Barring a relapse, it's the day the fight game is expected to be resurrected from the dead.
What De La Hoya is doing to bring the sport back to life is agreeing to put his reputation, his health and his franchise smile on the line. He recently cocked his hat back, rolled up his sleeves, drew a line in the dirt and said he's ready to call out the Big Cheese.
He didn't kick sand in his face, didn't call him any names and didn't poke fun at his dog. But he might as well have.
Picking a fight with middleweight champ Bernard Hopkins is like asking Freddy Krueger to show you his scars. It's volunteering to jump off a cliff, requesting that your root canal take twice as long as planned.
"Hey Doc, forget the Novocain. And could you drag this thing out a little?"
Hopkins is to the fight game what Atilla the Hun was to plundering. No one pillaged better than Atilla, and no one beats up guys better than Bernard. He's defended his title 17 times, an impressive number when you figure the average life span of a world championship seems to be somewhere between now and your next fight.
Seventeen times. That's not a typo, it's history.
De La Hoya and Hopkins are tentatively scheduled to meet Sept. 18 at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas for Hopkins' fancy belt collection. It could be the biggest fight in pay-per-view history, and they have seven months to promote it to the world.
It should be an easy sell.
Of course, there is one small hurdle that needs to be jumped. Both Hopkins and De La Hoya have scheduled appointments for June 5. They will share the same stage and spotlight that night at the MGM Grand when Oscar fights WBO middleweight champ Felix Sturm of Germany and Hopkins takes on top contender Robert Allen.
Sturm and Allen aren't considered deal busters. They are secondary players shoved into the fight world's background, minor details written in small print on the bottom of the contract.
June 5 is a scrimmage before the big game on Sept. 18. It's a practice round before you tee it up for the club championship.
It's putting all your eggs in two baskets and hoping no one trips and spills them. Even a cut over the eye of either Oscar or Hopkins would ruin the big plans.
Sturm and Allen probably aren't too concerned with the lack of respect. They're both getting great exposure and both are making some big money. And if Hopkins and De La Hoya look too far ahead, well, it's to Sturm and Allen's advantage.
Still, something feels wrong about the whole deal. It's showing a lack of respect to the fighters who have earned the right to fight for the championship of the world (Allen) or - in the case of Sturm - to beat one of the most popular fighters of our time.
It's the biggest fight of their lives and everyone is talking about Sept. 16.
Maybe it's just that De La Hoya and Hopkins are that good.
We used to think Mike Tyson was that good until he went to Tokyo, Japan.
On Tuesday night February 25th 1964, Clay was viewed as nothing more than a colorful glib kid who won a Gold Medal in the 1960 Rome Olympics as a light heavyweight. Clay was known for his fast hands and feet, and his unorthodox way of pulling back and away from punches. *If you'd like to lose your money, be a fool and bet on Sonny* Although his unique skill was obvious too all, no one in the Boxing Universe thought he was anything special. The thought that he could beat Liston was non existent.
In the Month's and Week's leading up to the Liston-Clay bout, many writer's and Boxing historian's were comparing Liston to his good pal Joe Louis. In fact it was even thought by some that Liston was better than Louis and possibly the greatest heavyweight champ of all time. *I'm A bad man* Back in the early 60's, Liston was the most feared fighter on the planet. Sonny was the baddest man on the planet years before Jimmy Kirkpatrick met Mike Tyson's mother. The only difference was Sonny truly believed it.
Sonny Liston had been denied a title shot for years before he finally got it in September of 1962. Cus D'Amato, the manager and trainer of Heavyweight Champ Floyd Patterson sat on the title for more than four years. Cus knew Patterson had nothing for Liston. *I shook up he world, I shook up the World* While Cus played keep away, Liston demolished all the top contenders that the Patterson-D'Amato team avoided. After years of being accused of being afraid of Liston, Patterson went against the wishes of Cus and accepted a fight with him. On the night of September 25th 1962, Patterson defended the title against Liston. Two minutes after the bell for round one, Liston was the new undisputed champ.
By mid summer of 1963, Sonny Liston and Cassius Clay were on a collision course. In June Clay traveled to London to face British Champ Henry Cooper. Clay TKO'd Cooper in five rounds. However he was dropped by a beautiful Cooper left hook at the end of the fourth round, for the second time in his career. Clay beat the count but was in serious trouble as he went back to his corner. Clay's cunning trainer Angelo Dundee jacked around with his glove slightly delaying the start of the fifth round. Clay came out clear headed for the fifth round and reopened a cut over Cooper's eye causing the fight to be stopped. *To Prove I'm Great, he must go in eight*
One month later in July, Liston made the first defense of his title against the man he took it from, Floyd Patterson. The rematch turned out to be a rerun, and Liston TKO'd Patterson again in the first round paving the way for the Liston-Clay heavyweight title bout.
On November 6th 1963, Liston signed to defend his heavyweight title against the "Louisville Lip" better known as Cassius Clay. The fight was set for February 25th 1964 in Miami. Heading into their fight, Liston had no respect for Clay and thought he was nothing but a loudmouth with no heart. Liston truly believed that Clay would fold like a two-dollar suit in the big-spot. *If he wanna go to Heaven, I'll get'em in Seven*
Liston was feared, could punch with either hand, and was never off his feet. His only defeat was to Marty Marshall, a decision loss in his ninth fight when he suffered a broken jaw and lost a decision. Liston would defeat Marshall twice in subsequent fights before winning the title from Patterson. Sonny had a reach that measured between 82-84 inches. On top of that he was thought to have the strongest and best jab in heavyweight history. Something many still believe. Although Clay's jab was faster than Liston's, no one questioned whose' was better because it was a no brainer in favor of Liston.
Prior to fighting Liston, Clay had been down twice and was almost stopped by Cooper in his last fight. Cooper was a ranked contender when he fought Clay, but he was a lifetime behind Liston as a fighter. Most had predicted that Clay wouldn't make it out of the first round with Liston. In fact Liston himself led the charge o pinning that Clay won't make it out of the first round. *He'll be in a worse a fix if I cut it to Six* Most felt Clay wasn't as good or as experienced as Patterson. If Patterson can't make it past the first round with Liston, how can this kid with less than 20 fights do any better?
