|Wednesday, February 13
As heavyweight eras go, this one is very good
By Max Kellerman
Special to ESPN.com
I remember the first boxing magazine I ever bought off a newsstand. It was World Boxing, with Gerry Cooney on the cover. I was 11 years old and I flipped out. In those years Sports Illustrated would sometimes run a boxing article, or Sport Magazine would print a ranking of heavyweights, but generally boxing-related stuff was hard to come by in print. Here was a magazine entirely devoted to my beloved sport. I bought it and devoured every word.
From that day on I bought every boxing magazine I could get my hands on. Sure, the information was three months old by the time the new issues hit the stands, but it did not matter. There was no greater treat than opening a brand new one. World Boxing, KO Magazine, The Ring, Boxing Scene. I would disagree with what Jeff Ryan wrote in his column and agree with Steve Farhood's criticism of Ryan. But I loved to read them both. I would read Bert Sugar and laugh, and just love every word of every new issue. I began to order back issues and go through them, too.
Nowadays the Internet has made boxing magazines less necessary than they once were. Websites like Fightnews.com, Maxboxing.com, Ringtalk.com, Cyberboxingzone.com and many others bring boxing fans information and articles with an immediacy that the print media simply cannot deliver. I log onto many of these sites and enjoy most of them and I'm thankful we have them. But I still love reading those boxing magazines.
It is a strange feeling to grow up learning about the colorful characters that populate our boxing universe, and then one day to crack a new issue of Ring magazine and realize that you are now one of those characters. This has been happening to me since I was introduced to a national audience on ESPN2's Friday Night Fights in October 1998. Recently, I came across an article in the current World Boxing (dated March 2002) by Jim Bagg, who wrote about something I said on the very first episode of Friday Night Fights. The statement I made on that first show was that this is the second-best era in heavyweight history, behind only the great Ali-Foreman-Frazier era of the 1970s.
Bagg points out two things in his column that I will now address: 1) that most old-timers disagreed with my heavyweight assessment, and 2) that in his opinion this era could have been the second-greatest heavyweight era ever, but that too many fighters like Ike Ibeabuchi and David Tua for example, never fulfilled their potential.
Eras are frequently difficult to define. Decades are often used as era demarcations. A decade, however, is an arbitrary unit of time, and eras often bleed over from one decade to the next. Sometimes a particularly dominant fighter's career is used to define an era -- the Joe Louis era, for example. The problem with using one dominant fighter is that the very greatest eras usually have a competitive balance. They are great not because a Joe Louis, Muhammad Ali (the first time around) or Mike Tyson chew up a mediocre division, but because a group of more or less evenly matched, top-notch fighters engage in great fights where the winner is difficult to predict. At the time I made my "this second greatest heavyweight era in history" comment, there was no way to know that the era was already essentially over.
The heavyweight division is usually weak. In many eras there are few worthy contenders, and the heavyweight title is passed from one unspectacular champion to the next in a series of mediocre fights. Such was the case between the Jack Dempsey and Joe Louis eras when, after Gene Tunney retired, the title was passed along from Max Schmeling to Jack Sharkey to Primo Carnera to Max Baer and finally to Jimmy Braddock, whom Louis knocked out. This was also the case when undersized Floyd Patterson (who should have been one of the greatest light heavyweights of all-time) won Rocky Marciano's vacated title and then ducked every top contender, yet still managed to lose the title to Ingemar Johanson, before winning it back from Johanson and then losing it for good to Sonny Liston (whose only successful title defense came against Patterson in their rematch).
In other eras there was at least one dominant champion on top, but few real threats among his contenders. Such was the case in the Louis and Tyson and to a lesser extent the Larry Holmes eras. How many times in the history of boxing have there been two or more great heavyweights competing together in or around their primes? How many times have several great heavyweights been supported by a cast of dangerous, compelling contenders? From 1970, when Ali came back from his forced exile, to 1978, when Ali won back his crown for the final time (against Leon Spinks), Ali shared the very top shelf with Joe Frazier and George Foreman, and the three of them were supported by Ken Norton and Joe Bugner and, in the beginning of the decade, Oscar Bonavena, Jerry Quarry and Jimmy Ellis, and at the end of the decade Ernie Shavers, Ron Lyle and Jimmy Young. Ali fought them all, and many of the others fought each other. The greatest heavyweight era ever.
