Heavyweight boxing rises from the canvas
From the 1920s to the 1990s, boxing’s heavyweight division was to the forefront of not just sports but popular culture, particularly in America.
The list of great heavyweights includes men who were giants of popular culture in their era: Jack Dempsey, Joe Louis, Rocky Marciano, Muhammad Ali, Mike Tyson, Evander Holyfield and Lennox Lewis – all names that have carved their way into sporting lore. For decades, the heavyweight champion of the world was the most famous sportsperson on the planet.
Even when avarice ensued in the 1980s and new governing bodies – WBO, IBF, WBC – were established, the best heavyweight enjoyed the adulation of the masses. However, towards the end of the last century, a number of events occurred, leading to the gradual demise of the heavyweight division.
Mike Tyson’s thrilling, sometimes depraved, journey lurched towards a sickening halt in the late 1990s and Evander Holyfield retired shortly thereafter. With Lennox Lewis’ outstanding career nearing its finale, heavyweight boxing came to be dominated by a pair of robotic behemoths from Ukraine who offered none of the flair or fanfare of their immediate predecessors.
Those men were the Klitschkos – Vitali and Wladimir – and they enjoyed a decade of dominance built on monumental physiques and relentless, metronomic left jabs. Their styles had little aesthetic appeal and they failed to engage with an American audience who still harboured historic bias towards Eastern Europe.
Though Oscar de la Hoya, Floyd Mayweather and Roy Jones Jr were wowing boxing fans a few weight divisions down, the heavyweight division was always relied on to attract the casual fan. And, with a paucity of quality big men, the division descended into relative obscurity.
In all sports, the idiom states that a good big man will beat a good small man. Well, in boxing, the most enthralling sight is two huge men colliding in an eighteen by eighteen feet ring with just a 10 ounce glove for protection. Last Sunday morning, Tyson Fury,took on WBA heavyweight champion of the world, Deontay Wilder, in the Staples Centre, Los Angeles – two men attempting to win back the attention of a once rapt American audience.
The boxing community in America, together with promoters and network executives, were aware that a dull contest would represent a missed and potentially final opportunity to seize the attention of today’s demanding, impatient television audience. Remarkably – as nostalgia tends to mask the sheer number of dull heavyweight clashes – Wilder and Fury were involved in a wild contest that escalated in the final four rounds. The climax of the saw bout saw Fury rise – Undertaker-like- from the canvas in the 12th round after a devastating combination from Wilder looked to have ended the contest.
Indeed, with the exception of Larry Holmes in 1978 against Ernie Shavers, it’s unlikely that anyone has ever beaten the referee’s count after absorbing what Fury did. Wilder’s face showed both bemusement and grudging respect and though a contentious split draw decision followed minutes later, those in attendance or watching at home knew they had just witnessed something special.
The events in Los Angeles would have been keenly observed by Anthony Joshua – WBC, WBO and IBF champion of the world – and his team, led by silver-tongued promoter, Eddie Hearn. Since winning Olympic Gold in London 2012, Joshua has gone on to become the golden boy of British sport. His charisma, power and extraordinary physique have made him extremely popular with the British public and he is an advertiser’s dream. Joshua enjoyed a narrow escape from a drug conviction in 2011, when a judge told him, ‘prison–or boxing’. Joshua took his chance and hasn’t looked back.
Hearn’s Matchroom Promotions built Joshua up as the novice destroyed all comers. While Joshua’s hype machine gathered momentum, Fury – always a divisive character –went to Dusseldorf in 2015 and defeated Wladimir Klitschko, in the process becoming the lineal heavyweight champion of the world.
However, before their rematch could take place, Fury was banned and ultimately spiralled into a deep hole of alcohol and drug abuse, very nearly taking his life in the process. The British Board of Boxing Control (BBBC) was left with little option but to ban Fury after he admitted to prolonged cocaine abuse.
With Fury suspended, Joshua defeated a Klitschko in decline and became the world’s pre-eminent heavyweight. But, champions are only as good as their rivals. Tyson had Holyfield, while Ali, Foreman, Liston and Frazier all engaged in enthralling contests in the 1960s and 1970s. New Zealand’s Joseph Parker – since proven to be an average fighter- held the WBO title, while the Alabaman, Deontay Wilder, was relying on an ungainly but hammer like right hand to lead him to an undefeated record and possession of the WBA championship.
The problem,though, was the glaring absence of Fury from the heavyweight scene. Joshua is an immense talent but when people like Eddie Hearn unearth a man both as talented and marketable as Joshua, there is a hesitancy to put him in a ring with a man as unorthodox and dangerous as Wilder. Sportswear companies, watch manufacturers and airlines don’t respond well when the face of their billboard campaigns has been sparked in front of millions of viewers.
If there is a paucity of quality challengers – as was case when the Klitschkos ruled – then promoters can largely do as they please but audiences are wise and predictable fights will not do big office numbers. With Fury absent though, and offering little beyond pithy soundbites, Hearn knew it was his prerogative to mine Anthony Joshua’s cross-generational appeal and make some real money. Admittedly, that is the very essence of professional boxing.
Boxing enjoys a most unusual place in society, offering somewhat of a social dilemma:why do peaceful people enjoy the brutal nature of a boxing match? Perhaps it’s the drama of the event, the contradictory appeal of the glamour and raw brutality, or, perhaps we’re not as peaceful and reasonable as we believe.
This week the grim reality of the fight game came to bear when it was confirmed that former light heavyweight champion of the world, Adonis Stevenson, had been placed in a medically induced coma and may have lasting brain injuries. His injuries came in defeat to Oleksandr Gvozdyk in Quebec City on the same night that heavyweight boxing was rejuvenated. The contrast is jarring. The risks are so real and so obvious and history is littered with hundreds of cautionary tales of men and women who were devoured by the boxing industry. Yet, mystifyingly the show goes on and those who should know better lap it up.
Still, while boxing cares little for its casualties, the return of the fallen great has been mythologised since the 1920s. Thus it was, earlier this year, and after negotiations with the BBBC, Tyson Fury was allowed to return to the ring, with his two-year suspension backdated to 2016. Two barely passable tune-ups followed before Fury and Wilder’s respective management teams were able to agree to last weekend’s contest.
When the fight was made, Team Joshua – none of whom lack for hubris – saw Wilder and Fury as inferior, the ‘B side’ in any future negotiations. Then, Wilder and Fury engaged in the remarkable contest last weekend and now the division is alive with opportunity once more. Unlike Joshua and Klitschko, this was actually a contest between two men in their prime. Joshua is still the main draw but as in bygone days, the pinnacle of the heavyweight division is now populated by a number of extremely talented yet markedly different men.
Whatever the case, events in California have changed the dynamic entirely. How else could Deontay Wilder have ended sitting on a couch beside the mystifying, James Corden? Until Saturday, Joshua and Hearn perhaps rightly thought that Fury and Wilder needed them. Now, however, their rematch will fill Wembley Stadium or a Las Vegas casino and the box office purchases will be like the 90s heydays.
Some people will scratch their heads and struggle to fathom the brutality of boxing but last Saturday’s fight has renewed America’s love for the storied heavyweight division. For the oddly sentimental fans of boxing and the power brokers alike, the bigs are back and all is well in the world once more.