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From the Fiery Cuyahoga to the Rhine, There’s No Smooth Sailing

BY Michael Katz ON March 22, 2006
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LAS VEGAS, March 23 – Chris Byrd hasn’t called. It’s not a big deal. I wanted to get his take on the Hasim Rahman-James Toney draw, but I almost know what he’d say. He picked Rahman, as did I. I don’t know how he scored it, but from television, and obviously not listening to Harold Lederman, I had Toney slightly ahead. It’s no big deal. That nobody won seems like the fairest decision of all.

Let’s put this in context. The next stage for the heavyweight division is Cleveland, Ohio, on April Fool’s Day. And then the action switches to rebuilt Mannheim, on the right bank of the Rhine, in west central Germany, where Mozart once lived, and Schiller, and Carl Benz rode the first motor-driven vehicle back in 1885. You can look it up.

But, first, we get Cleveland. We don’t deserve much better. The surveyor for whom the town was named, some general named Clevealand, laid out the public square, went back East and never returned. The burg’s name was changed when the extra “a” was dropped to fit in some newspaper’s masthead. Once, middle of the 20th century, it was the fifth largest city in the land. Its population has shrunk in half to less than 500,000. You can look it up. Its Cuyahoga River caught on fire in 1969, about the time Don King was doing time for running numbers and beating an employee to death. You can look it up.

Now here comes Cleveland’s native son with another heavyweight “title” fight, the first in the area since King stepped over the prone body of his “son,” Michael Dokes, to congratulate the South African, Gerrie Coetzee, who had knocked him out in the Richfield Arena.

You can look it up. The press bus left the arena, forgetting a couple of Boss Scribes – never mind the New York Times’ humble reporter, but Dick Young. A long time later, the cab we called was stumbling around in the Ohio night before the driver stopped at a farmhouse and asked, “Where is Cleveland?” The farmer wasn’t too sure, either.

Anyway, King and his buddies over at Showtime are now bringing us Lamon Brewster, who holds one of the myriad titles and who, for crying out loud, may actually be the best heavyweight in the world, against someone named Sergei Liahkovich, also known as the “White Wolf,” I suppose to make sure it is understood that he is not an African-Uzbekistani.

Cleveland. The first time I covered a fight there was Roberto Duran’s first after going “No mas” and his opponent, Nino Gonzalez, told me when I got to down to be sure and ask his idol, Duran, about the lion. Duran had a pet lion named Simba.

Listen, I know I’m digressing, and regular readers will probably recall the story. But do you really want to read more about the state of the heavyweight division without some comic relief? Anyway, Duran chose Cleveland to tell us that, feeling sorry for his great beast not having a lioness to play with, he used to take matters in his own hands of stone. The best part, though, was the look on Duran’s face, squished up mouth, burning eyes, as he imitated Simba in orgasmic delight.

It is unlikely anything that exciting will happen in Cleveland on April Fool’s Day. But the late-developing Brewster, who I had to sit through when he was outboxed by Charles Shufford, should emerge victorious, ready to pick up the baton that figures to be dropped by his distant cousin, Chris Byrd, in Mannheim on April 22.

That’s when Byrd gets his rematch with Wladimir Klitschko, who battered and dropped the American in taking Byrd’s WBOgus title years ago, also in Germany. Byrd, who had earlier beaten the bigger and, despite American fans’ opinions, the better of the Ukrainian brothers, complained at the time that he lost his vision early in the fight. Foul play or not, the blinded Byrd took his lumps for 12 rounds and so later I was not surprised when he said Vitali Klitschko was the better of the two brothers – better use of height, better defense, and harder punch.

Vitali, now running for Mayor of Kiev (he is favored today, I believe, over Rudy Giuliani) quit against Byrd because of a boo-boo. I think he quit because he was fast tiring and figured that just wasn’t his night. Shocked at the reaction from abroad – I dubbed him “Chicken Kiev” – Vitali would rebound and show his mettle a couple of years later against Lennox Lewis, the last of the “real” heavyweight champions.

But I must point out that Lewis’s chin again must be reexamined in light of how easily Toney withstood the punches of Rahman. Yes, it’s much harder to hit Toney clearly, but Lewis after all went down, and out, twice in his career – against Rahman and Oliver McCall, neither of whom would have made Joe Louis’s bum-of-the-month club, barely.

In effect, then, the demise of the heavyweight division has been longer than Lewis’s retirement. There was no adequate replacement then and, frankly, I am still not convinced that Lennox, as much as I respected his abilities, was in the upper echelon of great heavyweights. Yes, he beat Evander Holyfield twice (forget that silly draw at Madison Square Garden), but that was hardly prime Holyfield. And his victory over Mike Tyson was another case of his defeating a ghost.

Lewis’s greatest victories were over well-hyped wishes (mea culpa, mea culpa) – Michael Grant and David Tua. He had too much trouble with such fighters as Frank Bruno and Tony Tucker to be considered top ten in my opinion.

