IN THE BEGINNING
Whilst Carl Froch and Andre Ward will have the eyes of the world’s media scrutinising every aspect of their upcoming clash, 27 years ago, ironically in Atlantic City, there was no such interest when Scotland’s Murray Sutherland and Ernie Singletary contested the very first super middleweight world title fight sanctioned by the International Boxing Federation. In fact the bout was given the cold shoulder by the boxing press as Sutherland was considered at best a fringe contender and Singletary only a good club fighter. Most in the media viewed the newly formed division much in the same way as the proliferation of belts is today, for the sanctioning bodies to make more money. Despite this the fledgling weight class was up and running and soon afterwards the other major sanctioning bodies followed suit with their own versions of the world championship.
Murray Sutherland became the inaugural IBF champion with a 15 round decision victory over Ernie Singletary on March 28 1984. Korean Chong Pal Park was Sutherland’s first challenger, ripping the title from the champion courtesy of a knock out in round 11. Park would become the division’s dominant force in the early part of the 80’s winning the newly created WBA title, after vacating the IBF belt, when he defeated Jesus Gallardo in two rounds. However, Park only left the sanctuary of his home land once during his title reign which affected the creditability of the division. Despite this, the weight class would receive a huge push in recognition towards the end of the decade from some of the sport’s biggest names.
On November 4, 1988 Thomas Hearns defeated James Kinchen to capture the WBO version of the world championship adding an air of creditability to the class. “The Hitman”, coming off a shocking knockout loss at middleweight to Iran Barkley had to survive some rocky moments before managing to narrowly eke out a majority decision win over the heavy handed Kinchen. Three nights later saw ‘Sugar’ Ray Leonard KO Don LaLonde in nine rounds in Las Vegas to win the WBC belt in a bout that also saw LaLonde’s light heavyweight title at stake. Sugar Ray survived a fourth round knock down to prove too classy for the Canadian “Golden Boy”. Leonard, still building into the weight scaled only 165lbs wearing a tracksuit and shoes.
Eight years after their 1981 Ring magazine fight of the year, Sugar Ray Leonard and Thomas Hearns resumed their great rivalry in the division’s first ever unification fight. On June 12, 1989, in Las Vegas, Leonard’s WBC and Hearns’ WBO belts were on the line in a bout tinged with controversy. Hearns dropped ‘Sugar’ Ray twice, once in round three and again in round 11 but was also badly shaken as the bout ended in a 12 round draw. Both men came into the contest weighing well below the division’s limit, with Leonard tipping the scales at 160lbs and the “Hitman” 162.5.
With two bouts against the fearsome Panamanian, Roberto Duran, already under his belt Leonard and “The Hands of Stone” would meet again eight years after the infamous “No Mas” fight. Duran, fighting more than 30lbs above his most ferocious days as a lightweight was a shadow of his former self, as Leonard toyed with him in a fairly uneventful spectacle taking a 12 round unanimous decision. The fight took place on December 7, 1989 as a new, exciting decade in the super middleweight division drew ever closer.
During this decade the division flourished with the emergence of future hall of famers Roy Jones Jnr, James Toney and British duo Nigel Benn and the enigmatic Chris Eubank. With both Jones and Toney under contract to U.S station HBO the division was given welcome exposure as the two young standouts were regularly showcased by the network. Toney would go onto challenge former middleweight puncher Iran Barkley and then Jones almost two years later in a contest still considered by many to be one of the most significant fights in the entire history of the division. Rivalling that fights No.1 status, the rematch between fierce rivals Nigel Benn and Chris Eubank was the biggest super middleweight fight in British history and one of the most high profile European bouts of the decade. Along with Jones and Toney, Benn and Eubank’s amazing rivalry helped legitimise the weight class.
During this period European boxers rated highly in all the various sanctioning bodies’ rankings with no fewer than 11 world champions from the continent starting with Frenchman Christophe Tiozzo in 1990. As boxing fans we were lucky enough to see some of Britain’s best contemporary pugilists swap leather in many classic fights such as the aforementioned Benn-Eubank, Collins-Eubank and the emergence late in the decade of Welsh superstar Joe Calzaghe. Tragically Michael Watson’s fight with Chris Eubank in September 1991 for the vacant WBO title ended with the 26-year-old from Islington, London, suffering permanent partial paralysis after he was stopped by Eubank in round 12 of a titanic battle. Four years later Nigel Benn was involved in a similarly tragic fight when American challenger Gerald McClellan, stopped in 10 rounds, collapsed in his corner and suffered horrific injuries including almost complete loss of his eyesight, loss of hearing and the need for a wheelchair.
These two horrible tragedies still cast a shadow over the history of the division and boxing as a whole.
In 1997 Joe Calzaghe upset Chris Eubank to continue British boxing’s love affair with the super middleweight division and would go on to become one of, if not Britain’s ever world champion making an incredible 21 defences of his title.
In Britain the animosity between former amateur club mates James Degale and George Groves produced one of the most talked about and anticipated fights of the year. Groves shocked the boxing public with a display of controlled aggression to stifle Degale’s counter punching style, taking a narrow points victory. With Groves and Degale now promotionally linked via Frank Warren and Box nation, the chances of a rematch when one or both win a world title has increased greatly, and we could see the emergence of a long standing rivalry which is good for the division as a whole.
The European scene is still strong with Romanian born but Canadian based Lucien Bute laying claim to be divisional number one. A possible unification fight with the winner of this weekend’s Carl Froch-Andre Ward clash is a mouth watering prospect or even a fight with current WBA middleweight champion Gennady Golovkin should the pair wish to resume their amateur rivalry.
In the States Shawn Estrada, currently undefeated at 13-0 (12) and Edwin Rodriguez 18-0 (13) represent the next batch of 168lbs contenders hot on the heels of the division’s established stars. 6ft 4ins South African southpaw Thomas Oosthuizen is another young lion waiting for his shot at the big time and Mexican knockout artist Marco Antonio Periban could also find himself in the mix in 2012.
Regardless whether it is Carl Froch or Andre Ward who have their hand raised in victory on December 17 they will be wanted men in a division stacked with talent.
December 13, 2011