“Only in America” – Don King
The current domination of the Heavyweight division by the Klitschko brothers is often met with a somewhat regretful look back to the glory days of a division that was a link between the general public and the boxing industry.
The Heavyweight crown is steeped in historical significance and a crown so pertinently linked with the greats of American boxing. However, the changes in the division should not merely be looked upon as a downgrading of quality but a shift in parameters of a division that had its bedrock in America.
Through greats like Jack Johnson, Jack Dempsey, Joe Louis and rocky Marciano, America has dominated the division like no other since the introduction of the Marquess of Queensbury rules in the 1880’s.
European champions like Max Schmelling, Primo Carnera and Ingemar Johansson were an exception in the first half of the 20th Century. The 60’, 70’s and 80’s saw almost unbroken dominance of the division by Americans with the new era of greats of the sport becoming household names; Ali, Frazier, Foreman, Spinks, Holmes and Tyson.
Some boxing purists look at the Knockout of Tyson by James ‘Buster’ Douglas in February 1990 as the end of the Heavyweight Divisions glory days but Pay Per View numbers and gate receipts of nineties fights would suggest otherwise.
Most Successful Pay Per View Heavyweight Events
(Top 6 are among the Top 10 PPV of all boxing categories)
1. Tyson – Holyfield II, 1997
2. Tyson – Lewis, 2002
3. Tyson – Holyfield I, 1996
4 Tyson – McNeely, 1995
5. Holyfield – Foreman, 1991
6. Tyson – Bruno, 1996
7. Tyson – Ruddock, 1991
8. Holyfield – Lewis I, 1999
9. Bowe – Holyfield II, 1993
10 Bowe – Holyfield I, 1992
What the nineties saw however was an increasing presence of non-American boxers such as Axel Schultz, Andrew Golota, David Tua and Francois Botha challenging for prominence. In particular British fighters started to challenge the supremacy of their American counterparts. Frank Bruno, Herbie Hide and Lennox Lewis all had varying degrees of success in the nineties.
However, Americans still accounted for the vast majority of top ten contenders for the Heavyweight crown but it was Lennox Lewis who began to dominate the division by the late 90’s and into the 2000’s. A handful of Americans were left standing as legitimate contenders.
Hasim Rahman stunned Lewis in September 2002 and Chris Byrd won a version of the title against Evander Holyfield in December of the same year. John Ruiz and Roy Jones Junior both occupied the often criticised WBA version of the Heavyweight title in this decade. Shannon Briggs was the last American to hold world champion status when he lost to Russian Sultan Ibragimov in June 2007.
Historically, American success in the division meant that the audience was predominantly American. The disappearance of the success has led to the fall in interest from its traditional target audience, the American public.
The fall off in American success is seismic when looked at in a historical context. By the mid 2000’s it is met with a parallel increase in success of fighters from the former Soviet Bloc. The current top ten contenders for the heavyweight crown, according to The Ring Magazine, contains one American. Five are from former Soviet Bloc countries or Soviet satellite states.
Looking down through former American Olympic medallists who later held world champion status in the professional Heavyweight division, the names of Floyd Patterson, Cassius Clay, Joe Frazier, George Foreman, Leon Spinks, Evander Holyfield, Riddick Bowe and Roy Jones Jr appear.
However, in more recent Olympics, American names become fewer and farther between. In the Super Heavyweight Division, the last American medallist was in Los Angeles 1984. In the Heavyweight Division, a bronze medal was won in both Beijing 2008 and Atlanta 1996. The last Gold medal was in Seoul 1988. In the Light Heavyweight division the current professional Super middleweight world champion Andre Ward was the last gold medallist in Athens 2004.
This is indicative of the entire American Olympic boxing team. In Los Angeles 1984 for example the American team won 9 gold medals. In London 2012 the Americans went with a team of 12. They won 1 gold medal, 0 silver and 0 bronze. The Gold was won by Claressa Shields in the women’s Middleweight category.
