How many of you know what the newest major sports organization in the combat sports is? No, newbies, it’s not the UFC; that started way back in 1993.
The newest big entrant into this combative world is called the World Sumo League. It has a world tour of over 60 shows beginning May 19 at Foxwoods, later stopping in major arenas in Poughkeepsie, Auburn Hills, Chicago, Philadelphia, the Meadowlands, Anaheim, and Oakland, and next overseas to Australia, New Zealand, South America, Ireland, the UK, and the rest of Europe. The finals and championships of this new league will be held Oct. 21 at Madison Square Garden, where this group ran its debut show last October in front of over 8,000 mainly cheering fans.
Sumo’s appeal can be found right before your eyes: It is very easy for casual observers to understand. It is highly visible. It is fun to watch. And it looks great on television.
Only one other combat sport can even come close to making these same claims: heavyweight boxing.
We watch the fights and follow boxing as a sport as a vicarious and allegedly civilized way of living out our desires to fight someone ourselves. The sport organizes this surrogate combat to determine who, supposedly, is the toughest guy in the world. That honor would presumably have to go to a heavyweight who has the size and strength advantage to go along with the skills needed to conquer anyone.
Of course, the reality is that what boxing produces is at most the best boxer, and not necessarily the best fighter in any style or under any rules. But the public perception has been, and even today remains to a large extent, that the heavyweight champ is the best fighter on the planet.
The sloppy boxing techniques, weak chins, and overall mediocre striking usually on display even by some of the top competitors in mixed martial arts events make their claim that they are presenting “ultimate” fighting dubious. That sport is at its technical, artistic, and athletic best when its submission holds take center stage. Too often, and especially for events held in a cage rather than a ring, it devolves into what a long-time manager and former participant in the combat sports labels “junior boxing.” Since many (but not all) of these events showcase and encourage gutter behavior, trash-talking, and similar anti-social mindlessness, they emerge in a similar category as the fake pro “wrestling,” with tainted credibility as a sport even though they generally run real fights. (The issue of fighter safety should be considered separately, since when properly or even mildly regulated, mixed martial arts has a far safer track record than boxing, the bleatings of some ignorant and biased politicians and writers notwithstanding.)
Thus, despite the limitations of the techniques allowed in boxing, only this sport remains in a position to be considered both the most effective and popular form of combat sports.
Even with all of boxing’s problems and crises which are rightfully chewed over again and again every day, nothing existing or on the horizon today can match the appeal of two big guys in a ring slugging it out with each other.
These are the main reasons which make the disdain shown by so much of the boxing media towards the heavyweight division as a whole so troubling. Sure, the crowning of an undisputed heavyweight champ is urgently needed amidst the chaos created by the warring alphabet soup sanctioning bodies and the TV networks. Again, many of the types of athletes who in years past would have gone into boxing have been scooped up as kids by the diploma mills fronting for the NFL and NBA, assuming that these kids had the chin and heart required to make it in boxing anyway.
Don’t keep quiet on such issues; I sure haven’t and plan to keep shouting. But don’t denigrate the strengths which arise out of this unsettled situation which prevails among the heavyweights today.
One of the great upsets in any sport occurred April 1 in Cleveland when Sergei Liakhovich (23-1, 14 KOs), originally from the former Soviet republic of Belarus, won a well deserved 12-round unanimous decision over American Lamon Brewster (33-3, 29 KOs) to capture his WBO belt. Who could complain about such an action-packed and competitive fight with its surprising outcome?
Then on April 22, in Mannheim, Germany, Wladimir Klitschko, knocked down nine times in his previous seven fights, thoroughly dominated and stopped Chris Byrd in the seventh round to capture his IBF heavyweight belt. Even the most ardent fans of Byrd had to admire Klitschko’s mastery of their fallen champion.
Sure, Rahman-Toney on March 18 for the WBC belt was a bit of a clunker. Pitting WBA champ Nikolai Valuev in his first title defense on June 3 against Owen Beck, loser of two of his last three fights, with that lone win being over blown-up cruiserweight Darnell Wilson, is certainly yet another typically disgraceful act by all involved.
But the fact that this is a wide open division should be applauded as a good thing, and not one of boxing’s many defects.
In many heavyweight fights today, you just don’t know beforehand who is going to win.
Is the winner of the June 24 fight between undefeated heavyweights Calvin Brock (28-0) and Timur Ibragimov (21-0) a foregone conclusion, like, in truth, most of boxing’s matchups are?
How good is 2000 Olympic silver medalist Sultan Ibragimov, now 19-0 with 16 KOs as a pro? I recently saw a telecast of his seventh-round TKO victory over Lance Whitaker this past December, and was impressed by his aggressive and crowd-pleasing style. But how far can this 31-year-old Russian fighter go?
And how about Shannon Briggs, technically a former linear heavyweight champion and now on the comeback trail? He is currently being trained by Jeff Mayweather, and, in preparation for a May 24 keep-busy bout, said he wants to fight top contenders but claims that everyone is ducking him. Can Briggs, still only 34 years old, regain that edge and maintain the focus needed to be a top heavyweight?
Samuel Peter presents yet another riddle. He floored Wladimir Klitschko three times when they fought last September, but was outboxed the rest of the way and lost a clear-cut unanimous decision. Can the 25-year-old slugger originally from Nigeria hone his boxing skills enough in the coming years to emerge at the top of the heap?
What of Oleg Maskaev? He is the mandatory for WBC champ Hasim Rahman. Yet Maskaev has been a master of inconsistency as well.
These two first fought Nov. 1999 in Atlantic City. With Rahman well ahead on all the scorecards after seven rounds, Maskaev nailed Rahman and knocked him clean through the ropes and into the laps of the broadcasting crew, to win by knockout. Since then, Maskaev has had his ups and downs, being knocked out by former contenders Kirk Johnson, Lance Whitaker, and 312-pound American Corey Sanders, while not beating any legitimately top-ranked fighters. Can Maskaev revitalize his career now that he has new management and a crack at a title held by a fighter whom he knocked out in their only meeting?
Can fighters like Klitschko, Guinn, Liakhovich, and Valuev keep winning? Can others like Brewster, Ruiz, and even Byrd rebound from their defeats?
I, for one, find this all fascinating, even in the absence of much order or fairness in this sport.
They are still the heavyweights, the biggest guys slugging it out to see who is the best boxer (or, if you believe, fighter) in the world. They may not be Ali, Louis, or even Lewis, but they are OUR heavyweights. I haven’t heard many complaints that the 2006 Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers couldn’t hold a candle to the legendary 1970’s Steelers of Terry Bradshaw, Mean Joe Greene, Lynn Swann, John Stallworth, Franco Harris, Jack Lambert, et al.
The heavyweight boxers: They still offer among the most intriguing theater seen anywhere in the world of sports.