Boxing: Whatever happened to the great American heavyweight?

The heavyweight champion of the world used to be an iconic figure in the American sporting consciousness, not least because the great champions were almost always American. Now, with the four main heavyweight belts in the hands of fighters from the former Soviet Union, Steve Bunce asks whether a brilliant American will ever rule the world again
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The Independent Online

Mike Tyson will celebrate the 20th anniversary of winning the world heavyweight title next month. Tyson's victory over Canada's Trevor Berbick in 1986 was savage, quick and forgettable but the anniversary will be a poignant one because it was the fight that fixed Tyson, who was just 20 at the time, indelibly in the public's mind.

Many sports have altered radically since that night in Las Vegas, but in none has the change been more fundamental or more depressing than in heavyweight boxing. Tyson was the last American heavyweight to capture the imagination of the global sporting public, arguably the last heavyweight of any nationality to do so. For a few years after that Berbick fight Tyson was the biggest figure in sport - the American who ruled the world - continuing an intoxicating tradition that stretched past Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier, back to Rocky Marciano, Joe Louis and Jack Dempsey.

But now? Nobody in the fight game knows for sure where the great American heavyweights have gone and, more disturbingly, nobody knows where the next great one will come from.

At present the four heavyweight championship belts are in the possession of a quartet of boxers from former Soviet republics (see panel). All have a weak connection to the one-time linear championship of the world, where heavyweight champions were connected by a series of mutual opponents from Larry Holmes in the early 1980s to the bare-knuckle heroes of the 1880s.

Not one of the four incumbents is a great fighter; not one can be compared favourably with any of the dozen or so fighters, almost exclusively American, who made the heavyweight championship the richest prize in sport. Men who spent a century turning the brutal business into a multimillion dollar industry. They are gone for ever, as is the once solid grip on the prize that the Americans enjoyed; the current champions took their respective belts from American boxers in fights of varying mediocrity and all are unlikely to become stars in America. The men they beat were not stars either.

"I wish I knew where the next great American heavyweight will come from because right now the Russians are here," said Don King recently during a tour to generate publicity for his fighter Nikolai Valuev. "But I promise you, if there is one out there playing basketball or [American] football, I will find him."

King is among those who think the increasingly rewarding lifestyle, including the money and the easy fame, available in the other American sports has been fundamental to the decline of heavyweight boxing. Sports such as American football, basketball and baseball grab the attention of potential fighters long before the start of the lonely years that a boxer must spend in a gym learning his trade. A vital element, King argues, is that, unlike those sports, there are precious few scholarships available for boxers inside the lucrative university system of subsidised sport in America.

One or two recent fighters have drifted into boxing after their planned careers in other sports fell short of their expectations. But, it is a long established fact that height, weight and heart are not enough to succeed inside the prize ring. A few years ago a superb athletic specimen called Michael Grant was cleverly protected from his own frailties by cynical matchmaking and guided to a painful world title fight with Lennox Lewis. There is, quite simply, no replacement for experience in the boxing business.

"I look at basketball players and footballers and I know that most of them could be quality fighters. It's a shame but that is the way it is," said Stan Hoffman, the manager of the former champion Hasim Rahman. "I've also heard tales about 14- and 15-year-olds leaving boxing programmes to play [American] football and basketball. We have to offer something in return to keep the fighters. They have to want to be boxers."

Like all good promoters, King has people, the equivalent of football scouts, scouring the gyms for him. Their task is not as easy as it was, however, partly because boxing gyms are fading from the streets. In Las Vegas alone, 10 or more have closed or changed to mixed martial arts centres in the last six years.

"Some American heavyweights have gone into other sports over the last 20 years," said Dan Goossen, just one of Tyson's former promoters. "But that is a simple excuse. I'm not sure American heavyweights are hungry enough. The truth is that the rest of the world has just caught up with us - the rest of the world is hungrier for heavyweight success."

There are others who argue the problem is more to do with athletes not having boxing as an alternative when they are younger. "I just don't think that the amateur machinery is there to push them through," said Steve Farhood, a columnist for Boxing Monthly and expert pundit for Showtime channel in America. "The programme is weak right now. The pull of the NBA and NFL is strong and a lot of kids are turning to the various forms of martial arts. All the Soviet kids have an excellent grounding, they can all box and they think like boxers. They have better fundamentals and I can't believe I'm saying that."

The last American Olympic super-heavyweight champion was Tyrell Biggs at the Los Angeles Games in 1984. He flopped as a professional because of his well-documented problems with drugs. Since Biggs won the gold, a Cuban, a Russian, a Ukrainian, a Canadian and Britain's own Audley Harrison have won the Olympic title. The failure to win a gold medal has relegated the early stages of the Olympic boxing schedule to a Spanish language channel in the United States. The medal stages are televised but by then America's heavyweight has lost and interest drops off.

