Historians may someday look back on 2005 and say that it was the beginning of a shift in dominance from American heavyweights to hungry Eastern Europeans. Despite the retirement of Ukrainian Vitali Klitschko, fighters from Russia, Ukraine, Belarus and Uzbekistan graced our ratings. In fact, had Klitschko retained his title, by year’s end two of the four titlists would have been from former Soviet republics. Russian Nicolay Valuez lifted John Ruiz’s WBA belt and became the tallest and heaviest man to ever be called “champion,” albeit a very fractured alphabet version.
Of course this trend could be a mirage. Hasim Rahman, Chris Byrd and Lamon Brewster are Americans after all and they have the other belts. James Toney was stripped of the WBA belt after testing positive in the post-fight urinalysis after he dominated Ruiz. Minus the steroid failure he would likely still be a belt wearer looking to unify. Further, Calvin Brock has as much talent as anyone in the division and anyone facing him will be hard-pressed to figure out how to get past him.
2006 could add some clarity. By the end of the spring, it is hoped, all of the belt holders will engage in defenses. If Don King and others can pull it off, we may have some semblance of unification by year’s end. He owns partial rights to Valuev, he controls Brewster, he has a (very) loose grip on Byrd, and of course he recently lost rights to Rahman. Who knows what this all means?
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Here are my heavyweight winners of 2005:
Best fight – Wladimir Klitschko vs. Samuel Peter. Many pundits and fans alike wrote off Klitschko following his losses to Corrie Sanders and Lamon Brewster. Many also thought the big power of Peter would doom the weak-chinned Ukrainian to a sure KO loss. Klitschko’s boxing skill and physical strength prevailed and he is clearly back in the hunt.
Best Progress – Sultan Ibragimov. Stoppage wins over Lance Whitaker and Zuri Lawrence, as well as three other victories for the year, puts him firmly in the ratings and makes him a potential title challenger this year. Sure Whitaker and Lawrence aren’t exactly Louis and Walcott, but his dominance of both should give the division notice that he’s on the prowl.
Biggest Upset – Danny Williams vs. Audley Harrison. Harrison had the Olympic pedigree, the physical tools, and the undefeated record. Williams was trounced in his WBC challenge against Vitali Klitschko. Harrison figured to have the technical and potentially the power edge. What he didn’t have is the grit that Williams had in abundance – and that’s what counted most.
Most Likely to Succeed – Calvin Brock. This man has real talent. He’s also the kind of guy who could command a big following if he could be seen by the big crowds. Put him on a major network for three or four fights and he would have legions of fans pouring out for PPV fights down the road.
1. Hasim Rahman, USA– WBC Champion (Last Month #1) James Toney is up next and Rahman will surely be tested. There is money to be made fighting the bevy of eastern Europeans who are suddenly moving to the forefront – but getting past Toney isn’t a given.
2. Lamon Brewster, USA– WBO Champion (Last month #2) Like his cousin Chris Byrd, he awaits a decision on whether his next opponent will be the mandatory Wladimir Klitschko. If the decision is Klitschko it will mean another trip to Germany. Better not let it go to the scorecards Lamon.
3. Wladimir Klitschko, Ukraine(Last month #3) Still waiting word on whether he gets a deserved shot at either Lamon Brewster or Chris Byrd. The fact is he should not have been skipped over by James Toney against Rahman. In any case, he will prove a major hurdle for any of the belt holders and anyone who thinks his weak chin represents an easy victory will be in for a rude awakening.
4. James Toney, USA (Last month #4) With Valuev’s win over Ruiz, suddenly Toney’s overrated win (later ruled a no-contest) against Ruiz doesn’t look like such a major feat. Toney has had flashes of brilliance but he is not definitively a world-beater just yet. Beating Rahman would put him in the lead position among heavyweights. It’s easier said that done.
5. Chris Byrd, USA– IBF Champion (Last month #5) The only money fight possible for him right now is Wladimir Klitschko. Byrd has been most unwilling to step in the ring with Klitschko, perhaps remembering the thrashing he took last time out. If not Klitschko, who knows when he’ll return to the ring? Hopefully he won’t take a year between bouts this time.
6. Calvin Brock, USA (Last month #6) David Tua is out and Zuri Lawrence is in. Lawrence, you may recall, outworked Jameel McCline recently. Still, in 35 fights he has never scored a knockout. Brock better win big – and remain upright throughout.
7. Samuel Peter, Nigeria (Last month #8) He was lackluster against Robert Hawkins on Dec. 5. Sometimes this happens after a big fight. He’ll have to keep winning against above average opposition in order to again position himself as a top contender.
8. Nicolay Valuev, Russia – WBA Champion (Last month #11) The new titlist, with his razor-thin win over John Ruiz, says he is going to fight in the United States next. The controversy in the Ruiz match won’t hurt much here because no one saw it on TV and John Ruiz was not all that popular. Fair or unfair, the big guy will gain more American fans that Ruiz did in no small part due to his massive size. Keeping the title is a matter of whom he chooses to defend it against. He is scheduled to defend in March against an opponent to be announced.
