In 1986, in his first defence, WBC heavyweight titlist Trevor Berbick was ruthlessly separated from both his championship and senses by a 19 year old force-of-nature called Mike Tyson. After Berbick had been bludgeoned for four minutes, gone down, got up and then skittered this way and that across the canvas in his knee-length black socks, equilibrium destroyed, arms flailing like a drunken uncle at a rough wedding, American commentator Jim Lampley cried the immortal words, “That’s it! And we have a new era in heavyweight boxing!”
The fighting fraternity thrilled at the phenomenal new champ. It was felt that the Heavyweight division badly needed a new injection of youth and excitement. The great Larry Holmes, who controlled opponents comfortably with the jab and took few risks, leading to a string of tepid defences, had retired six months previously. He left in his wake his conqueror, former Light Heavyweight champion Michael Spinks and a slew of evenly matched, non-spectacular fighters who picked up the various versions of the title (in those days there were still only 3 belts) kept them for a defence or two, then lost them. Mike Dokes, Mike Weaver, Gerrie Coetzee, Tony Tubbs, Tim Witherspoon, Pinklon Thomas, James Smith, Tony Tucker. They were all good-not-great boxers, solid pros who excelled at one or other aspect of the noble art, but the world craved more – a new superstar, a force to dominate and inspire, as Muhammed Ali had through most of the sixties and seventies. This craving led Don King to inititiate the unification series that resulted in Iron Mike’s ascendancy. And for the next four years, Tyson really was everything everyone had hoped he would be.
Although there are some parallels with our present heavyweight situation, there is one glaring difference. In 2015 we still have a dominant champion, one whose present reign extends back to 2005 and who first won a version of the world crown in 2000. The problem, if there is one, is that this dominant champion is the most unappreciated of the modern age and quite possibly, ever. Even more so than Holmes, who only became retrospectively regarded as a great when his prime was long gone.
The current incumbent is neither from America, Britain nor any of the other traditional big boxing markets, has an ugly, albeit effective style and is far too intelligent to bother hyping himself with trash-talk, personalised hip-hop or cheap PR tricks. The result is that for everyone bar his hardcore fans in Germany and the Ukraine, Wladimir Klitschko is boring. And in all forms of showbusiness, which is what boxing is (don’t kid yourself), that’s the one thing you can’t afford to be.
Added to all of that is the inescapable truth that Dr Steelhammer is now 38 years old. Perhaps when he is gone he will finally be appreciated, but as the end of his epic fistic journey nears, it is natural to ask who will pick up the pieces. Many in the game have been hoping for an American or Brit to fill the inevitable void (ch-ching!) and prospects on both sides of the Atlantic have been lined up. Some have faltered. Others have endured. While recent years have seen much hyped anglophones Seth Mitchell and David Price fall by the wayside, Tyson Fury, Anthony Joshua and the new WBC champion, Deontay Wilder continue to progress.
Wilder proved a lot of people wrong (including myself) by dethroning Bermane Stiverne at the weekend. I simply did not think he had it in him. He outboxed the champion, mainly from the back foot, showing some lovely spite in the jab, decent feet and when necessary, unexpected punch resistance. He played to his strengths and used his superior height and reach to great effect. Stiverne put in a lacklustre showing, with seemingly little idea of how to get inside, although much of that was to do with the long jab in his face throwing him off stride. He didn’t connect with too much, but when he did, Wilder coped. The most impressive aspect of Deontay’s performance was his resilience. After a dominant opening few sessions, Stiverne appeared to be shortening the distance and wresting the initiative away from him in the middle rounds, only for Wilder to turn it back around. I had expected the challenger to fade down the straight, but if anything he looked fresher than the champion towards the end. He deserves every piece of credit he has received and to them I will add my own. Congratulations to the Bronze Bomber, the new WBC heavyweight champion of the world.
Yet for all the hope surrounding his ascendancy, and the yearning for a new era that abounds, what will Wilder’s victory really represent? This WBC title became available after recent history’s other dominant champion, Wlad’s brother Vitali, retired through inactivity in 2013 after 9 successful defences. Prior to Vitali, Lennox Lewis had been the last major force, who retired in 2001 after 11 successful defences. Between Lewis and the older Klitschko, there was Hasim Rahman (1 defence), Oleg Maskaev (1 defence) and Samuel Peter (0 defences). Since Vitali’s retirement we have had Bermane Stiverne (0 defences) and now Wilder. In a similar vein, after Larry Holmes vacated the WBC belt to become IBF champion in 1983, Witherspoon (0 defences), Thomas (1 defence) and Berbick (0 defences) took short turns with the title before Tyson burst onto the scene with all the destructive energy of a Force 5 Tornado.
Is Deontay Wilder a new long term ruler, or just another soon-to-be forgotten face in a queue of quickly toppled champions before the next great emerges? We may all have our own opinions about that, but just now I don’t feel it’s the right moment to deconstruct the possibilities. For the time being, the American should rightly enjoy his performance and new position near the top of the heavyweight hierarchy. He has claimed a portion of the world title only nine years after taking up the sport. And that is an incredible and laudable achievement.
The king is dead – long live the king?