On the morning of February 25th, Liston and Clay weighed in at the Miami Beach Convention Center. When Liston came into's Clay's view, Clay went crazy taunting and shouting what he was going to do to him that night in the ring. Liston just glared back at Clay holding up two fingers signaling Clay's demise in the second round. Clay's conduct was so outrageous that he was fined 2500$. *If he keeps talkin Jive, I'll end it in five* The fight was almost called off when Clay's blood pressure was taken and it was off the charts. Many thought Clay was petrified of Liston and wanted out of the fight. Later when his blood pressure was taken it was normal and the fight was on.
On fight night when Liston and Clay were standing at ring center during the referee's instructions, Clay glared back at Liston and looked down at him. Something that was a new experience for Sonny. Once the bell rang for round one and the fight started, Clay's speed and boxing ability stood out. *If he keeps talkin like Moore, he'll go in Four* Over the first three rounds Clay had is way with Liston beating him to the punch and cutting him up. During the fifth round Clay was having trouble with his eyes and was blinking. Somehow the monsil solution that was used on Liston's cuts mysteriously got onto his gloves which then got into Clay's eyes. This was something other Liston opponents also claimed.
Once Clay's eye's cleared up, it was target practice. At the end of the sixth round, Liston went slowly back to his corner a beaten fighter. Liston told his trainer Willie Reddish that he couldn't lift his left arm and couldn't continue. When it was apparent Liston was done for the night, referee Barney Felix went over to Clay's corner and raised his hand signaling the new champ, Cassius Clay. *Yes the crowd did not dream when they put down their money, that they would see a total eclipse of the Sonny*
The next day Clay announced that he was a member of the Nation of Islam, and wanted to be referred to as Cassius X. Two weeks later Elijah Muhammad would re-name him Muhammad Ali. Down the road there would be a rematch with Liston, Vietnam, a fight with the Government, an exile, a comeback, Frazier, and Foreman among others. There would also be Parkinson's disease and the lighting of the Olympic Torch to open the 1996 Olympic Games. *The crowd is getting Frantic, but our Radar stations have picked him up, he is somewhere over the Atlantic* He would come full circle from being one of the most hated men on the planet, to being one of the most loved. February 25th 1964 was the start of it all. It was the night that Clay upset Liston and Shook up the World!!
It's a great way to end the month of February for two reasons: First, it's an attractive card. And more importantly, it means were almost out of this wretched month. The bottom line is that February is a virtual 'black hole' for sports fans.
Think about it, after the Super Bowl wraps up, sports fans are in an abyss of meaningless basketball games and uninteresting hockey games( some will argue that that's a repetitive phrase, after all, it's hockey) but what compounds this is that boxing for some reason never capitalizes on this dead month. Yes, I realize that we had a card on Showtime that featured James Toney against Jameel McCline and Kostya Tszyu going up against Sharmba Mitchell once again, before injuries decimated that card.
Seriously, why in a month where the biggest event is the Daytona 500, doesn't boxing take advantage of this vacuum by putting on some bigger events?
( And that's another question I have about Nascar, why is their Super Bowl their first event of the year? I mean, it's like having the World Series in April or the Stanley Cup in October. But I digress.)
The powers that be in boxing are loathe to put on big fights up against other big sporting events because boxing has enough problems getting coverage from the major media outlets when it doesn't have to compete with the likes of the Super Bowl, Final Four, World Series and NBA Finals. I can see not wanting to put on big events in January against the NFL Playoffs or in March against 'March Madness' which has turned into one of the most anticipated sporting events every year.
But why not February? In many ways it's the perfect month. With the weather being so cold in many area's, the levels of television viewing are usually very high-at least much higher than they are in the summer months- which makes it conducive to higher pay-per-view numbers. Seriously, I know boxing is not held in the same regard it was back in the day, but I'd still like to think that a truly big fight could more than hold it's own to the phrase, 'pitchers and catchers report'. I mean, c'mon it's baseball, something that goes into November now.
I have one theory as to why big fights don't happen in this dreadful month- it's too close to the holiday season, which means that if a fighter, let's say like Oscar De La Hoya or a Shane Mosley, who have already made millions of dollars, they along with many other fighters simply don't want to train during the holiday season. Yeah, fighters are amongst the most disciplined athletes in the world- when they're in training. When they're not, they can be among the worlds biggest gluttons.
Fighters love to fight right before Thanksgiving and then after February. Why? It's simple. They can enjoy turkey and all the stuffing they want without having to worry about their weight and then go onto to enjoy Christmas. You'd be surprised how many times I've been told by managers and fighters themselves that they don't want to fight in January and February because it would cut down on their holiday, uhh, spirit, if you know what I mean.
But you know what? Fighters have bills to pay and it's not exactly the most fertile marketplace out there for fighters, schedule a big payday in February and they will come. The bottom line is that most fighters today are simply not in a position to turn down HBO or Showtime fights because there's no telling when they will ever get that opportunity again.
How bad has this month been? Well, the two biggest things concerning this sport have centered on Lennox Lewis' retirement and Oscar De La Hoya possibly facing Bernard Hopkins in September. Now, those are admittedly big stories in any month, but nothing helps the business of boxing than big fights that happen currently. Instead of talking about fights that are happening now, we're more focused on a heavyweight that we'll most likely never see again and a fight that might happen in about seven months. Even George Foreman's publicity stunt to help his new clothing line, where he talked of coming back at age 55 was big news this month. Why? Because nothing else was going on.
Fights, make fights, which make other fights. That's how the business works and thrives. And starting on March 6th, when Joel Casamayor and Diego Corrales go at it again, we go on a great run of attractive match-ups. The next week we have Shane Mosley facing Winky Wright, two weeks later Jermain Taylor and Dominick Guinn continue their rise up the rankings in an Arkansas homecoming, then April 10th, we have Cory Spinks boxing Zab Judah and Wladimir Klitshcko taking on Lamon Brewster and then on the 24th we have Wlad's brother Vitaly taking on Corrie Sanders in a family grudge match.
I can't wait for those fights. Because right now I'm bored out of my mind. I can see why bears hibernate during these months.
