Throughout boxing history the heavyweights have been the attraction. The popularity has always been based on the heavyweight division. When there has been a lack of great heavyweights the sport suffered in popularity and viewership. There have been smaller weight class fighters that demanded to be seen, but the overall value of the sport drops drastically without the great heavyweight fighters. One dominate champion doesn't carry the division, and we've seen with Marciano and currently the Klitschko brothers. Tyson appeared to carry a heavyweight division that was down, but it wasn't as down as it appeared. The heavyweights of the 1980's were setting up what should have been a repeat of the 1960's. Some of the best fighters never lived up to their expectations.
The 90's got started with a blow when the PPV cash cow Mike Tyson went down in Tokyo. If he hadn't lost to Buster Douglas we'd have had Holyfield vs Tyson in their primes, although we know Mike wasn't training like he had been just a few years earlier. Tyson wasn't doomed when he lost to Douglas. It was when he separated himself from trainer Kevin Rooney. What if Tyson had continued to be the force he'd been. There was the fight with Holyfield. Then the list goes on and on. You had Bowe, Foreman, Morrison, Mercer, Grant, Tua, Moorer, Rahman and Lennox Lewis. The decade of the 90's could have been one of the best ever, but it never materialized and the public viewed the sport of boxing as going down.
The best fights never happened. Lennox Lewis went after and destroyed as many of the greats as he could get his hands on. He's without a doubt the best heavyweight of the 90's. To clean out the division in the 90's puts him high on the all time list. It took him into the next decade to finish them off but he did it. Lennox went down as the best fighter. History could have been different with all that boxing talent, but it didn't. Whether or not they were in their prime Lewis hunted them down. Lennox had every intention of cleaning out the division and he did.
There was a fighter that would have been among the greatest of all time if not for prison. No I'm not talking about Mike Tyson. I'm talking about Ike Ibeabuchi. I honestly feel like he could have dominated the sport in a way that few had done. He could have carried the sport solidly into the 2000's. When you talk about the best that never was Ike was #1. He was big and strong, be could take a hit, but he also had power that could kill a man. The 1990's should have been different and Ike should have been a part of that.
When Did Boxing Die?
If the sport of boxing died there had to be a time of death. I don't think you can tell me when that was, because the truth is that it never happened.The great sport has taken some hits, but like its competitors it keeps coming back. Boxing never died and it never will.
The golden age of boxing is often referred to as the 1960's through the 1970's. During this time you had some serious talent in the sport. Journeyman fighters of that era could have been great champions in other eras. Boxing had seen rough stretches before that time and would see some after that. The bottom line is that the sport has always survived even when people weren't looking.
There are some who believe that boxing died the day that Mike Tyson went down. Ninety years before Tyson was dropped boxing was arguably the best sport in the world. At the beginning of the 1900's guys like Jack Johnson and Jack Dempsey carried the sport. Those times gave way to one of the greatest champions of all time. The Brown Bomber Joe Louis. Boxing was set for years behind Joe Louis and I think the people of that time appreciated the greatness he provided. Joe set a standard of what greatness looked like. The fighters in the future would continue to shoot for that level of greatness, and there were few that found it. Joe Louis is arguably the best heavyweight in the history of boxing.
The great fighters that followed Joe Louis were not exactly what he'd been. Some considered that a down time in boxing. The sport wasn't down. The best fighters just weren't heavyweights. The heavyweight champion and one man wrecking crew was Rocky Marciano. He was a smaller fighter that knocked his opponents out. He finished his career unbeaten, but most boxing experts agree that Rocky wouldn't have done as well in another time frame. He was a smaller heavyweight fighter that wouldn't have even be in the heavyweight division today. Joe Louis came out of retirement to challenge Rocky, but his skills were too far gone and Rocky knocked him out in the 8th round. If Rocky had stayed a little longer or came out of retirement he could have challenged a better class of fighter than his career provided.
What is Rocky had stayed around to face Floyd Patterson or even Sonny Liston. It's my opinion that he'd have experienced what Joe Louis did at his hands. I believe both Patterson and Liston would have beat him. Rocky goes down as a great champion. History remembers him favorably. He fought the men in front of him and defeated them all. With a granite chin and a powerful right hand he was unstoppable.
Sonny and Floyd were the next big thing after Marciano. They carried the heavyweight division that was getting stronger. The 1950 were setting up what was going to be considered the Golden Age of boxing. Both of those men would be defeated by the next big thing, Cassius Clay. The self proclaimed greatest lived up to his mouth, which had been nicknamed the Louisville Lip. He told anyone that would listen how he was going to be the greatest of all time, and he lived up to his words. He'd go down in history with Joe Louis as the best ever.
The Golden Age of Boxing
The greatest champions have to be fortunate to have other greats to challenge them. The fighters in the late 1960's on through the late 1970's had that. If you were a great heavyweight it was Muhammad Ali you were compared to. Formerly known as Cassius Clay, Muhammad Ali became the fighter to beat in the heavyweight division. In the end he'd stay too long, but he took on all comers from day one and established himself as the best heavyweight champion ever. Most boxing experts have Muhammad Ali or Joe Louis number one all time.
