Boxing: Will heavyweight game ever climb off the canvas?

Dismal title fights, uninspiring champions, no American challenger worthy of the name: the outlook is desperate
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The Independent Online

Evander Holyfield went through the motions like a 48-year-old man stuck in treacle on Saturday night, there is no firm news about David Haye's next fight, the Klitschko brothers continue to underwhelm and there is still no sign of an American saviour: welcome to the world of heavyweight boxing. There was a time when being the heavyweight world champion was truly meaningful, but there has never been a time when the best heavyweights in the world met each other in a seemingly endless list of glorious nights. Holyfield and his great rivals Mike Tyson and Lennox Lewis met years after they should have shared a ring.

However, the situation right now is bordering on comical, with too many unknown, fat, dull and hopeless fighters getting the chance to win the tarnished crown against a trio of champions who have divided the sport's remaining fanatics. Sadly, not everybody is laughing at the perilous state of what was once known as sport's richest prize.

In America, home of the big athletic lumps that have dominated the boxing business for over 100 years, the heavyweight division has declined and is now totally neglected by broadcasters and the fans. In the last five or so years the best American fighters, many naïve and primitive compared to the men they replaced, have fallen over and suffered dreadful and often shameful beatings in world title fights. The American cameras went dark and stayed dark, guarding their money and robbing the division of its main source of motivation: there was simply not enough interest in the world champions from Europe.

The American dilemma will continue for a long, long time and it is disturbing to consider that had Holyfield come through his routine fight on Saturday night he would have been the leading and certainly the most marketable American heavyweight. Holyfield was rescued from a disgraceful continuation of his career when a cut meant his fight with a journeyman called Sherman Williams was stopped after three rounds and declared a "no contest". Holyfield had looked terrible and had been wobbled and hurt.

The three other American heavyweights above Holyfield in the world's top 20 have all been brutalised and exposed by either Vitali or Vladimir Klitschko in title fights. In many ways they eliminated themselves from future world title contention by their hopeless performances in fights where they were knocked out without winning a round. The trio of Tony Thompson, Eddie Chambers and Chris Arreola are unlikely ever to feature in a world heavyweight title fight on American TV and that is truly disturbing.

"This is not a great time to be an American heavyweight," said Don King, the promoter of the sport's most memorable heavyweight showdowns. "The heavyweights now are playing other sports and missing out on the greatest riches in the world. The heavyweight road map has changed but I'm still looking for America's next heavyweight champion."

Frank Warren, who worked with King on Mike Tyson's second fight with Frank Bruno, is equally convinced that the Americans are in a sad and dark place. "The Americans have been terrible in recent heavyweight fights and fought like they had never had a clue. I truly believe that we have better prospects here in Britain," insisted Warren.

In March Warren's inexperienced but entertaining British champion, Dereck Chisora, will travel to Germany and fight Vladimir for three of the world championship baubles. The fight between Vladimir, who has won 55 of his 58 fights, and 14-fight novice Chisora has been sensibly marketed along the lines that Chisora, unlike all recent hapless Americans, will have a go. "This will be a real fight because Dereck knows how to win and he will try," continued Warren. Chisora will go down swinging, he has made that promise.

It is not just Americans who fantastically fail to deliver in world heavyweight title fights. Haye's defence of his World Boxing Association title against fallen idol Audley Harrison last November descended into truly regrettable farce. The event was popular, a financial success, but on the night about 20,000 watched in utter amazement as Harrison folded in three rounds and landed just one solitary jab. Haye made few apologies and, in all fairness, had predicted a massacre from the day the fight was announced.

There is a rich history of champions in dreadful fights against undeserving challengers and champions avoiding legitimate challengers; it has not been invented by the reluctant Klitschko boys or the calculating Haye. However, some would argue the trio have taken the abuses to new heights.

In the Seventies Joe Frazier defended his title against two club fighters after beating Muhammad Ali in the fight of the century. Ali, it is often overlooked, met his share of bad fighters in instantly forgettable defences and for years also ignored George Foreman's deserving pleas for a rematch.

"I keep hearing people moaning about David [Haye] not fighting a Klitschko and that he is scared," said Adam Booth, who trains, advises and promotes Haye. "We have been close to a fight and then the margins have changed. They are both now in world title defences and that means we will have to find somebody else."