PROUD AS A PEACOCK
Also starting in April is NBC's return to boxing with Main Events. Last year the two combined to make a relatively successful return to the sport and they're doing it again this year. Yeah, Main Events had to bring in their own sponsors but nothing beats network exposure for their young prospects. Through April 17th till May 15th, NBC will showcase guys like Rocky Juarez, Juan Diaz and Kermit Cintron.
My question is this, will there be another network that will step up to the plate and perhaps use the same business model as NBC and Main Events? Seriously, without giving a license fee, what do they really have to lose?
Another question I have is, with ESPN2 seemingly phasing out boxing, will Fox Sports, with the addition of Max Kellerman, up their commitment to the sport?
Signing Kellerman and not utilizing him on boxing, is like getting Barry Bonds and batting him seventh in your lineup.
Much has been said recently that the upcoming Hopkins-De La Hoya Middleweight Championship bout has many parallels to the Hagler-Leonard title fight back in April of 1987. That is definitely a fair comparison. In the Hagler-Leonard fight, Leonard was coming off a 35 month layoff. Hagler was the defending Middleweight Champ, who had just made his 12th successful title defense in the last six and a half years. Leonard fought as a Welterweight in his last fight, and was moving up to Middleweight.
Sugar Ray was one month shy of turning 31. He had already established himself as an all-time great fighter. A fight between Hagler and Leonard had been discussed off and on since 1982 when Leonard retired the first time due to a detached retina. When Leonard decided to challenge Hagler, he was in a no lose situation. He was coming off a long layoff, he wasn't taking any tune up fights, and he was moving up in weight. And on top of all that, Hagler was at the very least considered no worse than the third best pound-for-pound fighter in the world. Another thing Leonard was aware of was that Hagler had a very tough fight in his last outing against John "The Beast" Mugabi. Just maybe Ray sensed that if there ever was a right time to challenge Hagler, it was then. As long as Leonard didn't get killed or embarrass himself against Hagler, he had nothing to lose. However, if he won, it would be considered a monumental feat.
When Hagler and Leonard finally met, Leonard went on to win a very close controversial decision. The victory over Hagler is the signature win of Leonard's career, and it can never be taken away from him. Regardless of who you thought won, the fight was extremely close and Leonard is immortalized because of it.
I see De La Hoya in almost the same situation as Leonard was. As long as De La Hoya doesn't get destroyed by Hopkins, he can't lose. Much has been made of Oscar accepting a fight with Hopkins. Why I don't know, De La Hoya has always fought the best fighters. However, when you really think about it, what other option did De La Hoya have? And who else could he fight and make 30 million dollars, who he at least has a chance to upset.
No doubt De La Hoya's career is winding down. He has made more money than he'll ever spend. Finishing his career versus Hopkins makes all the sense in the world. Who was out there for him to fight? A third fight with Mosley certainly wasn't going to put 30 million in his pocket. Plus, Shane is a tough match up for him. Winky Wright isn't a big draw, and beating him wouldn't pave his way to immortality. Mayorga just lost to Spinks. Vernon Forrest is no draw or big accomplishment. And Trinidad is no where close to being ready for De La Hoya after his two year hiatus. No doubt Hopkins was the only fight that could pay him huge money, and provide him a chance to enhance his legacy.
Here's the plan. De La Hoya fights Felix Strum for the WBO Middleweight title. He'll most likely beat Strum which will give him his sixth title. Hopefully the rugged Robert Allen will give Hopkins a tough fight, and add some unwanted miles to Bernard's 39 year old body. Basically, De La Hoya had no choice but to accept a fight with Hopkins, because there wasn't any other mega fight out there for him.
Granted, De La Hoya has been more than willing to fight all the World's top fighters, but at this stage of his career, a fight with Hopkins makes the most sense for more than a few reasons. First of all, Hopkins is 39 years old and will only be months shy of turning 40. As much as I have raved over Hopkins being able to retain so much of his ability so late in his career, he could become an old man overnight without any warning. I'm not saying this is why De La Hoya agreed to the fight, or that Hopkins will erode significantly in the next 10 months, but the possibility cannot be discounted.
From a style standpoint, De La Hoya has a better chance to survive and go the distance than Felix Trinidad did. Tito's style was all wrong for Bernard. By taking the fight to Hopkins, Trinidad was set up to be takin apart. That doesn't apply to De La Hoya. What will work in Oscar's favor is, Hopkins is not a catch and kill fighter. He applies measured pressure. This will make it a little easier for De La Hoya to box, instead of having to fight. At least in the early going. Another thing is De La Hoya will be moving and up on his toes regardless of how Bernard fights. By De La Hoya moving, it will take longer for Hopkins to break him down.
This leads me to think that although De La Hoya won't win, he won't get demolished either. This is the best fight De La Hoya could've accepted at this stage of his career. I really don't think we'll see him fight again after Hopkins, regardless of the outcome. He has a chance to possibly cement his legacy versus an all-time great who just may not be at the top of his game. All these factors make this the ideal fight for De La Hoya. As long as Hopkins doesn't destroy him, it's a win-win for De La Hoya.
In recent columns I've compared the career's of Sugar Ray Leonard and Oscar De La Hoya. I want to make two things clear. When I rate Leonard and De La Hoya, I rate them as Welterweight's. I believe that's the weight where they were the most legit and natural. I know De La Hoya won titles at 130, 135, and 140. However, I believe when he fought at 130 & 135 he beat his opponents on the scales. The weigh ins for many of those title bouts were two and three days before the fights. Which means he was at 130 or 135 for all of two seconds, which gave him a tremendous advantage. When the fights took place, De La Hoya weighed up to 10 or 12 pounds more than his opponents. No way De La Hoya and Jorge Paez are the same size! I believe this was all pre-planned to help enhance De La Hoya's legacy. In reality, he was much bigger than Chavez also. Chavez was a natural jr. lightweight. And this is not being disrespectful of De La Hoya one bit. I give him his props and recognize his ring accomplishments. Oh, Leonard wasn't above doing the same thing. He won the light heavyweight title by forcing the champ Donny Lalonde to suck down to 168. Which no doubt weakened him and helped Leonard.