The second greatest heavyweight era in history began and ended almost exactly 20 years after the first. It began in February 1990, when Mike Tyson lost to Buster Douglas. A division which seemed dull because of Tyson's extreme dominance suddenly blossomed. The end of the era (at least the Holyfield-Tyson era) seems to be Lennox Lewis' demonstration of superiority over Evander Holyfield in their first fight in December 1998, which was scandalously ruled a draw.
So we begin the era with the biggest upset in the history of boxing, and we end it with one of boxing history's biggest controversies. In between we had Evander Holyfield, Mike Tyson, Riddick Bowe and Lennox Lewis on top, supported by comebacking champions George Foreman and Larry Holmes, and dangerous contenders Ray Mercer, Razor Ruddock, Michael Moorer and Tommy Morrison in the first half of the decade, and Ike Ibeabuchi, David Tua, and Andrew Golota towards the end of the decade. The second greatest heavyweight era ever.
After Douglas beat Tyson, Holyfield beat Douglas easily. Then Evander had a memorable fight with Foreman and won a war with Bert Cooper, who Holyfield was supposed to have fought years earlier in a big cruiserweight bout that never came off. Evander beat Holmes, who had earned his shot by upsetting Mercer after Mercer had decimated Morrison. Cooper lost another war, this time to Michael Moorer, in one of the greatest heavyweight action fights of all-time. Five rounds, five knockdowns -- each man hit the deck at least twice.
Meanwhile, Ruddock knocked a successfully comebacking Michael Dokes cold at Madison Square Garden to set up two bruising fights that he lost to Tyson. Lewis electrified everyone by starching Ruddock in two rounds. Bowe beat Holyfield in one of the best heavyweight title fights of all-time, and then Holyfield avenged the loss a year later in another dramatic fight (the famous "fan-man" fight, where that guy flew into the ring).
Moorer beat Holyfield in a fight famous for Moorer's then-trainer Teddy Atlas giving him that dramatic "There comes a time in every man's life" speech, and then Moorer lost the title to Foreman, whose climb back to the throne 20 years after he had lost his title to Ali must be considered the greatest comeback in sports history. Bowe beat Holyfield in another classic, and became the first (and still the only) man to knock Evander out. Bowe and Golota engaged in two action-packed fights -- the second one was one of the most brutal heavyweight bouts I have ever seen.
Holyfield upset Tyson in a great fight, and then Tyson disqualified himself by biting Holyfield's ear off in their rematch, which was also shaping up to be a pretty terrific battle. Holyfield also beat Mercer. Lewis beat everyone who would get in the ring with him, including Oliver McCall, who had knocked Lewis out in their first fight. Ibeabuchi and Tua went to war in a classic won by Ike, who tossed in a knockout in a beautiful fight against Chris Byrd. That Ibeabuchi, Tua, Golota and Bowe for that matter were disappointments is true only in the sense that they never fulfilled their potential, but they did produce several great and near great fights.
Jack Dempsey made five title defenses over seven years against limited, small or old opposition. Marciano made six defenses over four years. In neither era were there as many great, near great or even interesting heavyweights making many great fights. Larry Holmes' domination was lukewarm and it was, by and large, over a group of mediocrities. I remember the Larry Holmes era. Please do not compare it to the years 1990-1998. Those years constitute the second greatest heavyweight era ever, and it is not even close.
Jim Bagg was actually defending my position, but to those who took offense at my heavyweight statement (old-timers included), I hope this history lesson was helpful. The easiest thing in the world to do to make it sound as if you know what you are talking about is to criticize the heavyweight division. Throughout history, most of that criticism has been warranted. The years 1990-1998 were a golden era and I am glad I appreciated it for what it was at the time, and did not wait until it was too late to realize what we had. By the way, this welter-middleweight era is shaping up to be the second greatest of the last 40 years.
Max Kellerman is a studio analyst for ESPN2's Friday Night Fights.