“Negative publicity is still publicity, so long as they spell my name right.”
Nobody has paid greater homage to that old saying than legendary promoter Don King. And why not? After all, it’s not very difficult to spell King.
What is difficult, however, is identifying one among today’s heavyweights..
The theme for the big fight card tonight is “Rendezvous with Destiny: Battle for Supremacy.” Certainly a more flattering title than the initial choice of “Struggle for Supremacy”, though not necessarily more befitting. After all, of the four televised heavyweight fights scheduled (which amounts to nearly one ton of heavyweight pounds in the same arena), no fewer than five of the eight combatants are looking at what should be their last shot at the big time.
That King is forced to recycle the past in order to offer a future should alone spell disaster for the division. But as only Don can do it, he somehow always finds a way to make it all work.
For instance, everyone had dismissed his April 17 Garden party as a joke of a card that would only further embarrass a sport that is already among the most often ridiculed. Yet nobody – not even the 15,000+ that were in attendance that night – figured that current IBF champion Chris Byrd (37-2-1, 20KO) and Andrew Golota would wind up participating in one of the best fights of 2004, and in fact one of the most thrilling heavyweight contests in recent memory.
In fact, nobody believed that Golota (38-4-1-1NC, 31KO) could ever again contend for any portion of the heavyweight title, or anywhere close to the top level. Not after all of the in-the-ring meltdowns he has suffered in the past eight years. Perhaps it was fool’s gold, as Don King himself had even marketed the fight as a promoter giving a down-and-out Caucasian heavyweight one last shot at the big time. Whatever the case, the same fighter who managed to twice foul out against Riddick Bowe, and collapse under pressure against Lennox Lewis, Michael Grant and Mike Tyson somehow managed to turn the clock back – way back – and fight Byrd to a draw, a decision many felt should have gone Golota’s way.
Nor did anyone believe that once the going got tough, that Byrd would not get going, but instead stare tough dead in the eye and on many occasions, give back every bit as good as he took. While we’re at it, they also didn’t believe that he would go ahead and fight longtime friend Jameel McCline (31-3-3, 19KO) just to prove that he’s willing to take on any and all comers. The decision was a painful one, as not only are Chris and Jameel good friends, but their wives have often served as each other’s babysitter. Not to mention that Byrd had also threatened to take King to court over money he and his lawyer insisted they were contractually entitled to. When he had every chance to walk and take the easy way out, Chris instead took on two tough fights that most would avoid at all costs; a battle with King inside the courtroom, and a battle against a close friend inside the ring.
That same close friend in McCline was also all but written off shortly after his freeze-up two years ago against Wladimir Klitschko. Since then, Jameel has gone 3-0, with all three opponents (Charles Shufford, previously undefeated Cedric Boswell, and Wayne Llewelyn) failing to make it to the final bell.
Having been named the #1 contender by the IBF, but not its mandatory, King decided to play hardball with McCline for the sake of satisfying his own agenda. Rather than granting Jameel a title shot, as King would expect a champion to do should his own fighter benefit from a similar ranking, he instead offered Jameel $100,000 – and asked for options on his career should he defeat Byrd. McCline said no – though in more words, none too fit for print – and took a ShoBox fight against Llewelyn two nights before watching Golota take his place.
Shortly after the fight, McCline was now named mandatory challenger by the IBF. Such being the case, King could no longer demand options on his career. What he did demand, however, was that McCline accept the same monetary offer he was presented the first time.
Nobody expected McCline to agree to a fight for a piece of the heavyweight title under those terms. After all, $100,000 for a heavyweight title fight would be the lowest sum in some fifty years that a fighter in a similar position has accepted. But McCline realized that you rarely get a second chance in life, much less a second chance at a second chance. So, he accepted the offer – and waited two months for the drama between Byrd and King to play out before all matters were finalized.
Never in a million years – or at least eight plus, when HBO aired “Night of the Young Heavyweights” in March 1996 – would anyone believe that one day, John Ruiz (40-5-1, 28KO) would be a two-time heavyweight titlist and rank among the best three fighters in the division. Say what you want about King’s uncanny knack for positioning his fighters to be in the right place (ranked in the top two spots among most alphabet rankings) at the right time; the fighter still has to go out and actually win the fight. And save for a points loss to former pound for pound king Roy Jones, Jr. in March 2003, Ruiz manages to keep on doing just that. It’s not pretty. In fact, many a fight involving “The Quietman” features far more clutching in the ring and booing and hissing in the stands more so than anything else.