Last Saturday, the out-of-shape Toney was getting huzzahs for moving up from middleweight to heavyweight and being able to compete. It was the same for his old nemesis, Roy Jones Jr., when he beat John Ruiz.

But Chris Byrd has been a David fighting Goliaths virtually his entire career and the only big guy he has missed squaring off with was Lewis, who I think feared being embarrassed by the shifty overgrown middleweight, even though he figured to win.

At least Byrd comes into the ring in shape. He would have toyed with Toney, who has found that blubber is inert and not conducive to forward marches. Byrd would not have made the strategic mistakes of Rahman, who though constantly told by trainer Thell Torrence to just win behind the jab, kept falling in close to where the counterpunching expert could hit him.

In fact, there should be little question of what would happen to the Rock if he were being chipped at by a real heavyweight, not a clever but ineffectual puncher like Toney.

I thought Toney won, watched it again and thought a round or two I gave Toney should have gone to Rahman, but also that a round or two I gave to Rahman might have deserved to be in Toney’s column. Even with Toney winning more rounds, if I scored the bout as one 36-minute contest instead of in 12 increments of three minutes each, I think Rahman probably deserved the decision. He did more in the rounds Toney won than Toney did in the rounds I gave Rock, if that makes any sense.

In any case, Toney wouldn’t have touched the light-on-his-feet Byrd. Yet Byrd gets no credit for facing such as the Klitschkos, Ike Ibeabuchi, David Tua, Holyfield, Andrew Golota et al et al. Win, lose or draw, he has been giving away height (except to Tua) and weight and having a really nice career.

Alas, at the age of 35, he has obviously slowed down and he will probably need a knockout in Mannheim to get a draw with Wladimir. The thing is, that is not impossible, even for the light-hitting Byrd. Wladimir, remember, faded badly against Brewster and was shocked by the part-time golfer, Corrie Sanders. He was often one punch away from being stopped by the neophyte Samuel Peters. Even if he wins in Baden-Wurttemberg, he will not be able to claim supremacy in the division because of that fade against Brewster.

It’s no big deal if Klitschko beats Byrd again. One “expert” in my circle says Byrd will never win another big fight. He may only have one more, anyway. If he can’t get by Wladimir this time, the heavyweight division will lose one of its few class acts, even if Larry Merchant doesn’t give him credit for having the guts and courage all these years to swim, rather successfully, with the sharks.

The division is moribund. The best American prospect, maybe the best American heavyweight, may now be Calvin Brock. Dino Duva, Peters’s promoter, was miffed when an HBO roundtable last Saturday didn’t bring up his fighter’s name. Okay, he lost like a novice to Wladimir, but the reason Dandy Dan Rafael didn’t mention Peters when asked by Jim Lampley to name upcoming Americans was that Peters is un-American – he is, after all, the Nigerian Nightmare.

PENTHOUSE: Thell Torrence, for remembering Eddie Futch’s game plan against Toney, and shame on Rahman for not following his trainer’s instructions more carefully. If he had never thrown the right hand, the one that knocked out Lewis, he probably would have won easily because Toney would have had very little to counter.

OUTHOUSE: No, not James for not being in shape. One of my gurus, Johnny Bos, insisted “he WAS in shape – what you see is what you get.” Bos didn’t think Toney won more than a couple of rounds, which I think is incorrect, but the villain in this piece is Dan Goossen, Toney’s main promoter, who has done such a great job in resurrecting the career of my favorite short, fat, bald man (present company excepted). It’s bad enough Goossen saw Toney winning – what else is he supposed to say? – but I draw the line on his insistence that Sam Soliman beat Winky Wright. That wasn’t close….By the way, can you imagine Toney’s reaction if he REALLY thought he won?…I noted that the only guys who scored the fight for James were people whose opinions I do not respect (including my own).

MORE DIS AND THAT: See where Eugenia Williams, like a bad penny, resurfaced in scoring undercard bout for house fighter Dimitry Salita. Hap Hazzard knows how to pick his judges….I think Brewster has every reason to improve now that he is with trainer Buddy McGirt. Couldn’t happen to a nicer guy….Am beginning to think Bernard Hopkins is really taking his farewell fight against Antonio Tarver seriously. He has not only hired Mackie Shilstone – the therapist who built up Michael Spinks to fight Larry Holmes and added muscle without taking away agility from the great Ozzie Smith, to turn him into a light-heavyweight – he has added John David Jackson to his corner. Jackson, who used to spar with Hopkins in the Executioner’s early days and was knocked out by Bernard in a title challenge, has sparred recently with Tarver. The southpaw former middleweight and supermiddleweight titleholder says he knows how to beat Tarver. I believe him….A thought as to why boxing titles suck: HBO and much of the media have called Carlos Baldomir-Arturo Gatti a fan-friendly fight. Maybe, but it shouldn’t decide the welterweight championship of the world, not when Floyd Mayweather Jr. is around. Baldomir-Mayweather wouldn’t be so fan-friendly, though..The WBOsses stripped Diego Corrales of its lightweight title and now has Acelino Freitas, whom Chico made quit like a puppy, fighting Zahir Raheem for the belt.

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