9. Danny Williams, England (Last month #14) His win over Audley Harrison is far more impressive than he will be given credit for in the U.S. Harrison is a skilled fighter and Williams had to show tremendous resourcefulness and fortitude to take the win. He’s making the most of his talent and will undoubtedly reap another major payday against Matt Skelton.
10. John Ruiz, USA (Last month #9) You can almost be guaranteed there will be a protest filed following his loss to Nicolay Valuev. There was lots of talk on the blogs – mostly by folks who did not see the fight – that suggested a bad decision in Germany. It should be noted that there were no German judges for the Berlin-held fight.
11. Monte Barrett, USA (Last month #10) Nothing on the boards. Now is the time to be active as a heavyweight. Multiple titles mean multiple chances for something to come along.
12. Audley Harrison, England (Last month #7) His showdown with Danny Williams could not have been more disappointing. He was not able to take advantage of the slower and limited Williams and instead pooped out at crunch time. He will have to go for broke and challenge top names right now if he is to recover from this. He sure did not leave himself much wiggle room by waiting until the age of 34 to make his big move.
13. David Tua, New Zealand (Last month #12) His match with Brock is now kaput so he’ll venture one more time to Florida to face another opponent to keep busy. No word yet on the name of that opponent.
14. DaVarryl Williamson, USA (Last month #13) With word that Joe Mesi is coming back, you can almost bet that that is the fight Williamson wants. Whether he gets it remains to be seen. He is back in training following elbow surgery.
15. Oleg Maskaev, Uzbekistan (Last month #15) Due to the incoherent rantings (I mean ratings) of the WBC, he is established as the next-in-line challenger to the winner of the Rahman-Toney March contest. Why he would choose to accept this situation without a trip to court is puzzling.
16. Sultan Ibragimov, Russia (Last month #21) The big Russian has to think he is now very much in the mix with a stoppage of Lance Whitaker (and a recent stoppage victory over Zuri Lawrence as well). Add to that the fact that his fellow countryman Nicolay Valuev is the new WBA titlist and you can already see the stars aligning for an all-Russian world title match. Who would’ve believed such a thing was possible????
17. Shannon Briggs, USA (Last month #16) Staying busy is the name of his game and he returns to the ring in Miami in January against Chris Koval. Eventually he’ll get a big shot if he keeps winning on the club tour.
18. Serguei Lyakhovich, Belarus (Last month #17) Returns to action on the Judah-Baldomir undercard January 7th, against a yet to be named opponent. He’s been off for more than a year due to injuries.
19. Ray Austin, USA (Last month #18) He has an opportunity to quickly move into contention for an alphabet belt with a win or two.
20. Matt Skelton, England (Last month #19) An easy winner over John McDermott in defense of his British crown in December. In February he takes the big (English) plunge against the rejuvenated Danny Williams. A win would certainly propel him to a major fight.
21. Ruslan Chagaev, Uzbekistan (Last month #20) He replaces Alexander Dimitrenko against Rob Calloway in January. Calloway has long been a star on the club circuit and this is a solid steppingstone type of fight.
22. Juan Carlos Gomez, Cuba (living in Germany) (Last month #22) Reports are in the Gomez failed a drug test following his win over Oliver McCall. He’s looking at a possible ban in Germany if the reports prove true.
23. Luan Krasniqi, Germany(Last month #23) He’s set to return in March on the undercard of Arthur Abraham’s next main event. We’ll see if he has any juice left.
24. Zuri Lawrence, USA (Last month #24) He gets to capitalize on his recent win over Jameel McCline by taking on top-ten resident Calvin Brock.
25. Jameel McCline, USA (Last month #25) The big guy has been busy lately, though with mixed results. He’ll have to maintain a torrid schedule – and win repeatedly – if he is to return to the top ten.
Others on the fringes in no particular order:
Tye Fields, USA– Another really big man in the division at 6’9” and about 270. We can’t read too much into his recent win over a terribly faded Bruce Seldon but he’s worth watching.
Joe Mesi, USA– Who would’ve suspected that Mesi would get mentioned again? Through some courtroom maneuvering he may actually get to return to the ring despite his past medical woes. No ranking, though, until he reenters the ring and scores some meaningful wins.
Dominick Guinn, USA– Hopefully 2006 will be the year when this talented prospect gets his act together.
Lance Whitaker, USA– You won’t see his name here next month. His 7 round stoppage loss to Sultan Ibragimov puts the big guy way at the end of the line. Coupled with his KO loss to Luan Krasniqi in 2005, we have to suspect the big fade has set in.
Alexander Dimitrenko, Ukraine – He pulled out of a January date with Rob Calloway for unknown reasons.