The Americans have come close in only one of the five Olympics since Biggs and that was in the 1988 final when Riddick Bowe lost to Lewis. Bowe did win a professional title but his career, which once looked destined for greatness, was ruined at the fridge door, and a few years ago he escaped a prison sentence on kidnapping charges because his lawyers were able to argue successfully that he was suffering from brain damage. Sadly, and possibly predictably, Bowe is fighting again.

"There is a problem right now but then there have been problems in heavyweight boxing before," said Tim Witherspoon, who twice held versions of the world heavyweight title in the 1980s. "I just think the sport needs to have somebody that everyone wants to be. That is the way it worked for me. I had Ali. Who does a young fighter want to be now?"

Witherspoon was a member of a group of unfortunate and ultimately tragic fighters that took the heavyweight division to an earlier low point and one from which it has struggled to recover. "When I was a fighter there were a lot of guys with a lot of talent but they took the money and lost the desire," Witherspoon continued. "They were known as the Lost Generation of heavyweights. I gave them that name because we all lost our way."

As did the heavyweight division. Witherspoon was in the middle of the mess and to emphasise the decline in the sport's richest prize a quick look at the statistics is disturbing. Between February 1978 and November 1986 there were 42 world heavyweight title fights and 14 champions. In the previous eight-year period there had been 19 title fights and just three champions. It was Tyson who restored order to the division and during his first and brilliant reign, up until 1989, he beat seven former champions in 11 fights. However, by the time Tyson lost in February 1990 the Italian Francesco Damiani held the World Boxing Organisation version of the title and a new meltdown was under way.

"Sure, it's basketball to a point but the main reason that there are no great American heavyweights coming through is simple: the great American heavyweight is lazy and doesn't want hard work," Hoffman said. "To be a champion it takes a lot of work and a lot of years. The American kids want and need to be treated like babies. The other sports give them easy riches. It's that simple. The Europeans are hungry and the Americans, well, they ain't."

Of the four current champions, perhaps Valuev, who stands 7ft 2in, tips the scales at 24st and has acquired the ring moniker of "The Beast From The East", has the best chance of becoming a box-office attraction in the US. He is unbeaten in 44 fights but many in the sport remain sceptical of the statistics, convinced that more will be known after he defends against the perennial contender Monte Barrett near Chicago tonight.

Right now, it is a tarnished division with too many towering, slow and bland fighters. Yet there remains an endless thirst for the big men. Last December ITV screened the atrocious, hitless mazurka between Harrison and Danny Williams and for the first time in a decade 10m people watched a live broadcast of a fight in the UK. Only football does better business on terrestrial television.

The real crisis in heavyweight boxing is not just that the four champions are ordinary but the lack of prospects. There are, admittedly, fighters who will inevitably fill the voids left when the current quartet of champions attempt to defend their titles and lose. Their replacements, however, are not much better, which is harsh but very true.

Even more depressing are the old men who should not be fighting but are instead, like all heavyweights, just a fight or two away from the title. There is Bowe, champion from November 1992 to November 1993 and March 1995 to March 1996 and now 39 years old, who is due in the ring this month; Tommy Morrison, who 10 years ago tested positive for HIV; Joe Mesi, a genuine contender from two years ago who is fighting on after suffering a slight bleed on the brain; and there is also Evander Holyfield, who at 43 is still winning and dreaming.

And then there is Tyson, sadly the most respectable of the freaks and potentially still the biggest attraction, even though he has nothing left to offer. Last week he announced an exhibition tour of 12 American cities in which he will fight in a series of staged bouts against his fading sparring partners. It will be available on pay-per-view at $29.99 (£16.30), though anyone thinking of coughing up would be wise to be wary. "I truly hate fighting," Tyson admitted. "I'm just looking to make some cash."

New kids from the Bloc: The four reigning world champions from the former Soviet Union

Holder: Oleg Maskaev
Nationality: Kazakh
Age: 37
Next scheduled fight: 10 December v Peter Okhello (Uganda) at the Olympiysky Sports Arena, Moscow, Russia

Holder: Nikolai Valuev
Nationality: Russian
Age: 33
Next scheduled fight: Tonight v Monte Barrett (US) at the Allstate Arena, Rosemont, Illinois, US

Holder: Vladimir Klitschko
Nationality: Ukrainian
Age: 30
Next scheduled fight: 11 November v Calvin Brock (US) at Madison Square Garden, New York, US

WBO World Boxing Organisation (WBO)
Holder: Sergei Lyakhovich
Nationality: Belarussian
Age: 30
Next scheduled fight: 4 November v Shannon Briggs (US) at Chase Field, Phoenix, Arizona, US