The Klitschko brothers and their business manager, Bernd Bonte, have disagreed with and refuted every single interpretation of the negotiations with Haye and Booth. It has been a steady and increasingly unpalatable diet of petty claim and counter-claim since December 2009. It was then that Haye in theory first agreed terms for a fight with Vladimir and on the same night was physically ejected from a restaurant in Berlin by Vitali. Since that lively nocturnal encounter a number of planned and proposed fights have fallen through. It is not a shock that everybody involved calls their opposite a liar and a coward; the dialogue, at least, is vicious.

Vladimir now fights Chisora and Vitali defends his World Boxing Council title against Cuban exile Odlanier Solis in March; both fights will take place in Germany where the Ukrainian brothers are often watched by 17 million viewers on TV. There is every chance that both fights will be superior to any recent encounters involving the towering pair and that is long overdue.

Haye, meanwhile, has yet to announce an opponent but he is expected to fight former champion Ruslan Chagaev, from Uzbekistan, who is also his mandatory challenger, in London on 21 May. Chagaev has failed a medical in the past for hepatitis and has yet to present his medical reports to the British Boxing Board of Control. It is a decent fight and could certainly be difficult for Haye, but it will not capture the public's imagination like the Harrison fight.

Assuming that all three win their next defences there is an outside chance that Haye could share a ring with either Vladimir and Vitali before the end of the year. It is the only fight that can delay the tragic decline of the heavyweight division and it simply has to happen. This is not the first time that the obituaries have been penned and the requiems written for the heavyweight division, but it is certainly the most alarming.

If Haye never fights a Klitschko and they all drift away from the sport in the next two years they will leave behind a stark hole, and retire with a pitiful combined legacy. All three deserve better and so does the tarnished sport.

The sluggers' story: A brief history of the heavyweight championship

1892: James Corbett

'Gentleman Jim' was one of the great figures of 19th-century boxing, famously knocking out John Sullivan (the first gloved heavyweight champion) in New Orleans in 1892.

1899: James Jeffries

Held the title between 1899 and 1904. Came out of retirement in 1910 to fight Jack Johnson, the first black world champion. Jeffries ('the Great White Hope') lost.

1910: Jack Johnson

After Johnson's victory over Jeffries, race riots broke out across the US. Johnson, a flamboyant figure, held the title until 1915.

1930: Max Schmeling

German fighter Schmeling became the first champion from beyond the English-speaking world when he beat Jack Sharkey on a foul in the "Battle of the Continents". Lost to Sharkey in 1932.

1937: Joe Louis

The longest serving world champion – and regarded as the greatest of all by many – held the title between 1937 and 1950.

1952: Rocky Marciano

Won the title from Jersey Joe Walcott in 1952 and retained it until retirement, thereby ending his career unbeaten.

1964: Muhammad Ali

Became champion in February 1964 by beating Sonny Liston, but was stripped by the WBA in June, leaving him as only WBC champion. Reunified titles with 1974 'Rumble in the Jungle' win.

1986: Mike Tyson

'Iron Mike' won the WBC belt at age 20 in 1986, followed by the WBA then IBF titles in 1987 to become undisputed champion. Lost his titles to James Douglas in 1990. Regained the WBC and WBA titles in 1996 but lost soon after to Evander Holyfield.

1989: First WBO title

The rival World Boxing Organisation started to award a heavyweight title in the late 1980s, as a fourth alternative to the WBA, WBC and IBF.

1990: Evander Holyfield

The pairing and separation of titles meant that he held IBF, WBA and WBC from 1990 to 1992, IBF and WBA from 1993 to 1994 and the WBA at subsequent points.

1992: IBO enters the ring

The International Boxing Organization was established in 1992, creating a fifth heavyweight belt.

1999: Lennox Lewis

Lewis became WBC, IBF, WBA and IBO heavyweight champion on beating Holyfield in 1999. He lost the WBA title in court, and retired in 2004 as WBC, IBO and The Ring magazine champion.

2006: Vladimir Klitschko

Vladimir Klitschko has been the IBO and IBF heavyweight champion since beating Chris Byrd in 2006. He added the WBO title in 2008 against Sultan Ibragimov and The Ring title in 2009 against Ruslan Chagaev. His brother, Vitali, is the current WBC champion.