Wanted: Undisputed Heavyweight Champion. Good pay and benefits. Willingness to fight the division’s best is preferred. Must have: good people skills, ability to work long hours, willingness to travel…
It used to be that the three most recognized people in the world were the President of the United States, the Pope, and the heavyweight champion. While the Presidency and the Papacy still hold the same status, the same cannot be said of the last. If asked to identify the heavyweight champion, cynics would likely ask in return “Which one?” That is, of course, if they don’t just respond with an indifferent shrug.
The heavyweight champion used to serve as the statesman of the sport, the one face that fans could identify with prizefighting. Louis. Marciano. Ali. Tyson. Such names became synonymous with boxing. Currently, no such name can even approach the stature of these.
Sure, there are many applicants to this honor on the current scene. We could start with Nikolai Valuev, the giant of the division. At seven feet tall and 320 pounds, Valuev certainly brings a Primo Carnera-like freakshow element to the division. But, once you get past his size and body hair, which are both frightening, all that remains is a technically limited boxer with above average power. Not really transcendent material.
There’s also Oleg Maskaev, who brings the most seniority to the title. A fringe contender for most of his career, Maskaev came to own one of the title belts by scoring a second knockout victory over underachieving Hasim Rahman. His two wins over Rahman aside, Maskaev’s bid for heavyweight supremacy is hurt by the fact that he owns no other significant victories in a career that dates back to 1993. In every other significant fight, Maskaev has been on the receiving end of a pumpkin smashing. Logic leads one to believe that it is only a matter of time before this happens again.
Continuing down the conga line is Ruslan Chagaev, a fighter whose limited exposure to American audiences has him toiling in anonymity. Although he is the only fighter to defeat Nikolai Valuev, Chagaev would be difficult to pick out of a lineup for even a dedicated fight fan. Unfortunately, Chagaev doesn’t seem to eager to remedy this problem. His interest in fighting the likes of Luan Krasniqi instead of taking a rematch against Valuev or a unification fight against Wladimir Klitschko speaks loudly of his intentions.
Another fighter vying to be the division’s leading man is Nigerian Samuel Peter, the next opponent for the aforementioned Maskaev. “The Nigerian Nightmare” possesses the destructive punching power fans love to see, and has recently displayed markedly improved fundamentals in his rematch with James Toney. However, his last outing against heavyweight trialhorse Jameel McCline did not bode well for his high aspirations. Only an average puncher, McCline had Peter doing the Electric Slide all over the ring in a fight that saw him hit the canvas on three occasions. Not a good sign.
This leaves us with the most qualified candidate to sit upon the heavyweight throne: Wladimir Klitschko. Fresh off his title unification victory over Sultan Ibragimov, Klitschko has long been the division’s heir apparent and is the clear front-runner for the crown. His athleticism, good looks, and media friendly personality made him the most logical pick to be the boxing’s next ambassador. However, high profile KO losses to Corrie Sanders and Lamon Brewster have made “Dr. Steelhammer” appear to be a majestic castle built upon a weak foundation. Even with numerous dominant victories intended to rebuild his career (including a stoppage of Brewster), Klitschko’s legitimacy is in question. The truth is, every heavyweight in the division believes he can erase Klitschko with one clean shot to his chin. The problem here is that there are more than a few fight fans who agree.
The fact of the matter is this: it takes more to be the true heavyweight champion than just owning all of the title belts from the various sanctioning bodies. The greater goal is to defeat the best fighters available in a convincing fashion and establish true dominance. Klitschko is the only heavyweight currently on the scene who has expressed any interest in doing so. Still, something seems to be missing in this ambition. Klitschko’s victory over Ibragimov is, in microcosm, everything that is wrong with the modern heavyweight division. He played it safe, doing only enough to win. No risks were taken and, thus, no payoff was received. Having all the titles means nothing if they are won in a sterile, clinical manner, completely devoid of emotion or passion. The old-timers referred to something called “gumption,” and the heavyweight division could desperately use a dose right about now.
The title of heavyweight champion was once considered the greatest title in all of sports. It carried with it a mystique of invincibility, the valor and honor of pure pugilism. To bear such a lofty title requires a fighter to capture not only title belts, but, more importantly, the public’s imagination. This seems like an antiquated notion in an era where politics and business precede the simple beauty of prizefighting.