In the midst of the most muddled heavyweight picture in many years, the easy temptation is to write off the current crop of contenders, champions, and pretenders all as a part of a consortium of fighters who are unworthy of being in boxing’s glamour division.

Of course, if you dig out those old boxing magazines and read the contemporaneous news through most of the last century, you will find decade after decade of claims decrying the weakness of the heavyweights.

With the retirement of Lennox Lewis, we are in fact at a crossroads that has been seen by the boxing public only twice; following the real retirements of Gene Tunney and Rocky Marciano.

Add to that, perhaps, the three-plus years of Muhammad Ali’s exile that necessitated an awkward tournament and unification resulting in the emergence of Joe Frazier as “champion.”

Joe Louis and Ali retired (after the second Leon Spinks fight) with the title only to be lured back, thus clearing up the question of “who is the real champion?” Louis was thrashed convincingly by Ezzard Charles. Ali was whipped by Larry Holmes.

Tunney’s departure resulted in a single fight, Max Schmeling vs. Jack Sharkey on June 12, 1930, to determine a champion who was widely recognized as such. This was despite the fact that the fight ended in a highly controversial disqualification of Sharkey as Schmeling was sprawled on the canvas in pain from a low blow.

The title vacated by Marciano was won by Floyd Patterson (KO 5 over Archie Moore) on November 30, 1956, and, again, it was widely seen as legitimate.

Our current situation is far more complex than either the Tunney or Marciano retirements.

Naturally, there is disgruntlement as to the legitimacy of each of the champions:  Vitali Klitschko (WBC); Lamon Brewster (WBO); John Ruiz (WBA); and Chris Byrd (IBF). Legitimacy is just not possible given that situation.

Compounding this problem, each of the rating bodies has widely diverging views of who is the top contender for the heavyweight title.

Consider the recent ratings (I know, James Toney has thrown this all out of whack in winning, then being stripped of, the WBA title, but bear with me):  WBC #1 Hasim Rahman; WBA #1 Toney; IBF #1 Monte Barrett; WBO #1 Lance Whitaker.

Just to confuse you even more, with another example of the absurdity of the rankings, Rahman and Toney are not even in the top 15 of the WBO. Don’t look for Whitaker in the WBA or WBC rankings; his name isn’t there. I could go on, but I won’t.

Somebody has to have it wrong – don’t they?

Worse still, each organization refuses to rate the so-called champions of their competing sanctioning bodies, thereby never creating a forcing mechanism for the top fighters to meet. Each of the champions can effectively spend an entire career avoiding potentially troublesome opponents.

But, I’m not finished. The organizations have also taken it upon themselves to foist upon the boxing public “mandatory” defenses.

By the time you read this article, either Lance Whitaker (29-2-1, 24 KOs) or Luan Krasniqi (27-1-1, 13 KOs) will become a mandatory challenger to WBO titlist Brewster. Never mind that neither Whitaker or Krasniqi (who in fact fought to a draw two fights ago) have done anything to gain the respective rankings of number 1 and 2 in the division.

This is not an indictment of the relative abilities of either fighter. It is a simple statement of fact using virtually any criteria a serious person would apply.  Both may be world-beaters, but who in the world have they beaten to ranked at the top?

So is it all hopeless? Are the heavyweights of today a bunch of second-tier heavyweights slogging around rings?

First, it is not hopeless. Three unification fights can result in one champion – a feat that could happen within a year. Some people think Don King, holder of promotional deals with all the champions except Klitschko, is the obstacle.

That’s nonsense. Clearly King will come through when the deal is ready to be made and it looks like the time is drawing near as the major cable company HBO appears to be impatient with the whole process.

No, King isn’t the obstacle. The obstacle may in fact be not one, but two Klitschkos.

Vitali and Wladimir Klitschko have professed a desire to hold belts simultaneously. Wladimir is currently suing for the right to face IBF champion Chris Byrd (Klitschko is ranked #3) because the top two contenders, Hasim Rahman and Monte Barrett, have signed to vie for the chance to meet Vitali.

Should Wladimir prove successful in gaining a mandatory against Byrd, it sets up the possibility of a stone wall between the IBF title and all titles held by Vitali. (And Wladimir has to be considered a favorite against Byrd, who he wiped out when the two met.)

In the short term, Byrd will defend against Serguei Lyakhovich, from Belarus on July 23d. This is no walkover and a Lyakhovich win would undoubtedly continue stirring the pot.

Vitali Klitschko, once he recovers from back surgery, is set to defend the WBC belt against the winner of Rahman-Barrett (also scheduled for July 23rd).

Who knows the schedules of Brewster and Ruiz? Needless to say, if King wants to begin unifying, this seems to be the quickest hit – assuming the nasty WBO mandatory can be dealt with.

As to the question of the quality of today’s heavyweights, I would suggest that the current crop is sufficiently qualified to stand toe-to-toe with that of most other eras.

In reviewing many of the growing number of blog sites, there seems to be a gnashing of the teeth, particularly among American fans, about the relative skills of the contenders and champions alike.

It is certainly possible that with the tremendous strides athletes from Europe (primarily the former eastern-bloc countries) have made in boxing and the emerging status of African heavyweights, that we are becoming frustrated by what our homegrown fighters are doing — or failing to do.

The Klitschkos, up-and-coming stars such as hard-hitting Nigerian Samuel Peter, giant Ukranian youngster Alexander Dimitrenko, aging-but-dangerous South African Corrie Sanders, seven-foot, 330-pound Russian Nicolay Valuev, England’s Audley Harrison and others are beginning to creep into our boxing consciences.

Ultimately the quality of their punches will have to be proven in rings in cities such as New York and Las Vegas – because, let’s face it, America is still the place to prove a fighter’s real worth.

A shifting of the guard may be underway. Time will tell.

But American fans can look forward to the emergence of a talent like undefeated Calvin Brock (a winner over Jameel McCline). Other young fighters such as Chazz Witherspoon show some promise.

And don’t forget the newly invigorated WBO champion Lamon Brewster, Byrd and Toney. They still win a lot of fights.

Brewster may capitalize on his recent stunning knockout of perennial contender Andrew Golota.

We may one day look back on Byrd’s career and see with the beauty of hindsight how remarkable his title reign has really been.

Toney will soon look for redemption.

All in all it is an interesting time for the heavyweight division. More than all the other divisions, the big boys need a single, widely acclaimed champion. I suspect Vitali Klitschko has the goods, but he and he fellow alphabet champions have much to prove.

Unification will improve the division, improve the sport, and bring non-boxing people back to the big fights. Let’s hope it happens soon.