Boxing: The heavyweight division doesn't seem to be going anywhere

ONE thing about boxing upon which observers of my vintage are fully in agreement is that the heavyweight division has not been in worse shape since Floyd Patterson held the undisputed championship.

If this seems a bit hard on Patterson who defeated Archie Moore for the vacant title 42 years ago, and took it back from Ingemar Johansson before a one-round loss to Sonny Liston, he is stuck with the fact of being sent over 21 times in 13 championship contests.

Because of disadvantages in weight and punch resistance Patterson would be no less vulnerable today but the comparison is not between now and the time of his fragile ascendancy. It is with the era that followed, one referred to as the "Golden Era" of heavyweight boxing.

There are plenty of names to support the belief that the division has never been better represented than it was in the '60s and '70s by such notable champions as Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier, George Foreman and Larry Holmes. The supporting cast of Ken Norton, Jimmy Young, Earnie Shavers and others provided plenty of excitement, too.

In generational conflict it is probably felt that older sportswriters are naturally perverse, and admiration is wrung from us only by the supreme artistry of a particularly good performance. But the present parlous state of affairs entitles us to suppose that no sporting enterprise has gone into greater decline than heavyweight boxing.

Mike Tyson remains the most marketable figure in the division but is under suspension by the Nevada boxing authorities holding no guarantee that his licence will be restored this summer. Tyson, who is also involved in an attempt to split from Don King and his co-managers, John Horne and Rory Holloway, has no more than a couple of contests left and may already be finished.

With no clear prospect of a unifying contest between the leading title- holders, Evander Holyfield (World Boxing Association and International Boxing Federation) and Lennox Lewis (World Boxing Council) there is now the squalid possibility that Foreman and Holmes will be resurrected to meet in the year of their 50th birthdays.

Thought up as a pay-per-view event by Harold Smith, who served time for embezzlement, it could be worth $10m (pounds 6.2m) to Foreman against $4m for Holmes. "If they come up with the money I'll do it," Holmes said this week.

News like that adds to the frustration felt by Lewis as he prepares to make a mandatory defence of the WBC crown against Shannon Briggs in Atlantic City on Saturday. "Briggs definitely wasn't on my agenda," Lewis said. "To prove you are the best you have to fight whoever is thought to be the best which is why I wanted Holyfield. It didn't happen so I've just got to keep going until the situation changes."

Briggs got his chance through a controversial points decision over Foreman last November. Briggs said that Foreman's jab was the stiffest he has felt. "Yet," said Lewis.

The lowest point in Lewis's career came in September 1994 when he lost the WBC title to Oliver McCall on a second-round knockout. "Looking back, that defeat turned things around for me," he added. "It got me together with Emanual Steward and he's taken off the rough edges. Losing to McCall took a great weight off my shoulders. It gave me a different attitude. I'd lost focus. But I thought, 'I can't go out like this'."

Lewis's last three victories were over McCall, who didn't want to fight, Henry Akinwande, disqualified for holding, and Andrew Golota, who offered no opposition when knocked out in the opening round.

Because Lewis did not take exploit McCall's obvious dishevelment and made no great effort to shake up Akinwande he is still striving to make a reputation in the United States. "Unfortunately, none of those guys, Golota included, performed the roles I wanted from them or that the public wanted," he said.

Trouble is that the heavyweight division, ridden as ever with promotional intrigue, doesn't appear to be going anywhere. This week, Lewis versus Briggs, who may, or may not, be a credible contender. In June, Holyfield must face the discredited Akinwande in defence of the WBA title before putting up the IBF crown against the anonymous Vaughn Bean.

History suggests that someone will come along. It had better happen otherwise heavyweight boxing will become a belly laugh or nothing.