“Now you must remember, the enemy has only images and illusions behind which he hides his true motives”
-Shaolin Abbot, Enter the Dragon
Following boxing in the 21st century can be a bit of a head trip. Do any of us really know what’s going on anymore? It easy to feel that the system is adversarial and that governing bodies and broadcasters are deliberately concocting as much nonsense as possible to drive profit. This seems particularly apparent in the current heavyweight scene.
Keen students of boxing history will know that on this day in 1970, Joe Frazier demolished Jimmy Ellis in four rounds to kick-start a golden era for the heavyweight division. Frazier collected both WBA and WBC titles (the only ones available at the time) that had been stripped from the imperious Muhammed Ali for being a ‘draft dodger’. Having refused induction into the US Army fighting the Vietnam War, Ali was suspended from the ring in 1967, allowing a handful of inferior fighters to squabble over his belts.
That was until the bobbing, hooking, dervish known as Smokin’ Joe ended the malaise, taking on the mantle of dominant champ, defeating Ali himself in his second defence at Madison Square Garden and then reigning for three years. Ultimately Frazier was dethroned by the fearsome bulk of George Foreman and the two formed a triumvirate, along with Ali, that fought eight titanic battles during the seventies, backed up by an able supporting cast of Earnie Shavers, Ken Norton, Jerry Quarry and the rest. Eventually their epic dynasty gave way to the Larry Holmes era, who in turn left his scraps to a slew of pretenders until they were cleaned up by Mike Tyson, whose flame burned bright and brief. After a while Lennox Lewis took over and so it goes, and so it goes…
Since Lewis retired in 2003 and the epicentre of world boxing dissipated from its American homestead, spreading to Eastern Europe, Asia and beyond, the heavyweight scene has been in the doldrums, big time. The Klitschkos were solid but unexciting champions and the men jostling for position beneath them, such as Nigeria’s Samuel Peter, man-mountain Nikolai Valuev or plodding Mariusz Wach did little to inspire, while the addition of extra belts across all weight classes meant average fighters claimed world titles. For these reasons boxing despondently turned its eyes away from the big men and focused instead on the welterweights, where vigour, craft and sass could still be found. Early in 2016, however, there are signs of vitality in the land of the giants again.
Just as death follows life, all eras must end. Vitali retired and Wlad lost his crown to British no. 1 and now WBA (super) and WBO champ Tyson Fury. Beyond Ukraine and Germany, few will mourn their passing. A flock of eager contenders have stepped up to fill the void left behind, filling their boots on the morass of titles on offer.
The WBC, frankly, has struggled for credibility since the older Klitschko left their title vacant. Chris Arreola v Bermane Stiverne was mediocre as a championship bout (at best) and the subsequent reign of hard-hitting but vulnerable Deontay Wilder has been one of the weakest in living memory. Molina / Duhaupas / Szpilka as a run of defences has done little to assuage the suspicion that Wilder’s handlers do not have complete confidence in their man. Who do they think they’re fooling with fights like that? And when is he going to take on a proper challenger?
With his heavy hands and skittering legs, the Alabaman is capable of real edge-of-the-seat stuff, however and should not be discounted as a player when the time comes. Men who hurt or get hurt are always in demand and surely his team cannot maintain their preposterously cautious matchmaking much longer while retaining any claims to legitimacy. No.1 challenger Alexander Povetkin waits in the wings with menace. For those reasons it’s well worth keeping a close eye on the bomb squad. Expect Wilder, at the moment something of a paper champion, to go off like a hand grenade or implode like a condemned building very soon.
Mandatory regulations aside, the IBF did themselves few favours by stripping Tyson Fury shortly after he out-thought and outpointed Wladimir. The gargantuan traveller is the world champion and should be universally regarded as such until he loses. Isn’t that how boxing is meant to work? In taking their title from him, they effectively set themselves up as a kind of third-tier belt. That virtually unknown Charles Martin collected their vacant crown when his opponent retired with a knee injury sums up the situation better than any writer could.
That said, Martin’s first defence against Sky Sports poster boy Anthony Joshua is a titillating one. Two unbeaten
heavyweights vying for the world no.3 or 4 spot – it is reminiscent of Quarry v Shavers in 1973. The only gripe can be that while that fight was marketed as two top contenders competing for the right to challenge for the title, Martin v Joshua will be hyped and sold as a ‘world championship’ and will doubtless be shown in the UK on pay-per-view. Such are the times in which we live. For the record, Joshua wins easily, inside three rounds, but he still won’t be champion of the world, not really.
Meanwhile the WBA has launched into overt self-parody by suggesting a heavyweight tournament among the splatter of title-holders they recognise themselves, just to determine the top dog of their organisation. This is maddening on so many levels, but largely because it discredits Fury, who beat the man and therefore now should be seen in that light. Any governing body which requires a six fight series simply to clean up its own mess needs to ask itself some serious questions.
Of course none of that has stopped Australians getting very excited about Lucas ‘Big Daddy’ Browne’s upcoming challenge for Ruslan Chagaev’s WBA (regular) title in early March. Feverish social media action anticipates the coronation of the first ever Australian heavyweight world champ. Browne is a likeable, old-school hardcase who came to boxing late, as so many of the current crop and while it is understandable for patriots to get behind their man, a dose of realism would not go amiss. According to BoxRec, not a perfect ranking system, but at least one resistant to political manipulation, Browne is ranked 22 in the world and Chagaev 19, either side of Finchley’s Dereck Chisora. Calling this contest a ‘world title fight’ is akin to an estate agent describing a shabby, studio flat on the top of a tower block as a ‘luxury penthouse’. It looks good on the advertising materials, but bears no relation to reality. The boxers themselves cannot be blamed for this, of course, they are only operating within a demented system, but it does not help anybody when media outlets encourage fans to play along with the deception.
Nonetheless if Brown, who like Fury gives the impression he is happy to fight anyone, beats the Uzbeki ‘champion’ in Poland on Match 5th and can then use the meaningless belt he has won as a means to challenge any of the other title holders, he can potentially be another light in the darkness.
Despite the confusion and fragmentation caused by the passing of the Klitschkos and the insanity of those who run boxing, within the current heavyweight hotch-potch have been planted the seeds of a new era. Those of us who remember decades when the torch was passed from one great champ to another, will hope that a new, modern legend will emerge. Whether its current kingpin Fury, or the much vaunted Wilder or Joshua, or even someone as yet unmentioned like Luis Ortiz or Joseph Parker, heavyweight boxing is ripe for a new titan – a fighter of will and integrity, to banish confusion, leave no doubt and smash through the maze of mirrors.
My last book ‘Journeymen, the other side of the boxing business’ has been longlisted for the William Hill Sports book of the year award and named one of the sports books of the year by The Guardian. It is still available from all usual outlets.