It was the best of times, it was the worst of times …
*Charles Dickens’ opening to his classic 1859 novel, A Tale of Two Cities
Charles Dickens never authored a book about the incongruities of 21st century heavyweight boxing. And why should he have? The British-born creator of some of literature’s most enduring fictional characters was 58 when he died in 1870, long before the births of American heavies Deontay Wilder and Gerald Washington, or, for that matter, the emergence of four world sanctioning bodies, one of which (the WBA) somehow finds it justifiable to award championship belts to “super,” “regular” and “interim” titlists.
But you have to figure that Dickens — if he could have mastered the concept of time travel as imagined by fellow Brit H.G. Wells, and were to arrive on today’s scene as a fight fan — would have much to write concerning the dearth of attractive matchups that, against all odds and despite recent history, should be fairly teeming with bouts the public might actually care to see. Consider the best and worst of big-man boxing in these strange and curious times:
THE BEST (sort of): No, 2017 isn’t exactly a re-visitation of the mid-1980s to mid-1990s, when a reasonably deep heavyweight division featured the elite likes of Evander Holyfield, Mike Tyson, Lennox Lewis, Riddick Bowe, Michael Spinks and the second coming of George Foreman, as well as a fairly sizable crew of capable or at least interesting supporting characters such as giant-killer Buster Douglas, Michael Moorer, Ray Mercer, Tommy Morrison, Razor Ruddock, Andrew Golota and the recycled Larry Holmes and Gerry Cooney. Although some matchups (think Tyson-Bowe and Lewis-Bowe) never happened, for the most part the top guys didn’t avoid other big names like they were plague-carriers.
Today’s current champions are Wilder, Anthony Joshua and Joseph Parker, who collectively are 77-0 with 72 knockouts. Put any of these unbeaten champs in against the others and you’d have buzz-worthy matchups, as would be the case with fights against such worthies as long-reigning former titlist Wladimir Klitschko, defrocked ruler Tyson Fury and Cuban expatriate Luis Ortiz.
THE WORST: Play mix ’n’ match with any of the aforementioned and the heavyweight division quickly becomes something more than mostly untested titleholders paired up against an uninspiring parade of mystery guests. But, with the very notable exception of the April 29 defense by IBF kingpin Joshua (18-0, 18 KOs) against the 41-year-old Klitschko (64-4, 53 KOs) in London’s Wembley Stadium, what passes for championship bouts these days is so much dreck.
Although there are many who believe Joshua, 27, the British-born son of Nigerian parents who won the super heavyweight gold medal at the 2012 London Olympics, is superstar material, even he has yet to fully establish his bona fides. He captured the IBF title on a two-round blowout of Charles Martin , quite possibly the most inept fighter ever to hold even a sliver of the championship, last April 16, and followed that up with similar thrashings of the inexperienced Dominic Breazeale and the willing but relatively pedestrian Eric Molina. He might finally be tested against Klitschko in one of those passing-of-the-torch bouts, but even a victory then would come with a caveat: “Dr. Steelhammer” turns 41 on March 25, will have been inactive for 17 months, was lackluster in losing his bejeweled straps to Fury his last time out, and is a bit too cautious to satisfy the action cravings of many U.S. fans, despite his high knockout percentage and popularity in Europe.
Joshua-Klitschko figures to do boffo pay-per-view numbers on Sky Sports across the pond, but the most intense fight of the promotion might be to determine which American premium cable outlet snags the U.S. TV rights. Klitschko has long been affiliated with HBO, and Showtime has dibs on Joshua.
The 25-year-old Parker (22-0, 18 KOs), a New Zealander, comes with some enthusiastic advance notices, but he has fought almost exclusively in his homeland with just two American ring appearances, victories over Keith Thompson in Bethlehem, Pa., on Aug. 9, 2014, and Brice Ritani Coe on May 16, 2013, in Irvine, Calif. Parker picked up the vacant WBO title belt on a disputed majority decision over portly Andy Ruiz Jr. in Auckland, New Zealand, on Dec. 10 of last year, and he makes his first defense against Hughie (“I’m not as good as my cousin Tyson”) Fury (20-0, 10 KOs) on April 1, also in Auckland. There are those willing to give Parker the benefit of any doubt, at least for now, but it wouldn’t be that big a shock if he were to instead prove the second coming of Jimmy Thunder, another New Zealand heavyweight who was a passing blip on the radar screen in the 1990s before retiring in 2002 with a 35-14 record that included 28 victories inside the distance, but also seven KO losses.