But ever since Ruiz became the first – and to date, only – Latino in boxing history to win a portion of the heavyweight crown, Evander Holyfield, Kirk Johnson, Hasim Rahman and Fres Oquendo have all failed to prove the claim from many skeptics that John Ruiz is a fraud, or even a bum. Most of those who cite such claims turn to his nineteen second blitzing at the hands of former title challenger David Tua nearly nine years on the aforementioned HBO telecast as their proof. But all that night proved, much like a Don King card such as this one, is to expect the unexpected. Many figured that after that night, Tua and Golota were heading on a collision course. Only nobody figured that they’d collide in opposite directions on separate tracks.
Nobody that night ever expected to hear the name John Ruiz again; at least not on the top level. But eight plus years, fifteen wins and two titles later, John Ruiz is now headlining his third pay-per-view event.
The first pay-per-view event that Ruiz played in the main event was against former four time and then-WBA heavyweight champion Evander Holyfield (38-7-2, 25KO). Nobody expected him to still be fighting in 2004, least of all in what boils down to a loser-leaves-town match versus Larry Donald (41-3-2, 24KO) in the very same arena where he made his pro debut twenty years earlier, almost to the day. Hell, nobody expected him to fight past 1994, when he was forced to temporarily retire after being diagnosed with a heart ailment shortly after his title-losing effort to Michael Moorer. Nor did they expect him to go on to thrice regain at least a piece of the heavyweight title.
Today, very few even expect him to get past Larry Donald, himself having long ago been removed from anyone’s expectations of being a player in the heavyweight division. Donald offers a glossy record, but unfortunately, is best known for falling short at the top level. His biggest win to date was when he pulled off a minor upset over aged yet then-still dangerous former two-time champion Tim Witherspoon (one of the few retreads who is NOT appearing on this card). However, Witherspoon had gone on to lose four straight after that, while Donald basically bided his time high among the WBA rankings before dropping a decision to then-undefeated Kirk Johnson. Kirk would go on to lose to Ruiz, four months before Donald was stopped for the first time in his career, at the hands of current WBC champion Vitali Klitschko.
Should Donald defeat Holyfield, he would undoubtedly resurface among the rankings of an alphabet organization or two. Somehow, Hasim Rahman (39-5-1,32KO) has never left any of the rankings, despite having only started to return to the win column for the first time since winning the heavyweight crown from Lennox Lewis in April 2001. Since then, Rahman lost his title to Lewis via KO in a rematch seven months later, and dropped a technical decision to Holyfield in June 2002 when the mother of all lumps formed on – and almost through – his forehead, thus halting action after seven rounds.
That fight was a WBA title eliminator, though somehow Holyfield wound up fighting for the IBF title six months later against Byrd, the same title for which Rahman would face David Tua in an elimination bout, much like their first fight in December 1998. Much like the first fight, Rahman would outfight Tua, only to fall victim to a controversial verdict. In the first fight, it was a questionable stoppage, which came thirty-five seconds into the tenth round, one round after Rahman was caught with a shot after the bell, only to not be granted any additional time to recover other than the one-minute rest period.
This time, the controversy lied within the scoring. Most in the arena saw Rahman winning, as did Bill Clancy, who scored eight of twelve rounds for “The Rock.” Unfortunately for Rahman, that score was overruled by one judge who somehow had Tua winning eight rounds, and the third judge who saw things even, thus resulting in a split decision draw.
But as long as Don King would have a say, Rahman would still get a title shot. Which is exactly what occurred in December 2003, when the WBA insisted that Rahman and Ruiz fight for their interim title. Having failed to win his prior three bouts yet still somehow getting a title shot, many expected a resurrection to occur. Instead, Rahman fought the same lazy type of fight that has infamously marked his once-promising career, and he wound up dropping a unanimous decision to Ruiz in one of the ugliest title fights in recent memory.
Having now gone three years without a win, Rahman took the slow road back, fighting once a month against opponents barely worthy of the term tune-up. After four wins of such nature, he’s participating in yet another title elimination bout, this against Kali “Checkmate” Meehan (29-2, 23KO). Meehan is yet another heavyweight whom nobody expected to be one fight away from ONCE AGAIN fighting for a world title. Nor was he expected to ever be competitive against WBO champion Lamon Brewster, much less do well enough to win the fight and the title, which is what many contend should have been the case.
Instead, Brewster was awarded the split decision, though Meehan – who had, in fact, sparred with Brewster to help him prepare for his title winning effort against Wladimir Klitschko earlier this year – was rewarded with a second chance by getting the call to fight Rahman in a bout where the winner becomes the mandatory challenger to both WBO champ Brewster the winner of the WBA title fight between Ruiz and Golota.
Regardless of who wins tonight, it is all but guaranteed that by some time next spring, the same collection of heavyweights will once again be fighting each other, quite possibly once again in the very same arena. And once again, people will be talking about the sorry state of affairs that is the heavyweight division.
But so long as they are talking, King will keep bringing them back. After all, negative publicity is still publicity.