Lastly, I want to make it perfectly clear. In my opinion, Sugar Ray Leonard would've beat De La Hoya seven days a week, 52 weeks a year. Too me, Leonard is a level above De La Hoya as a fighter. I have no doubt that Ray at his best would have defeated every fighter De La Hoya ever fought. I can't say the same about De La Hoya. I have serious doubts if he would have got by Duran of 1980. And I'd bet my life that Hearns of 1981, and Hagler of 1987 both would have stopped him. In my opinion, Leonard was the second best Welterweight of all time. Ranking only behind Sugar Ray Robinson. As outstanding as De La Hoya has been, I'm not sure he cracks the top ten Welterweights in history. Possibly, but definitely not a given.
George Foreman's threat of a boxing comeback is like Bob Feller claiming he can still pitch in the Big Leagues. He'll tell you once he gets his zip back, they can pull out the Cy Young Award and place it on the mantle over his fireplace.
No one wants to believe the magic is gone, even though it quietly slipped away 30 years ago.
At 55, Foreman is closer to 70 then 40, more likely to be fit with dentures than a mouthpiece.
At 55, you bounce your grandchildren on your knee, take afternoon naps, surrender to the gray hair and wear glasses to drive. You eat dinner at 5 p.m., hit the sack by 10 and make two trips to the bathroom before your wife wakes you at 7 a.m.
At 55, you're 30 years and 5,000 cheeseburgers past your prime. Your best years were during the Ford Administration, though it's hard to remember back that far.
At 55, you don't fight. You watch.
Still, for $20 million, you can't blame Foreman for talking about a comeback. You can swallow a lot of pride for $20 million, take a beating, but smile all the way back to your locker room.
Besides, Big George is all about beating age, about proving you're only as old as you feel, or as old as a king's ransom makes you feel.
The money is being offered by - surprise - Don King, who claims they have a verbal agreement, though George shouldn't be rushing to the bank or buying any yachts on credit just yet.
King says it's a way to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the "Rumble in the Jungle," the night Muhammad Ali stopped Foreman in Zaire in 1974. It seems funny that Foreman would want to commemorate the worst night of his boxing career.
Still, King could sell diet pills at a hunger strike. And if it's his money, who is going to tell him where to spend it? Of course, if I'm a hungry, 24-year-old contender fighting for King, I'm not real happy to see him offer $20 million to a 55-year-old grandfather who hasn't fought in seven years.
King is in the wrong line of work. He shouldn't be promoting fights, he should be standing in the center ring wearing a red coat, top hat and boots. He should be telling the crowd about the eighth, ninth and 10th wonders of the world, how, for the price of their ticket, they can see it all right there under the big top.
Though none of the particulars have been worked out, Foreman said he wants to fight in his hometown of Houston. He also wants to drop down to 225 pounds, a weight he probably hasn't seen since early childhood.
As for an opponent for George, don't expect to see a legitimate contender sharing a ring with him. This is one of those no-win deals you'd want to avoid if you grew up dreaming of someday becoming heavyweight champ of the world. If you beat Foreman, you'd be slammed for being in the ring with a 55-year-old dinosaur.
Same thing if you lost to him.
But they'll find someone to take the fight. King has deep pockets.
The team of Max, Brian Kenny, Teddy Atlas and Joe Tessitore( and before him, Bob Papa) were the Tinkers-to-Evans-to-Chance of boxing. They had a certain chemistry that made their two-and-a-half hour weekly broadcast 'must-see TV' for boxing fans.
No, they didn't have the sports biggest events, that distinction belongs to HBO and their multi-million dollar budget. But what Friday Night Fights provided boxing fans was a broad look at what was going on in the game of boxing. And don't discount that for one minute.
While other sports like baseball, football and basketball all get daily coverage from all the various media outlets, from newspapers, to the internet, television and radio, boxing, for the past two decades boxing has been relegated to a few footnotes here and there on the newswire or a short note in small type on the 'Transactions' page of the newspaper. Outside the internet, boxing is treated on the same level as womens gymnastics and polo. Yes, it's fallen off that much.
But Friday Night Fights, gave the sport it's only real positive spotlight on a major network, on a regular basis. Think about it, when was the last time a fight that didn't involve Mike Tyson, the heavyweight championship of the world or Oscar De La Hoya, make the front page of the sports section? It's been awhile hasn't it? And the fact that Tyson barely fights anymore, Lennox Lewis fought only once or twice a year, as did 'the Golden Boy', that means that 'the sweet science' hasn't been getting a lot of ink lately.
But FNF, week after week, was boxing's version of '60 Minutes', 'This Week in Baseball', 'Inside the NFL', '20/20' and 'SportsCenter' rolled into one. They would provide highlights of recent fights( even ones that took place in Europe), news of the latest developments, commentary of current events, interviews and round table discussion/ arguments about boxing. No, they weren't shills or cheerleaders, they would give their honest critiques and opinions of the things going on within the sport. It wasn't that it was positive coverage of the sport, but more importantly it was balanced, accurate and knowledgeable coverage of it.
It wasn't the fights that kept you coming back week after week, because quite frankly, in recent years their fights have gotten worse and worse. But the studio segments featuring 'To the Max' and the arguments between Max and Teddy, were not only informative but entertaining. It was good TV, and it just happened to be about boxing. The fights, unfortunately, became the thing you had to tolerate before you got to the studio segments.
But now that Max is gone, I'm afraid it'll never be the same. No, that's not a rip at anyone that still remains on that show or a guy like Antonio Tarver, who filled in for Max this past weekend- he did a very credible job- but the energy and enthusiasm he brought to the table each week simply can not be replaced by brining in a slew of big name fighters to pinch him for him.
Say whatever you want about Max, yes, he may have not been able to call a fight correctly to save his life. Hell, he probably tabbed Saddam Hussein over George Bush a few months back. And perhaps he didn't always have the best sources to back up his subject matter or maybe he was more than a tad biased for his boxers out of New York. But he brought a certain passion and enthusiasm for the sport that was undeniable.
