Heavyweight class is light on talent

Boxing: Its glory days a thing of the past, the sport's top division is full of anonymous champions, bland contenders and stars past their prime.

Boxing

April 27, 2004|By Lem Satterfield | Lem Satterfield,SUN STAFF

Vitali Klitschko is heavyweight boxing's newest world champion. No need to cue a fanfare, though.

On Saturday, Klitschko defeated journeyman Corrie Sanders for the World Boxing Council title vacated by Lennox Lewis' retirement. For some boxing observers, it was an uninspired bout that fit the division's diminished status.

"It was dreadful," said noted boxing historian Thomas Hauser. "They looked awful. It was embarrassing.

"Klitschko was still sucking air during post-fight interviews."

And what did Klitschko win? To another eminent boxing historian, Bert Sugar, Klitschko picked up "a tattered baton."

The heavyweight class couldn't be much further removed from the days of Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier, of Larry Holmes, of the young Mike Tyson.

"I could bring back Max Schmeling, who is 98, and he'd be successful in this weight class," Sugar said. "I mean, this is the most uninspiring crop of fighters I've ever seen, and this is easily the worst the division has ever been.

"You don't have anyone with the talent or traits to dominate the division or distinguish himself as being great. All you have are names - and you can get that from any telephone book."

In fact, the various heavyweight champs may seem about as anonymous as those names in the White Pages - Klitschko, Lamon Brewster of the World Boxing Organization, John Ruiz of the World Boxing Association and Chris Byrd of the International Boxing Federation.

Nevertheless, during the past three weeks, the four champions have appeared on HBO under the slogan, "The heavyweight division is up for grabs, let the new era begin."

"Regardless of who the champion is, you're always one punch away from a new era and a new heavyweight champion," said Mark Taffet, HBO's senior vice president of sports operations and pay-per-view.

"It's a good time to be a heavyweight," Byrd said. "It's not a dead division because some commentator or some boxing writer says so."

But even fighters themselves apparently realize the lack of quality. Take Evander Holyfield, for example.

After Holyfield lost to James Toney six months ago, Hauser says Holyfield all but admitted to him that he was shot as a fighter. Now, after Lewis' retirement in February, Holyfield - at 41, with two victories in his past eight fights - is considered a legitimate contender.

Then again, this is a division in which Tyson - a 36-year-old ex-champ who has fought all of 49 seconds in nearly two years - remains a big draw and where George Foreman is considering a return to the ring at age 55.

And what is new champ Klitschko's biggest claim to fame? Losing a hard-fought battle with Lewis.

Klitschko was in the corner of younger brother Wladimir when the latter lost his bid for a belt in a shocking fifth-round knockout by the unheralded Brewster.

The next weekend, April 17, in New York, Ruiz's brawling, jab-and-grab style was lustily booed before he knocked out Fres Oquendo. Byrd's defense followed Ruiz's. And the undersized, finesse boxer felt obligated to appease angry fans by going toe-to-toe with the larger Andrew Golota in a disputed draw. At least Byrd was cheered for his effort.

"People were saying the show stunk and that they wanted their money back. I wanted to give fans something," Byrd said. "It's the era of the big guys, and people want to see you duke it out and get hit."

Whatever happens to the division, it won't come alive unless Don King, boxing's true Lord of the Ring, breathes life back into it. Not only does the promoter control the crowns belonging to Byrd, Brewster and Ruiz, but he also has Holyfield, Oquendo, Golota and Baltimore's Hasim Rahman under contract.

"The way I see it, I have one more chance," said Rahman, who split title bouts with Lewis and lost one to Ruiz.

Having recently ended an 0-3-1 winless streak with two wins over journeyman fighters, Rahman is rated in the top six by all four major sanctioning bodies.

He is ranked fourth behind Wladimir Klitschko by the WBA, whose top two spots are vacant thanks to boxing's bizarre politics. Klitschko and Sanders were ranked No. 1 and No. 2, but because they fought for the WBC title, they were removed from the WBA's rankings.

Rahman is planning a third fight in June, perhaps in Baltimore, after which, he believes, King will slot him into position for a third title shot - maybe a rematch against Ruiz.

"Don's the central point of the heavyweight division," Sugar said. "He's collecting fighters and throwing them against the wall to see if they'll stick."

After dominating Ruiz, Roy Jones Jr. returned to light heavyweight not only for a lucrative fight with Antonio Tarver, Sugar said, but also to avoid King - the man whose ownership of the boxing world began when he promoted Ali-Foreman in Zaire.

"Don had the option on Roy's next fight as a heavyweight. Holyfield has re-upped with King, and Brewster signed with him right after his last fight," Sugar said.

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