Boxing: Unification cannot stop heavyweight decline

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The Independent Online
IF LENNOX LEWIS and Evander Holyfield are bringing some of the aura of old-time fight nights back to Madison Square Garden this week nobody should get carried away by the notion that boxing is on an upward curve after more than a decade of chaotic, self-serving administration.

Important as it will be to have one heavyweight champion representing the three principal governing bodies for the first time since 1992 when Riddick Bowe cast the World Boxing Council belt into a garbage can rather than defend it against Lewis, the battered old sport's flagship division is in such a parlous state that nobody comes to mind as a credible challenger.

No wonder that Lewis's trainer, Emmanuel Steward, who has worked with more than 20 world champions from lightweight upwards, believes that his man's appointment with Holyfield in Manhattan on Saturday night will not only be the last great heavyweight occasion this century but for years to come. "I don't see anyone else out there," he said. "Mike Tyson can come back and make money but practically everyone agrees that he's a shot fighter. Henry Akinwande [No 1 in the International Boxing Federation rankings] was thrown out for not putting up a fight against Lennox. Of the younger ones only Michael Grant looks to have real potential and he needs time."

There is also the World Boxing Organisation champion, Herbie Hide from Norfolk, who was so easily brushed aside by Bowe six years ago that it might be easier to sell double glazing in the Sahara than get him in with Lewis or Holyfield.

The future, the short future that is, may hinge on a clause in Holyfield's contract that provides for the possibility of a re-match with Lewis should he lose narrowly to the WBC champion.

How different all this is from an era recalled this week by the 27th anniversary of an epic heavyweight contest, the first of three, between Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali at Madison Square Garden on 8 March 1971.

Within a year, and while a re-match was being negotiated, Frazier lost the undisputed title he had successfully defended against Ali when George Foreman knocked him out in Kingston, Jamaica. During that period any number of heavyweights qualified as legitimate challengers: Ken Norton, Mike Weaver, Earnie Shavers, Jerry Quarry, Ron Lyle and Jimmy Young. First pressing his claims as one of Ali's sparring partners, Larry Holmes would come to rank high on the list of post-war heavyweight champions. Throughout boxing's modern history, from the late Thirties onwards, the passing of one dominant heavyweight champion was invariably followed by the emergence of another. From Joe Louis to Rocky Marciano, from Marciano to Ali, from Ali to Holmes, from Holmes to Tyson.

Veteran boxing writers claim that the resilience of heavyweight boxing is best illustrated by the period between Marciano's retirement in 1955 as the only undefeated champion and Sonny Liston's grim arrival seven years later. "After Marciano quit things were at a pretty low ebb," one said this week. "Who remembers some of the guys Floyd Patterson took on after beating Archie Moore for the vacant title - Tommy Jackson, Pete Rademacher, Roy Harris, Brian London? Not exactly names to thrill your heart."

It took Patterson's three contests with Ingemar Johansson, each disposing violently of the other before the Swede was again knocked out in March 1961, and his subsequent destruction by Liston to restore interest in the division. And soon, Muhammad Ali would become not only the most exciting heavyweight of all time but the most celebrated figure in sporting history. There is no more substantial explanation for the present dearth of heavyweight talent than the insidious effect of television money.

"Even ordinary heavyweights now expect to be paid out of all proportion to their ability," a much respected boxing writer, Ed Schuyler of the Associated Press, said this week. "The key to it all now is pay-per-view revenue."

Undisputed is an ideal, not a commercial proposition. The WBC, the WBA and the IBF know how their bread is best buttered. Not by having one popularly acknowledged champion, that's for sure.

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