Hey, think about it, how many smarmy, smart-alecky, know-nothing, sportscasters have you seen make one ignorant remark about boxing after another. I mean, isn't it refreshing to have a guy that does know something about boxing, respects and admiration for the game like Max, talking about it every single week. He didn't just cover boxing, he also helped promote it.
Say what you want, he was great for the game of boxing. In an era when so many others eschew the sport of boxing, it was refreshing to have a guy that was an advocate of the sport. He loved the game, he defended it, he stuck up for it and he watched it like any other fan. What was so wrong about that?
I'll say this about Max, he had passion and he wasn't afraid to voice a strong opinion. You'd be surprised just how many folks in that position are afraid to say something that might ruffle a few feathers. He did that every week, which made him a saint to some, a Judas to others. He understood it came with the territory and he did it week after week. No matter how wrong or misguided he may have been at times- and believe me, I've had my disagreements with him- you anxiously awaited what he had to say.
And now that he's gone, Friday Night Fights will never, ever be the same. It's now just another boxing show, with mediocre fights and not a lot of personality. And in this case, it's the sport of boxing that loses.
There were certainly sufficient highs to make a case that Lewis belongs as one of the greats, certainly the best of his time, and a few lows that put a damper on what could have been an unblemished record.
High: Lewis became a recognized World Heavyweight Champion for the first time after defeating Razor Ruddock in London in 1992. Disposing of Ruddock inside of two rounds itself wasn't what earned him the WBC belt, the way he did it is what earned him the trinket. At the time Riddick Bowe held the WBC honor, but the way Lewis had been snot-rocking his opponents dampened Bowe's desire to fight Lennox Lewis. Bowe gave up the belt rather than face Lewis again, having previously been stopped by Lewis (fighting under the Canadian flag at the time) in the Seoul Olympics gold medal bout in 1988. If Bowe was stopped by Lewis while wearing head-gear, he certainly must have been tinkling in his trousers at the prospect of fighting Lennox unprotected.
Low: The Atomic Bull goes boom! Oliver McCall rocked the heavyweight world and gave hope to every heavy-handed heavyweight boxer by knocking out Lewis - "technically" at least - in two rounds in 1994. Lewis got caught, no doubt about it, but was perhaps victim of a short count. Still, from that day onward each time the Brit (?) entered the ring the prospect of him being knocked out was in the back of everyone's mind.
High: In the rematch with McCall, Lewis was able to regain his WBC title, although somewhat by default. While two boxers were in the ring, it was Lewis who came to fight while McCall chose not to. Despite the best efforts of Lennox Lewis, McCall had no interest in fighting that night and was literally brought to tears in the ring. Personal demons ruined the rematch as The Atomic Bull was nowhere to be found and by the fifth round the atomic disappointment was called to a halt. Lewis was crowned King once more, while McCall was taken for some well needed 'rest'.
Low: Perhaps it is the concussive power that Lennox carries in each hand which causes opponents to lose their mojo once face-to-face with the gentle giant. Whatever the reason, in Lewis' next fight the same thing happened. While Henry Akinwande didn't exactly break down in tears, he did embarrass himself by hugging Lewis at every opportunity possible. Finally someone had figured out a way to avoid the big bombs of the Briton. Unfortunately for Akinwande, it wasn't a 'bear hug' contest and after 5 rounds of getting close and personal with Lewis the fight was put to bed with Akinwande disqualified.
High: In one of the most anticipated fights of his career, Lewis took on fan favorite and true warrior Evander Holyfield. The bout was to unify the WBC belt held by Lewis with Holyfield's WBA and IBF belts, despite failing to do that. Clearly Lewis won the fight, and as such it falls under one of his highlights based on the magnitude of the bout.
Low: In the aforementioned bout Lewis was not crowned the unified champion as the judges ruined what should have been a great night for the sport. Lewis' elation from winning the fight turned to disbelief as the decision was read.
High: The manner in which Lewis truly destroyed Michael Grant in April of 2000 was another sweet victory for Lewis. While the press had been begging for someone to take the crown from Lewis, their savior appeared in the form of a muscular, ripped, bible-thumping super-athlete carrying the name of Grant. While we can't attest to how the God-fearing Grant had sinned in his past, he must have been a bad, bad boy. Lewis punished Grant from the opening bell as fans saw the aggressive Lewis they had been clamoring for.
Low: The carnival in Carnival City, South Africa. One shot wonder Hasim "The Rock" Rahman caught an under-prepared Lewis - actually "unprepared" would be better as "under-prepared" suggests that Lewis was at least partially prepped for his fight - right on the button and won the heavyweight prize. Lewis had been in Las Vegas filming a scene for the movie 'Ocean's Eleven' and arrived in South Africa underestimating the altitude and his opponent. Big blemish on the resume.
High: Possibly the most anticipated bout of Lewis' career came in Memphis, Tennessee, which was one of the few places where a rusted "Iron" Mike Tyson was allowed to fight. The refined Heavyweight King facing an all-time ring bad-ass made for great prefight drama. The power that Tyson carried in his fists mixed with the chin that had already failed Lewis on two occasions had people convincing themselves that Tyson would rein again. Instead they saw a near perfect performance by Lewis who picked Iron Mike apart round-by-round. The beating ended in the eighth as Tyson lay down, a bloodied and battered man. Finally, the name 'Mike Tyson' was added to the list of victims on Lewis' hit list.
High-Low: Lennox Lewis retires. From his perspective you have to consider his recent retirement announcement as a high. Lewis defeated the mighty Mike Tyson, Evander Holyfield, Vitali Klitschko and avenged his two losses in convincing fashion. For boxing fans the announcement comes as a low point. The heavyweight division is rather bare right now, and Lennox was one of the few big attractions in the most popular weight class in the game. Boxing can always use the positive impression he had on the sport.
Both in and out of the ring Lennox Lewis was a class act and, in this era, in a class of his own.
Since Muhammad Ali retired in 1979, there have been exactly three great heavyweights. Larry Holmes, Evander Holyfield, and Lennox Lewis. Mike Tyson and Riddick Bowe were great talents, but Tyson lost the three signature fights of his career badly. Too me, you have to beat at least one of the best fighters you faced. Tyson can't say that. Regarding Riddick Bowe, he won the only signature fight of his career, but outside of beating Holyfield he didn't beat any other fighter who would merit him into the Hall-Of-Fame. Plus, his overall body of work lacks quality opposition and longevity. I'm sure many will have a problem with my view on Tyson and Bowe, but that's my opinion.