Muhammad Ali could have gone on to dominate the division, but his refusal to be drafted into the Vietnam War got him put out of boxing. During that time the emergence of Smokin' Joe Frazier took place. Eventually Ali would be reinstated and he and Frazier would meet in the Super Fight. Joe would beat him in that fight, but when he hit Ali with that "Left Hook From Hell" he got up off the canvas. They'd fight two more times with Ali taking the victory in both bouts. Ali didn't win the first fight, but he took the best out of three. Those three fights were classics and clearly goes down as the best rivalry ever.
Both Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier found levels of greatness, but soon both of them would be faced with Big George Foreman. In the 1968 Olympics George Foreman brought home the gold. His style couldn't be considered point friendly, but his power was something legends are built on. Big George had a amateur record of 22-4. Once he turned turned professional he assaulted the competition. He threw a lot of punches and they packed tremendous amounts of power. George Foreman did enough in the first of a two part career to go into the hall of fame. He beat Gregorio Peralta twice. Once by decision and then by tenth round KO. He also knocked out a hall of fame fighter in George Chuvalo. This all led him to the undisputed heavyweight champion Joe Frazier.
Joe Frazier had never been beat and his win over Muhammad Ali was still fresh on people's minds. Frazier entered the fight with a 29-0 (25 KO) and Big George had a unbeaten record of 37-0 (34-KO), and the fight promised to be a good one. Big George knocked Joe Frazier down six times in two rounds. Frazier got to his feet all six times but the fight was stopped when Joe was clearly finished. Big George had destroyed him. If he could do that to Frazier then he could do it to anybody. Boxing fans didn't see any way that Foreman could lose. He would defend the belt two successful times with the second being against Ken Norton who'd given Ali his second loss. The win over Norton set up a fight with Muhammad Ali.
The Rumble in the Jungle: A Championship Fight in Zaire
Nobody could have possibly given Muhammad Ali a chance of victory. Big George had destroyed some fighters that Ali had beaten. He blasted them out of there in a way the Ali hadn't done. If Frazier was so easily beaten then nobody stood a snowball's chance in hell of beating Foreman. Ali believed differently. He told everyone that would listen that he would beat Big George and that he didn't stand a chance.
Early in the fight Muhammad Ali boxed and moved a little, but for the next seven rounds he stayed on the ropes and let Big George pound on him like a heavy bag. It would become known as the rope-a-dope. When he saw that George had worn himself out he went in for the kill and knocked out George Foreman in the 8th round. Ali had improved his record to 45-2 and was recognized as the Greatest of All Time. Muhammad Ali had talked the talk, and he walked the walk. The boxing writers and historians agreed that Ali must have be best.
Big George never got over the loss to Muhammad Ali. He fought an all out war and fight of the year with Ron Lyle, and then he beat Joe Frazier in a rematch. He appeared to be back to his old form winning five in a row following the loss to Ali, but then Jimmy Young beat him by decision. George left the ring in 1977 and didn't come back for an entire decade.
Muhammad Ali continued to win the next ten fights following the fight with Foreman. That 10 fight defense of the title included wins over, Chuck Wepner, Ron Lyle, Joe Bugner, Joe Frazier, Jimmy Young, Ken Norton and tough as hell Ernie Shavers. Ali was then upset by Leon Spinx. Ali rematched him a regained the championship.
Muhammad Ali stayed around too long. That win over Spinx should have been the end, although many of his handlers said it should have been sooner than the Spinx rematch. Ali took on legend to be, Larry Holmes and was completely dominated. He then lost to an eventual champion in Trevor Berbick, but Berbick was never more than a journeyman that won the belt.
The End of an Era
The end of Muhammad Ali was the end of something great. It was somewhat of a down time in the sport of boxing. You still had some quality fighters, but they were not great fighters. Larry Holmes stood alone as the best fighter of the early 1980's. He'd come up one fight short of Marciano's 49-0 record. After that he made a statement that killed Holmes in the eyes of the boxing public. "Rocky couldn't hold my jockstrap."
Larry Holmes hadn't been able to capture the interest of the boxing public, but the up and coming Iron Mike Tyson would. While Holmes was on his long defense of the title, Tyson was knocking out a long list of journeyman fighters. Mike wasn't beating all world talent, but he was blowing the guys out in a way the shocked the boxing public. He was suppose to beat the guys he was knocking out, but he made them look incredibly inferior.
Trevor Berbick had won the heavyweight title from Pinklon Thomas in a unanimous 12 round decision. His first defense of the title was against Mike Tyson. Berbick had been on a winning streak that included wins over David Bey and Mich Green, and champion Thomas. Mike Tyson knew what he'd done five years earlier to Ali, and later admitted that he wanted to pay him back for beating the G.O.A.T.
Mike Tyson was everything the boxing public wanted to see. When they sat down to watch Tyson fight you'd better be there when the opening bell rang. He didn't plan on keeping the fight fans too long as he often beat his opponents quickly and brutally. His combination of power and speed was like nothing the sport had ever seen. His two hundred and twenty pound body was on a five-eleven frame and he was like a wrecking ball.
