For the time being let’s pretend we’re living in the 1950s. Not that I’m suggesting we all wear pleated trousers and trilby hats, smoke like chimneys and hang around in music halls listening to Glenn Miller, but just for the sake of my sanity, which is fragile at best, this week I don’t want to spend half my column moaning about the people who run boxing and all their pointless titles. I’ve decided the best thing to do is just pretend they’re not there.
In my new imagined reality, there is only one champion at each weight and he can only lose his belt when someone beats him. It’s a mad, romantic vision, I know – you may say I’m a dreamer and all that – but it works for me. It means that in my mind, behind the man who beat the man, presently gypsy king, Tyson Fury, there is a queue. And the weekend’s heavyweight action was actually about jostling for places within that queue, rather than XYZ two-bob belts. Viewed in that context, it was a fascinating weekend, that saw two less heralded names jump several places, with impressive victories against ageing, but dangerous opposition.
Grozny in the Chechen Republic is not exactly a renowned fistic hotspot, but on Saturday night held a high profile heavyweight bout in which two fringe contenders served up an absorbing show. Local warhorse, Ruslan Chagaev, now 37, and carrying a fair bit of spare timber around the midriff, has been one of the main supporting actors to leading men Wlad and Vitali Klitschko throughout their fading era. He has never been a dominant force in the division but sought to reaffirm his elite credentials against affable Aussie tough-nut Lucas Browne. To be fair, he very nearly did so. At 36, Browne is no young buck himself but has arrived far more recently at the highest level, and so is fresher, with fewer miles on the clock.
Such is the regard with which Chagaev The White Tyson, is still regarded in that part of the world, that the regional president watched the bout from a purple sofa at ringside, stroking his long, grey beard like a druid. He leapt to his feet on many occasions and was predictably apoplectic to see Chagaev battered to TKO defeat in round ten. The enraged premier spent several minutes gesticulating frantically and shouting at referee Stanley Christodoulou. There was nothing wrong with the stoppage, however. Perhaps it was the rapid turnaround in the fight’s ebb-and-flow that upset him.
Before Saturday, Browne had always boxed as a heavy legged, flat-flooted, fairly crude slugger. That is not to say his fights have been dull. He is durable, has strength to burn and balls the size of Ipswich. On many occasions he has fought through cuts or periods of sustained pressure and always managed to win. But Chagaev, on paper, even an old and semi-fit one, presented his toughest test to date.
The Aussie surprised us all by entering the ring lighter and leaner than in the past. Incredibly he spent the first five rounds on his toes, boxing off the back foot. Impressive though this Baryshnikov impersonation was, it was unlikely to win the fight from the away corner and in the sixth, as he so often has, he found himself with a storm to weather.
Cut, then put down with a straight left a minute before the bell, Browne backpedalled frantically and appeared on the verge of being stopped at least twice. Somehow he made it back to his corner, survived a shaky seventh and persevered. You have to wonder whether a 33 year old Ruslan Chagaev would have let such an opportunity pass.
Regardless, by the ninth and tenth rounds the twinkle-toes were long forgotten and as both men tired the contest became a scrap. When Browne returned the favour and put Chagaev down, two-thirds of the way through the tenth, he grasped his chance with a passion his opponent had been unable to summon. Chagaev could do nothing to avoid or avert the relentless assault, finding himself held up by the ropes, absorbing blow after blow. Despite the loud displeasure of the hometown crowd, the referee’s intervention was timely and necessary.
Browne’s win propels him towards the upper echelons, but it remains a stretch to imagine him competing with the top two or three.
Meanwhile in Washington DC, a Cuban known as King Kong served an impressive notice of intent. There have been whispers about Luis Ortiz for a few years now and those whispers grew louder when he stopped Bryant Jennings in December, just eight months after the Philadelphian had looked impressive in taking Wlad Klitschko the distance. Saturday’s crushing defeat of two-time world title challenger, Tony Thompson will raise the volume even further. Thompson may be over-the-hill but is awkward and canny enough to provide a tricky night’s work for most. Yet against Ortiz he was never in the fight.
Cuban boxers tend to be extremely well-schooled. The best of them are selected in childhood and train virtually full time from the age of ten, living the life whether they want to or not. Most have rock solid technique, good footwork and excellent ringcraft. ‘King Kong’ is no exception.
Ortiz simply outboxed an admittedly unconditioned Thompson and picked him apart, putting him down three times on the way to a sixth round TKO. The only other fighter to have dismantled Thompson so comprehensively was Klitschko in 2012. In doing so Ortiz looked impressive in every department, while packing the sort of punch power that would worry anybody.
Purely in terms of all-round boxing the Cuban appears, to this writer, the most complete heavyweight operator of any of the current crop. He can bang, unlike Fury, can mix it up, unlike Wlad and looks a natural fighter, unlike Wilder. He is most certainly one to watch.
The only negative that could be scored against him is size. At 6ft 4 and with a reach of 84 inches, he is a huge man by normal standards, but in modern heavyweight terms is on the small side. In bouts with the three names above he would be competing at considerable reach and height disadvantages. Would that bother him? Only time will tell. It has to be hoped that he can challenge for the championship soon.
How do the events of Saturday affect the global standings? Bearing in mind that in my new, imaginary world, various organisations with multiple belts do not exist, what does the top-end of heavyweight boxing actually look like? Well, probably something like this.
Champion – Tyson Fury (UK)
1 – Wladimir Klitschko (Ukraine)
2 – Deontay Wilder (USA)
3 – Luis Ortiz (Cuba)
4 – Alexander Povetkin (Russia)
5 – Lucas Browne (Australia)
6 – Kubrat Pulev (Bulgaria)
7 – Charles Martin (USA)
8 – Anthony Joshua (UK)
9 – Malik Scott (USA)
10 – Joseph Parker (New Zealand)
That’s better. From where I’m sitting the world seems a far less confusing place now.
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.
Please visit my non-boxing blog at https://markturleyblog.wordpress.com/