Which brings us to Wilder, the lean (6-foot-7, 228 pounds) native of Tuscaloosa, Ala., who once dreamed of sacking quarterbacks for his hometown Alabama Crimson Tide before he switched to socking opponents in the mouth. Although Wilder has undeniable power, a mind-numbing knockout percentage (97.3) and no small amount of personal charm, his most significant victory was his title-winning unanimous decision over Bermane Stiverne – a pretty good fighter, but no hired assassin – on Jan. 17, 2015, followed by paint-by-the-numbers stoppages of Eric Molina, Johann Duhaupas, Artur Szpilka and chronically flabby Chris Arreola.
Given his status as a flag-waving U.S. Olympian who took a bronze medal in Beijing in 2008, Wilder comfortably wears the stars and stripes in a division that increasingly has become the province of foreign fighters, presumably boosting his marketability in America. But he, too, needs the kind of high-visibility statement victory that only comes when the person in the other corner presents legitimate peril, and is not widely perceived as merely another designated victim.
Washington (18-0-1, 12 KOs) is a large hunk of a man at 6-6 and 243 pounds, but the onetime football player at the University of Southern California and practice-squadder with the Seattle Seahawks and Buffalo Bills is a replacement for a replacement, which would be bad enough if it weren’t for the fact that he also is 34 years of age, is relatively inexperienced (just 14 amateur bouts and 19 as a pro, only three of which were scheduled 10-rounders), is taking the bout on short notice (just a month) and will be fighting in Wilder’s backyard at the Legacy Arena in Birmingham, Ala. His most impressive triumphs were inside the distance against faded veterans Ray Austin and Eddie Chambers, with a draw against the much-smaller Amir Mansour.
Wilder’s promoter, Lou DiBella, again is tasked with selling a fight that, on paper, looks to be about as competitive as, say, the Crimson Tide against Kent State (Alabama trounced the Golden Flashes last season, 48-0). But when the steak isn’t prime-cut, promoters have little choice but to sell the sizzle, whatever there is of it.
“He has a back story that’s really interesting,” DiBella said of Washington. “Here’s a man that spent four years in the U.S. Navy as a helicopter mechanic serving his country. He’s a hell of an athlete and if you’ve seen him in person, he’s a huge man. But as big and imposing as he is to look at, he’s a real man’s man and a really nice person.”
Being a nice person counts for much in the real world, but not necessarily inside the ropes, and proper helicopter maintenance is a useless skill once the bell rings. There is a reason why Washington is a 16-1 longshot, odds that likely would be even longer were it not for Wilder’s own set of question marks that need to be answered.
Wilder was to have traveled to Moscow to defend his title against Russia’s Alexander Povetkin (then 30-1, 22 KOs) last May 21, but the bout was called off when Povetkin tested positive for a banned substance, Meldonium, on April 27.
With Povetkin out of the picture, Wilder’s team moved to fill his vacancy with Poland’s Andrzej Wawrzyk (33-1, 19 KOs) on Feb. 25 in Birmingham, but he, too, tested positive for a banned substance, the anabolic steroid Stanozolol, in separate tests administered by the Voluntary Anti-Doping Association (VADA). With Wawrzyk a late scratch, Washington slid into his slot on Wilder’s dance card.
Washington’s credentials as a challenger to fight for the heavyweight championship of the world, or even a portion of it, aren’t nearly as valid as those presented by Povetkin or Wawrzyk, but at least he tested clean and that, in some people’s eyes, makes him an upgrade over the cheaters.
There was some drama in the legal arena, as Wilder and DiBella filed a $5 million lawsuit in June that was heard in a Manhattan courtroom earlier this month, contending that Povetkin and Ryabinsky’s World of Boxing LLC needed to compensate them for the defendants’ breach of a contract requiring Povetkin to be produced for the bout. Povetkin and World of Boxing then countersued, seeking $34.5 million for Team Wilder engaging in a “smear campaign.”
There was a celebration of sorts when Wilder and DiBella won their court battle, but at the cost of some lost training time for the champion.
“I’m very mind-strong. I know things happen,” Wilder said of the many detours he has had to take since the Povetkin fight hit the skids. “You’ve just got to be able to adjust. I’m very good at adjusting.”
But while all the twists and turns are sure to be touched upon during the PBC on Fox telecast, moving forward it is imperative that Wilder, as well as the other champions, quickly move on to either unification showdowns or matches with better-known and more threatening rivals. If not, the heavyweight division will find it increasingly difficult to lift itself from the muck that by all rights it should already have escaped by now.
What the world wants is for Wilder and Joshua, should he get past Klitschko, to fight one another. Or maybe to swap punches with Parker, or Ortiz, or Tyson Fury if he gets his act together.
Because call-ups from the minor leagues should no longer be acceptable to that portion of the public that still remembers the excitement of what a night of heavyweight championship boxing used to be, and still can be again.
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