The Cruiserweight Division is Hot, But For How Long?

The cruiserweight division, the perennial unwanted stepchild of professional boxing, will soon crown its first undisputed champion since Evander Holyfield stopped Carlos De Leon in eight rounds to unify the IBF, WBA and WBC titles on April 9, 1988, at the Caesars Sports Pavilion in Las Vegas. (The WBO, which came into existence in 1988, did not crown its first cruiser champ, Boone Pultz, until Dec. 3, 1989.)

On May 11, in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, either Oleksandr Usyk or Murat Gassiev will go Holyfield one better when they square off with the belts of all four of the most widely recognized sanctioning bodies on the line. Usyk, a 31-year-old southpaw from Kiev, Ukraine, comes in as the WBO and WBC titlist while the 24-year-old Gassiev, a native of Vladikavkaz, Russia, who now resides in Big Bear, Calif., is the IBF and WBA ruler.

To date, the single-elimination World Boxing Super Series, which began in September 2017 with eight highly ranked participants and has pared down to the attractive pairing of Usyk (14-0, 11 KOs) and Gassiev (26-0, 19 KOs), has been everything that was promised, and more, since the tournament was first announced with much fanfare. But should Usyk, a 2012 Olympic gold medalist and the pre-tourney favorite, live up to expectations and get past live underdog Gassiev to claim the Muhammad Ali Trophy, the increasing drama that led to the grand finale could end with the same sort of divisional deflation that was attendant to Holyfield’s rapid rise to the top and even more rapid abdication.

The 6-foot-3 Usyk, who has spoken openly about bulking up enough to challenge IBF/WBA heavyweight champion and fellow gold medalist Anthony Joshua, is enough of a realist to understand that being king of the cruisers pays a lot less than being a top-10 kind of heavyweight with aspirations of challenging for the grand prize that most similarly sized fighters most covet. As was the case with Holyfield 30 years earlier, an undisputed cruiserweight championship is merely a bargaining chip to be tossed into the pot of high-stakes pugilistic poker. Thus has it almost always been since Marvin Camel made history by becoming the first cruiserweight champion, scoring a 15-round unanimous decision over Mate Parlov on March 3, 1980, to win the vacant WBC 190-pound title (the division limit is now 200) at the Caesars Sports Pavilion in Las Vegas. The two had initially squared off on Dec. 8, 1979, in Parlov’s hometown of Split, Croatia, a fight which ended in a majority draw.

Holyfield’s rationale for quitting the cruiserweights to campaign as a heavyweight is as understandable as one of those contestants on Who Wants To Be a Millionaire? choosing to keep going for increasingly larger cash prizes instead of settling for a guaranteed but lesser amount. In that way, many game-show gamblers are no different than fighters who hold firm to the notion that they might as well go big or go home.

Holyfield earned a relatively modest $300,000 for his conquest of De Leon, approximately 50 times less than the $15 million Mike Tyson made for dispatching Michael Spinks (whose consolation prize was a purse of $13.5 million) in 91 seconds in their heavyweight showdown just 11 weeks later. “The Real Deal’s” subsequent entry into the heavyweight ranks (where he made the vast majority of his $250 million in ring earnings) set the template, or at least reinforced it, for so many other would-have, could-have, should-have cruiserweights who were on the wrong side of the yawning economic gap between their weight class and the more prestigious and much-higher-paying heavys.

Main Events head Kathy Duva, who at the time was trying to squeeze as many dollars as possible out of the cruiserweight reign of her fighter, Poland’s Tomasz Adamek, said too many boxing fans were oblivious to the entertainment value that the cruisers were capable of providing. In June of 2009 she cited the presence of 7-foot, 320-pound Russian giant Nikolay Valuev, the WBA heavyweight champion, as proof that bigger does not necessarily equate to better.

“I can make a pretty compelling case for the cruiserweights being what the heavyweights of the past used to be,” Duva said. “All these huge heavyweights, I think, are Exhibit A for why the division is in the sorry state it’s in. Big, lumbering guys who can’t get out of their own way are never going to make exciting fights. Let’s face it, if you’ve got a 6-5, 240-pound athletic guy in the United States, he’s probably playing basketball or football.

“Evander Holyfield, Mike Tyson … those were small heavyweights. They could have gotten down to 200 if they had to. And think about some of the great heavyweights throughout history – Jack Dempsey, Rocky Marciano, even Joe Louis. They’d probably be cruiserweights today.”

Even as Duva was extolling her guy, Adamek, as an example of all the excitement that a not-quite-heavyweight-sized fighter could provide for those willing to give the cruiserweight division more than a cursory glance, the man himself was determined to move up and go for his sport’s most prestigious and lucrative prize. On Oct. 24, 2009, Adamek – by now bulked up to 214½ pounds – made a reasonably encouraging debut at heavyweight, stopping countryman Andrew Golota in the 12th round despite giving away 42 pounds. But Adamek couldn’t whittle down an appreciably harder block of wood in his only shot at a world heavyweight title, losing by 10th-round TKO to WBC champion Vitali Klitschko on Sept. 10, 2011.

Holyfield and David Haye, who scored a majority decision over the lumbering Valuev on Nov. 7, 2009, remain the only two former cruiserweight champion ever to go all the way to the very top of the heavyweight mountain. Still another former cruiser titlist, James Toney, scored what originally was announced as a unanimous decision over WBA champ John Ruiz on April 30, 2005, but the outcome was changed to a no-decision when Toney tested positive for a banned substance.

There are other former cruiserweight kings who dared to make the heavyweight ascent and found the attempt to be treacherous. France’s Jean-Marc Mormeck got as far as a shot at IBF/WBA/WBO/IBA champ Wladimir Klitschko on March 3, 2012, but he was blasted out in four rounds. Also taking dives into the really deep end of the pool, and pretty much sinking, were Al “Ice”Cole, Steve Cunningham, Guillermo Jones, Vassiliy Jirov, Orlin Norris and Wayne Braithwaite. But, hey, you can’t blame a guy for trying.

So, if Usyk – or Gassiev, should he be the one to have his hand raised on May 11 – gets that familiar itch and decides to scratch it, we should acknowledge that history does have a way of repeating itself and wish only the best of luck to however many of the World Boxing Super Series entrants that decide to load up and go hunting for bigger game. It has been a heady ride to date, with some quality fights along the way, albeit with a lineup that included no Americans and just two bouts held on U.S. soil.

There are those who fondly remember what are arguably the two best, most compelling cruiserweight bouts ever – Holyfield’s rousing, WBA title-winning split decision over Dwight Muhammad Qawi on July 12, 1986, and Toney’s electric, unanimous-decision dethronement of IBF champ Jirov on April 26, 2003. But those bouts were staged in America, the former in Atlanta, the latter in Mashantucket, Conn., as was a more recent contender for best-cruiser-fight-ever recognition, Krzysztof Glowacki’s title-retaining 11th-round knockout of Marco Huck on Aug. 14, 2015, at the Prudential Center in Newark, N.J.

All of the WBSS cruiser bouts could be viewed in the U.S., but it took more than a little bit of searching for dedicated fight fans to track them down. Put it this way: You weren’t likely to stumble on any of them by accident while channel-surfing. And that again might be the case when Usyk and Gassiev throw down for dominion over a division that for too long has been overlooked and underappreciated.

But, as was the case with Cinderella at the ball, sometimes unwanted stepchildren do get to ride in the gilded carriage, even if the trip isn’t always for the long term.

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