That brings us back to Vitali Klitschko. Is he a great fighter, can he ever accomplish the same feats as Lewis? I would say that right now Vitali is not a great heavyweight, but I believe he does have a chance to go on to achieve greatness. Another thing that must be said for Vitali is, he has never really been bettered in any of his fights. Against Byrd, he was leading before he had to pull out of the fight. Although I don't think he was ahead by as much as the judges had him up, he was still winning. In his title fight versus Lennox Lewis, he was leading when his severely cut eye caused the Ring Doctor to stop the fight. That doesn't mean he was on his way to certain victory, but he was leading at the end. When looking at the heavyweight division's top ten contenders, I believe that only Vitali Klitschko has a chance to rule the division.
Chris Byrd and James Toney are great fighters, but I doubt they'll ever be regarded as great heavyweights. Roy Jones is certainly not a great heavyweight. No way does beating John Ruiz qualify him as a great heavyweight. That leaves Corrie Sanders, David Tua, John Ruiz, Hasim Rahman, Wladimir Klitschko, Juan Carlos Gomez, and Fres Oquendo. I think it's safe to say that neither of those eight will ever be called great under any circumstances.
That is exactly why the division is wide open for Vitali Klitschko. After seeing his last two fights versus Lewis and Kirk Johnson, I can't envision any one of the other top contenders beating him. When looking at Klitschko as a fighter within himself, there are a few things that suggest he isn't all that. However, when you look at him and match him up versus the other top heavyweights, he looks very formidable.
Vitali is a very big heavyweight who knows how to use his size. He is not very fast or is he an outstanding boxer, but he has a pretty good jab and a good right hand. Vitali is very strong and going off of his performance in his recent fights versus Lewis and Johnson, I get the feeling that he believes in himself and harbors no lack of confidence. Klitschko also has shown the mental toughness that many thought he lacked after the Byrd fight. Along with being tough, he showed a very good chin. Lewis hit him with a few huge shots in their fight last June, and he took them as well as anyone could've expected.
What we have in Klitschko is a guy who is one of the biggest fighters in the division who I believe is totally focused on winning the heavyweight title. Couple that with some ability, power, a sturdy chin and desire, you have one imposing fighter. Vitali, like his brother has a terrific work ethic and always shows up in top shape. Something that cannot be said about at least half of today's other top contenders.
Another big factor that I think enables Vitali to possibly be the next man in the division is, who's out there to cause him any major problems? There is not an Ali or Holmes around at present who have enough size, speed, boxing ability, and toughness to beat him. There is no power house like a young Foreman who had the size and power to deal with him. Exactly who is the fighter who can present him as many problems and obstacles that he poses them?
We already saw that he's too big for Byrd, and I believe the same would apply to Toney. We know that he would be a nightmare for Jones, not that Jones would even joke about fighting him. Corrie Sanders may be able to compete with him, but he's not a good enough fighter to overcome the size and strength that he gives up. Plus, I doubt that he can turn the fight with one punch against Vitali like he did Wladimir.
David Tua has a punchers chance versus Vitali, but I'd bet my life that he'd never get close enough to land any of his bombs on Klitschko's chin. Rahman, not a chance. Rahman is a decent boxer at best who can hurt you if he catches you with the perfect shot. Vitali would control him with his jab and either give him a severe beating or stop him. Same with Ruiz. Ruiz leads with his face, he's slow and not a real good boxer. Klitschko is just too much for Ruiz no matter how you look at it. Juan Carlos Gomez is a pretty good boxer , but Klitschko would force him to fight instead of boxing and taking advantage of his southpaw style. Gomez ain't beaten Vitali.
Who's that leave, Fres Oquendo? Oquendo is a pretty good fighter, but he isn't really outstanding at anything. He's not real fast, he isn't a great boxer and he isn't a great puncher. I don't see how he would win. Klitschko would pressure him and push him back, making Fres either move away trying to survive, or standing his ground and trying to fight. Which would lead to his defeat.
Right now it seems there are Vitali Klitschko fans all over. Boxing isn't any different than other sports when it comes to its fans. Everybody loves a winner, or a perceived winner. I like Vitali and respect his work ethic. He respects Boxing and has shown much class in the aftermath of Lewis' retirement. However, I don't think he is a great fighter at present.
I see some significant holes in Vitali's game. If he was fighting among a different crop of heavyweights, I don't think he would be the perceived heir apparent to Lewis. Like I said when you look at him within himself and what he can do, his size and toughness are his biggest assets. In a different era and time, that wouldn't have been enough.
However, when you look at him and match him up with the rest of his contemporaries, the holes in his game don't look so big. He actually looks like the odds on favorite to soon be recognized at the world's top heavyweight. Vitali Klitschko is very good and will be very tough to beat, but he has not earned the high praise of being called a great fighter. What he has earned is the right to be considered the man who will succeed Lennox Lewis. If he does go onto succeed Lewis, than he will have positioned himself to stake his claim as to whether or not he'll be remembered in the same vain as possibly one of the greats. But he's not there yet. That's why he'll be under the microscope for the next couple of years. We all want to see how far he can go?
He calls it a day with a record of 41-2-1 with 32 knockouts. He was a two-time champion that unified the title during his second run as a champ and then retired as the recognized, linear champion. He also won a gold medal to boot in 1988 in Seoul, Korea, stopping Riddick Bowe.
Impressive credentials in any era, but the question persists, where do you rank Lewis? There are two factions with extreme views on this Brit, who is also Jamaican, but represented Canada in the Olympics and had most of his big fights in the United States. One side will say that Lewis was a reluctant soldier with a negative style and a shaky set of whiskers. The other will tell you that he is one of the all-time greats with his wins over the likes of Vitali Klitschko, Evander Holyfield, Mike Tyson, David Tua, Andrew Golota, Ray Mercer and Razor Ruddock.
