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Heavyweights look lightweight in all departments

IN ONE of many elegant essays A J Liebling observed that the one thing about boxing upon which all initiates are in agreement is that it used to be better. Liebling's conclusion was that the exact period at which it used to be better "varied in direct ratio to the age of the fellow telling about it...if a fight writer, [it was] the years before he began to get bored with what he was doing".

If Liebling's assertion that fight writers are the most persistent howlers after antiquity is as true today as it was in his time there is plenty of evidence to support the widespread view that boxing is now better served by the past than the present.

This applies most obviously to the heavyweight division, its future, the short future that is, hinging on a proposed re-match between Evander Holyfield and Lennox Lewis which won't necessarily prove that boxing is on an upward curve after more than a decade of chaotic, self-serving administration.

Important as it is to have one heavyweight champion representing the three principal governing bodies (World Boxing Council, World Boxing Association and International Boxing Federation) for the first time since 1992 when Riddick Bowe cast the WBC's belt into a garbage can rather than make a mandatory defence against Lewis, the battered old sport's flagship division is in such a parlous state that no other credible figure comes to mind.

Following his recent release from a second term of imprisonment, Mike Tyson remains enough of a primitive attraction to make big money in the ring but the view shared by practically everyone in boxing is that the former undisputed champion is a shot fighter.

Seeking a viable option should the re-match with Holyfield fall through Lewis was at Madison Square Garden last Saturday where Michael Grant won a 10-round decision over Lou Savarese but failed to separate himself from the pack of young heavyweight hopefuls.

Grant's size, 6ft 7in, 18st, and an unbeaten record of 30 victories with 21 knockouts, has caused considerable excitement in American boxing circles but Lou DiBella of HBO Sports, which has him under contract, put things into perspective when he said: "Michael has tremendous potential but he isn't there yet."

Along with the huge African heavyweight Ike Ikeabucho, who taunted Lewis throughout Saturday's proceedings, Grant is thought to have championship potential, but potential is just another way of saying that you haven't done anything yet.

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 Muhammad Ali, from Ali to Larry Holmes, from Holmes to Tyson.

Veteran fight 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," the author and boxing aficionado Budd Schulberg said. "Who remembers some of the guys Floyd Patterson fought after beating Archie Moore for the vacant title - Tommy Jackson, Pete Rademacher, Roy Harris, Brian London? Not exactly names to set the pulse racing."

It took Liston's violent defeat of Patterson to restore interest in the division. And soon, Ali would become not only the most exciting figure boxing has ever known but the most celebrated figure in sporting history.

One explanation for the dearth of heavyweight talent is that basketball and gridiron football offer athletically gifted young black Americans a less perilous release from disenfranchisement. Another is that television money persuades even ordinary heavyweights that they are worth purses out of all proportion to ability.

It isn't known whether any of this has occurred to Herbie Hide, who is defending the World Boxing Organisation version of the heavyweight title at the London Arena on Saturday night against the Ukrainian Vitali Klitschko. By the present order of things, Hide is a legitimate champion but it would be easier to sell sand on a beach than the idea of putting him in with Holyfield or Lewis.