Of course Olympic or even amateur success is not a precursor for professional success. It does however prepare athletes at an elite level. The next major Heavyweight bout is the long overdue Wladimir Klitschko v Alexander Povetkin of Russia. Both are former Olympic gold medallists.
Interestingly, the fall in success at Olympic level has not adversely affected American success in the smaller professional weight divisions. Of the 4 main belts, WBC, WBA, IBF, WBO and including interim belts, Americans hold 41% of titles between Lightweight and Light-Heavyweight. 88% of the two heaviest divisions, Cruiserweight and Heavyweight are occupied by Europeans. There are no Americans.
In the Pound for Pound rankings (categorisation that ignores weight classes) there are four Americans in the top 10 and only one European, Wladimir Klitschko.
American boxing is in good health, except for the Heavyweight division. There is a correlation between the growth of European and in particular former Soviet/Communist states and the fall in American success in the division.
Other reasons mooted are the reduction in participation rate from young black Americans. Traditionally from poorer socio-economic backgrounds, this is seen as a possible result of an increase in educational opportunities or an increase in the numbers going into other American sports such as American Football, Basketball and Baseball, all of which require athletes of large size and stature.
Many Heavyweight Americans come from a different sporting background and only turn to boxing when their ambitions are not met with their desired sport. Funding and a decrease in available money is also an issue in an overly competitive American sports industry.
Heavyweight boxing has always had its apocalyptic predictions. 1920’s world champion Gene Tunney lamented boxings demise when Cassius Clay and Sonny Liston locked horns in 1964. Bob Arum described the Heavyweight landscape as “waiting for the old fat bums to disappear” in 1985, before Mike Tyson ripped through the division bringing a dangerous, compelling edge to the division.
The disappearance of personalities like Tyson has seen the culture of the division changing from an American division to a European division or non-American Division. The Klitschkos are better than all of the available opponents. At the moment the biggest fight in Heavyweight boxing is if they fight each other, which will never happen.
Their success is their own downfall. They are methodical in their approach. The American audience do not crave predictability. They want a story. They want unpredictability.
The most difficult challenge perhaps from an American Heavyweight prospectus is the seemingly lessening of value placed on the Heavyweight title.
The sweet science has progressed from the days of Ali-Frazier when race and religion in the ring epitomised the tone of American culture and counter-culture. These stories captured the world’s imagination.
Tyson was the next great catalyst displaying a rawness that the public equally loved and feared. The Heavyweight division is now dominated by two men who see themselves as ambassadors for the sports.
Vitali holds a PhD in sports science. Perhaps in any other sport or even weight division the brothers would be credited a lot more. You won’t find the brothers biting opponents legs at press conferences or claiming to want to eat their children.
The near future of the division is dependent on how long the brothers wish to continue. At 37 (Wladimir) and 42 (Vitali), the Ukranians may not wish to remain in the sport for much longer with both expressing their desire for alternative careers when they hang up their gloves.
The future for American Heavyweights is a lot less clear but we may be on the cusp of a new era with the Klitschkos careers winding down. Exciting American Heavyweight prospect Deontay Wilder has just overcome his most difficult opponent to date, Sergei Liakhovich, to take his record to 29-O with all victories coming by way of Knockout or Technical Knockout. Wilder won Bronze at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
Perhaps the ‘great’ days will never return. As the late trainer Angelo Dundee says:
“It’s been like that forever. We got spoiled by Joe Louis, Rocky Marciano. Muhammad ruined us for everybody. He was great outside (the ring); he was great inside. We got so accustomed to it we thought we deserved it.”
For now the Heavyweight division has its home in the stadiums of Poland, Germany and Russia. Madison Square Garden and Las Vegas will have to wait a little longer for the return of a title once revered as the greatest crowning glory in all of sports; Heavyweight Champion of the World.
Gary Burns, Pundit Arena.