So which is it? Is he the china-chinned guy in dreadlocks or an all-time great? Well, probably a bit of both, so the truth probably lies somewhere in the middle.
Was his chin shaky? Well, he did get KO'd twice in one-punch fashion by journeymen-level guys in Oliver McCall and Hasim Rahman. Now, once is an aberration, twice is a trend. KO losses to those two are telling. Sure other heavyweights have hit the canvas, but the truly elite have gotten up off the canvas. Joe Louis, Larry Holmes, George Foreman, Muhammad Ali, Rocky Marciano and Joe Frazier have all gotten their ass of the canvas to win fights. When Lewis hit the floor, he was there to stay.
But to his credit Lewis did avenge both of his losses in conclusive fashion to both McCall and Rahman in rematches. Of course the detractors would ask what business he had losing to those guys to begin with. Most of the other great heavyweights either loss to elite fighters in their prime, like Frazier did to Foreman, and then Foreman to Ali, or they lost well past their primes like Louis did to Marciano and Ali did to a Leon Spinks. But during their primes, they weren't losing to guys the caliber of McCall and Rahman, no siree.
And it wasn't like Lewis was fighting in a great era of heavyweights either. But then again, besides the 1970's that featured: Ali, Foreman, Frazier, Jerry Quarry, Ernie Shavers, Jimmy Ellis, Jimmy Young, Ron Lyle and Ken Norton among others, has there really been a truly 'great' era of heavyweight boxing. Usually this division is dominated by one guy at a time.
That was surely the case of Louis, who's competition was so bad that it was called 'the Bum of the Month Club', or Marciano who was criticized for not having beaten any other great heavyweights in their prime, Holmes, was never given enough respect during his prime as he had a tough act to follow in Ali and Mike Tyson dominated an division replete with Don King promoted underachievers.
At least Lewis was in an era that featured the likes of Evander Holyfield, Riddick Bowe and Mike Tyson. Lewis basically beat 'the Real Deal' twice, with the first battle being a scandalous decision that ended up in a draw, Bowe would throw his WBC belt into the trash can rather than face Lewis as his mandatory contender in 1992 and Lewis, was originally paid about $4.5 million by the Tyson camp to stay away from their man in 1996 before dominating him in 2002.
In between all this he would beat respected contenders like David Tua, Henry Akinwande, Tommy Morrison, Michael Grant, Frans Botha, Frank Bruno, Tony Tucker and Andrew Golota. In any era, that is not a bad resume. And remember, while he was losing on all three scorecards to Klitschko- and rightfully so- he did cause the nasty gash on his opponent with a punch and had seemed to have taken some control of their fight by the end of the sixth round with a huge uppercut that staggered Klitschko.
But even with all this work under his belt, respect has been hard to come by in America. Why? Is it because he's not American? I mean, if he was, he'd probably would have been on the box of Wheaties years ago. Maybe Americans are so jingoistic that we simply cannot give credit to a heavyweight champion that sounds like Margaret Thatcher. Is it his somewhat awkward and gangly style? Hey, not even his most ardent supporter will call him Willie Pep, but ask yourself this- what other 6'5, 245 pound heavyweight in the history of the game could do what he did on a consistent basis?
Again, I'm not saying he's a young Cassius Clay, but compare him to some of the other behemoths that have graced the canvas from Primo Carnera to Grant, and you'll see the Lewis is light years beyond anybody else with that kind of size. And you know what? It's effective and you can't argue with the results. Hey, I'd be the first to tell you he could bore you like PBS programming, but it's the results that count. Lewis is a classic example of substance over style.
So do I consider Lewis among the all-time elite? No. I simply can't overlook over his two losses to McCall and Rahman, one loss I can't excuse, but the second loss in South Africa to 'the Rock' shows that even in his prime he was more vulnerable in his prime than guys like Ali, Louis, Foreman, Holmes, Frazier, Marciano or even a Sonny Liston.
But I will say this, he makes a very strong argument for being right below that elite tier and based on his performances against his peers, it's clear that he is this past generations best big man.
And that makes him pretty damn good, if not an all-time great.
He always marched to the beat of his own drummer, and it often left boxing fans disappointed. Between the ropes Lewis' rhythm often seemed to have more in common with the easy lull of a reggae beat than the menacing clatter of a military march. When spectators willed Lewis to use his imposing physical might to wreak vengeance on an opponent, Lewis often tended towards introspection -- a tactician first and brawler only as a last resort.
Born in London to Jamaican parents, as his teenage years approached Lewis was taken to Canada by a single mother who wanted something better for her son. A foreign transplant in a southern Ontario town, the pattern was set early for the career of an athlete who never seemed to belong to anybody.
Though he learned to box in Kitchener, Ontario and won a gold medal for Canada in the Seoul Olympics, Canadians felt betrayed when Lewis chose to sign his first professional deal with pint-sized, English maverick, Frank Maloney. As the young heavyweight sailed back across the ocean to pursue his professional career, many Canadians waved good riddance. It mattered not that Maloney's offer was the only one that provided certain financial security to the single parent family. These were details irrelevant to the narrative spun on the sporting pages of tabloid newspapers.
As the trajectory of his career began to unfold, events did not follow the script that had been written by the money men. Until he disposed of Mike Tyson late in his career, Lewis was never truly embraced by the English. Compared to the beloved Frank Bruno, who was only too happy to play the part of the gregarious giant with whom microphones had a love affair, Lewis often seemed calculating, distant and aloof. In short, Lewis was not Frank Bruno and many in Great Britain never forgave him for it.
And in truth, it was never really on the cards that he would be embraced by the boxing fraternity in the USA, where most of his major bouts took place. Put simply, he wasn't an 'American' and the heavyweight title was an unofficial American institution. As the years rolled on Lewis, out of necessity, took to calling himself a "citizen of the world" when questioned about his true nationality.
Regardless of his origins, on his best nights it was impossible to overlook Lewis' sheer dominance. His gold medal winning Olympic performance against Riddick Bowe, when Lewis first truly burst onto the world stage, was a harbinger of what was to come, though few paid enough attention to take note.
