Offside, 29 December
Heavyweight boxing is almost out for the count.
Nothing is likely to provoke more excitement or controversy than watching a grown man thump another for sport. And I’m not talking about Wayne Rooney’s latest altercation.
Boxing is my favourite sport, after football naturally, although I have no ability at either. If only ‘running away from trouble like a big girl’ had been on the curriculum I could have been a contender (although a career in the modern armed forces is now a real possibility). Nonetheless, I have taken many an hour of vicarious pleasure watching two men bash the merry hell out of each other.
Yet boxing is in decline. There was a time when everyone would know the name of the heavyweight champion, but since Mike Tyson’s fall, that is less true. Even when ‘Iron Mike’ ruled the roost, boxing had become just another sport in Britain and America, where once it was central to sporting life. While Lennox Lewis just about managed to prick the public consciousness in Britain, I’m sure he could have walked around most of the world unmolested, and would certainly not have attracted the crowds that an over-the-hill Tyson attracted when he fought here in 2000.
There are still plenty of brilliant fighters – just not in the heavyweight division. For starters, there are at least six different ‘champions’ at heavyweight: Vitali Klitschko (WBC), Chris Byrd (IBF), John Ruiz (WBA), Lamon Brewster (WBO), Audley Harrison (WBF) and Georgie Kandelaki (WBU). I’ll let you guess what the abbreviations stand for, but here’s a clue: the B is for Boxing. The titles are all so riven with politics and dubiety that the boxer lends credibility to the title, not the other way round.
Secondly, they tend not to be too keen on fighting each other, although legendary promoter Don King is threatening to stage some kind of unification tournament, which should be of some relief to insomniacs the world over. Because the biggest problem is that none of the above-named fighters is very good.
The pick of the crop is Vitali Klitschko, one of a pair of huge brothers from Ukraine. He established himself on the world scene by losing to Lennox Lewis in June 2003. Okay, he was actually winning the fight at one stage but then his face was cut rather badly and the fight was stopped, leaving Klitschko needing more stitches than the Bayeux Tapestry. But this impressive display of bleeding put him in pole position when Lewis retired, and he won the title by beating journeyman South African Corrie Sanders, who had earned his shot by beating Vitali’s kid brother Wladimir. Still with me?
The paucity of talent out there was ably demonstrated by Klitschko’s first defence, against London’s Danny Williams a few weeks ago. Williams was called in during the summer to play the role of cannon fodder in Tyson’s latest comeback. Having survived the usual first-round fusillade from Tyson, Williams ended up battering the former champ into submission. Whether this amounted to inspiration from Williams or terminal decline for Tyson (or both), it suddenly propelled Williams on to the world stage. Not bad for a man who’d anaemically lost his British title in January 2004.
For Williams, it was a flash in the pan. Even the rather stiff and upright Klitschko made mincemeat of him, decking him in the first round and generally using him as a punchbag before the referee stepped in during the eighth. Clearly, using his face to protect his hands was proving to be a doomed strategy for the man from Peckham; still, Williams is thought to have been paid £1million for the fight. Every cloud has a silver lining.
But why was Williams even in the ring that night? It is a mark of desperation when the old big names are dug up one more time to provide new champions with credibility. It is beyond desperation when they need to bring in the-bloke-that-beat-the-bloke-that-used-to-be-the-champ.
If that was bad, consider the case of John Ruiz, the WBA title-holder. Having successfully navigated three staggeringly dull contests against fading heavyweight legend Evander Holyfield, he managed to lose the title to Roy Jones in 2003 (he’s since won it back when Jones relinquished the crown). True, Jones was considered to be the best pound-for-pound boxer in the world at the time. But Jones was the champ in the light-heavyweight division (maximum weight 175 pounds). While Ruiz was 30 pounds heavier than his opponent, Jones won on points by miles.
By historical standards, the heavyweight division is populated by bums, big lummoxes who have to rely on sheer size to win. Size has become king; heavyweights are much bigger than they were 40 years ago. When Sonny Liston beat Floyd Patterson in 1962, Liston, considered a big heavyweight at the time, weighed 214 pounds and Patterson 189. When Klitschko beat Williams, he weighed 250 pounds to Williams’ 270 pounds.
The decline of boxing was put into perspective by BBC2’s recent series The Fight, which looked back at classic fights and fighters. Once upon a time, the world stopped to listen to Louis beat Schmelling, where international politics, racism and sport collided. Schmelling spent less than three minutes in the ring, and 10 weeks in hospital. And then there was, possibly, the greatest scrap of all in 1975: Ali v. Frasier III, aka the ‘Thrilla in Manilla’. Fifteen rounds of relentless violence in tropical heat and humidity. Ali later said, ‘It was like death. Closest thing to dying that I know of’.
While the big fighters have been getting bigger, participation in boxing has fallen. Other sports, like basketball, are less dangerous and more popular. Black Americans are still dominant, but more and more of the best, hungry fighters are from Latin American backgrounds.
But while boxing may not be the force it once was, there are still great fights taking place. Mexicans Erik Morales and Marco Antonio Barrera have just fought for a third time (it’s now 2-1 to Barrera), each fight a 12-round battle with spectators split over who should have won. I don’t know what the Spanish for ‘bejesus’ is, but they were knocking it out of each other.
While it’s not PC to say so, there is something brutally entertaining about watching boxing. Even when a fight appears one-sided, a single punch can change everything. Opponents describe it as animalistic, but the courage, skill and dedication of boxers make it, in many respects, the most human of all sports. Despite the best attempts of promoters and politics to screw it up, there is still plenty of pleasure to be had in watching it.
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