Bowe schooled Lewis in the first round of the Olympic final, using his inside mastery to draw first blood. Sensing he was over-matched technically, his singlet stained with his own blood, Lewis raced across the ring as the bell rang for the second and through sheer physical dominance willed Bowe to submit. It was a performance that made a mockery of claims in years to come that Lewis lacked the heart and courage of a truly great champion.
With the news of his retirement still only days old, it is natural that the debate as to where Lewis fits in amongst the all time greats has intensified. Along with Rocky Marciano and Gene Tunney, he is only the 3rd heavyweight champion to retire, title intact. But where does the name Lennox Lewis fit in the list of all time greats, a lineage that stretches back to John L. Sullivan and includes the likes of Ali, Joe Louis, Marciano and Jack Johnson? It is not an easy question to answer.
Lewis' legacy will always be tainted by his only 2 losses, which came at the hands of comparative journeyman. Though in keeping with Lewis' enigmatic persona, perhaps the losses say as much about the man as his victories.
His first loss came at the hands of Oliver McCall, a physically strong, but uncelebrated former sparring partner to Mike Tyson who had an unhealthy relationship with illicit drugs. The night McCall beat Lewis to the punch with the leg-numbing right hand that ended Lewis's first title reign, it appeared that Lewis might be nothing more than a young pretender destined to never truly learn his craft.
But rather than deluding himself as so many had in the past after staring defeat square in the face, Lewis hired the man who had masterminded his downfall -- Emanuel Steward. It was a master stroke by Lewis that demonstrated the strength of character and self-awareness that would always serve him well. In Lewis, Steward had a diamond in the rough, and though few believed him at the time, the man from the Kronk knew greatness was within their grasp.
There can be little doubt that Emanuel Steward turned Lennox Lewis' career around. Without Steward, Lewis would surely have never scaled anywhere near the heights to which he would eventually climb.
And rarely is it ever mentioned that the world probably may never have seen the best of Lennox Lewis. Though Lewis himself liked to compare himself to fine wine that just got better with age, the truth is that by the time Lewis became a master technician, his physical prime may have been close to receding. Starved of an elite trainer and top flight sparring through most of formative years as a boxer, Lewis was approaching 30 by the time Steward took to refining raw talent into a truly world class caliber package.
Still, there was plenty of time left for Lewis, under Steward's tutelage, to reach the peak of the mountain. The major victories early in Lewis' career - notably over Razor Ruddock and Frank Bruno - were a cocktail of technical naivety mixed with explosions of frightening physical power. Particularly against Ruddock, Lewis served notice that when the threat seemed greatest, he was at his most brutal. In the early hours of a London morning Ruddock entered the ring as a credible heavyweight contender and left, only minutes later, fumbling about for his senses after being chopped down by Lewis right hands.
It was a pattern that repeated itself 5 years later. Andrew Golota stepped through the Atlantic City ropes as possible heir apparent to the heavyweight throne, having effectively just ended Riddick Bowe's career after a pair of brutal contests. HBO had designs on Golota at the time as the possible future of the division. Feeling he had been disrespected by HBO, who Lewis believed was viewing him as a man on the way out, Lewis entered the ring bent on making a point. Lewis destroyed Golota within one round, serving notice he was still a major player in the division.
In some ways history repeated itself years later when Lewis exacted revenge on Hasim Rahman. Rahman had knocked out a complacent Lewis 7 months earlier to take the undisputed heavyweight title from Lewis. Again, the loss in Carnival City, South Africa may have said as much about Lewis as any of his victories.
Lewis believed he could not lose in South Africa, such was his superiority over the rest of the division, and his preparations had gone accordingly. It was a monumental miscalculation.
Momentarily separated from his senses and, for the time being, permanently separated from his heavyweight titles, Rahman chose to add insult to Lewis' injuries in the build up to the rematch. While much of the boxing press cast Rahman's jibes at Lewis and his sexuality as a breath of fresh air, the anger within Lewis seethed.
As Lewis claimed last week, the return bout with Rahman was his finest hour. "My best win has got to be Rahman because he disrespected me continually. It really ignited the spark in me to go in and unload, and brought that hunger back out in me."
In the rematch a focused Lewis disposed of Rahman with consummate ease. Lackadaisical and under prepared in the first fight, letter perfect and devastating in the rematch, it said so much about Lennox Lewis. Perhaps his greatness will always be open to question due to the lapses in concentration he could not resist, but on his night Lewis could have lived with any heavyweight the ring has ever seen.
Of course, where Lewis truly fits into history with fighters like Dempsey and Tunney, Louis and Schmeling, and Frazier and Ali can never be definitively answered, though it will surely be fuel for debates that take place in years to come in the trendiest uptown coffee shops, as well as the most wizened of old dives in forgotten about neighborhoods. Perhaps where Lewis fits in amongst the great heavyweights is a debate best left to the experts and charlatans alike.
One thing is clear. In the manner in which he conducted himself, respecting the sport that made him what he is, refusing to be seduced by the cancerous corruption that eats away at the boxing industry, in the way he faced defeat with honesty, and in trying to remember what it is to act with integrity, Lennox Lewis had few contemporary peers.
Lewis has said that he is retiring "out of respect for boxing," aware that he risks his legacy and what he stood for by fighting on when the sole motivation is now monetary gain. It is somehow ironic, then, somehow sad and somehow fitting that for so long the boxing fraternity did not respect Lewis.
But in a way it makes sense. Boxing is a sport that sometimes worries too much about things like legacy and too little about the here and now, too little about things like the fact many of its greatest practitioners are protagonists whose stories have endings which are poisoned by tragedy. It is human nature that the big picture often gets obscured by the action which is immediate. Even still, perhaps in boxing it happens too often.
This Friday past Lennox Lewis the boxer's story wound to its conclusion. It had a happy ending.
It was a story that was not always easy to decipher -- sometimes it was characterized by complacency, at other times uncertainty. When mediocrity looked to be manifest, brilliance shone through, even moments of greatness. Sometimes it felt like a slow waltz, sometimes like jazz that seemed to be going nowhere. Unpredictably, it was often in those moments when the senses exploded and it seemed to defy anything that had gone before it, to resemble something that might be labeled greatness.
In the end it was a story made up of many shades of grey. In the end, it was a lot like life itself.