Tyson took the WBC belt away from Berbick, and then he went after the WBA belt held by James Smith. That gave him two of the three major belts. He defended against Pinklon Thomas and then he went after the unified heavyweight championship and Tony Tucker's IBF world title. Tyson beat Tucker in a 12 round decision to unify the championship belts. Tyson defended all three belts against Tyrell Biggs. He knocked him out in the 7th round to retain his belts.
The unification brought Larry Holmes out of retirement. Larry Holmes had been a great champion, but he'd been away from the game. Tyson remembered the beating he'd put on Muhammad Ali, and just as he wanted revenge like he'd gotten against Berbick. Mike Tyson poured it on Holmes and in the fourth round he knocked him out. From 1987 until 1990 Mike defended the unified heavyweight championship. Mike returned to the Tokyo Dome. His last trip there was a 2nd round KO of Tony Tubbs.
His return to Tokyo was suppose to be the easy contest he'd encountered there before. Journeyman Buster Douglas had other things in mind. Mike's next fight was to be with undefeated Holyfield, but he overlooked a hungry and determined fighter in Buster Douglas. Buster had just lost his mother and dedicated the fight to his late mother. That was the determination it would take to defeat Mike Tyson. When Mike couldn't blast him out early it frustrated the great champion. Once he realized he could take Mike's best the fight took a turn.
James Buster Douglas knocked Mike Tyson out. The fighter that had brought in the money and had created Pay-Per-View was knocked out on the floor. The most dangerous man on the planet was no longer viewed as invincible. Without his cape Superman is just a man. Buster didn't only prove that Mike wasn't unbeatable; he also proved that Mike could be beat by the same kind of journeyman fighters he'd been beating.
Evander Holyfield was the next man up and would have been Mike Tyson's next opponent. Instead he got Buster Douglas who ended up being an easy path to the championship belts. Buster had won the belts on 2-11- 1990 and lost them to Holyfield on 10-25-1990. Evander Holyfield would defend against three worthy and tough opponents. First he took on Bert Cooper who he TKO'd in the 7th round. Followed by decision wins over Big George Foreman and Larry Holmes. It appeared he beat a journeyman in Cooper and two over the hill fighters in Foreman and Holmes. That was not the case though. Cooper was tough as hell and hit hard. Foreman had resurrected a career that had had a decade of inactivity. Holmes was no spring chicken, but had competitive fight after the Holyfield fight.
Riddick Bowe would beat Holyfield for the undisputed championship. Bowe ma have beat Holyfield for the belts, but he wasn't the champion that Holyfield had been. The fans still hadn't seen anything like Mike Tyson. The Holyfield-Bowe match up would go on to be a trilogy. Bowe won two out of three, but his career fell short of the greatness Evander would experience. Bowe refused to fight Lennox Lewis and then entered the Marine Corps before eating himself out of boxing. He ruined his own promising career, and he did it so much more differently than all the others that had done the same. Bowe could have been one of the best ever. He just didn't have the mental constitution to use his size and gifts.
Lennox Lewis and Evander Holyfield
These two men capitalized the most from the 90's. They fought each other twice and the first fight was a draw, but most people believe that Holyfield won. Lennox clearly beat him in the second fight. From there it could have been over for Holyfield. His career would have been complete, but he went 1-1-1 against John Ruiz in another trilogy. That should have been the end of Evander Holyfield. When you cannot get the best of John Ruiz in a best of three it's all over. Holyfield didn't see it that way. He continued to fight. He beat Hasim Rahman, and then lost three in a row to Chris Byrd, James Toney, and unknown Larry Donald. He stayed too long, but hadn't made a complete mess of his legacy. He didn't retire after losing three in a row. That was 2004 and he would quit until 2011 when he defeated Brian Nielson. Evander retired with a record of 44-10-2.
Lennox Lewis owned the late 90's and early 2000's. He defeated everyone he fought, and when he didn't beat them the first time he defeated them in a rematch. Holyfield a draw and Rahman a knockout in the first fights. He came back and beat Evander by UD, and then he knocked Rahman out. Lennox went through the best fighters the division had to offer. Riddick Bowe had refused to fight him and never did, but you name another great champion and Lennox defeated them. His domination of the division should have him in anyone's top 5. Starting in the early 90's he went looking for the best and never ducked anyone. He beat the journeyman that every great heavyweight went through late 80's and early 90's. In 1991 he beat British Champion Gary Mason 35-0 by knockout in the seventh round. He went through Mike Weaver and Tyrell Biggs.Tyson had fought these same fighters and there were more common opponents. Lewis beat Ruddock, Tucker, and Bruno. He was upset by Oliver McCall, but would later make him quit and start crying in the ring. He beat Ray Mercer and Tommy Morrison. Andrew Golota, Shannon Briggs, Evander Holyfield, Michael Grant, David Tua, Hasim Rahman,and Mike Tyson, all fell victim to The Lion.
The Klitschko Brothers
Lennox Lewis ended his career against Vatali Klitschko in 2003. Klitschko might have been ahead on the score cards. Many feel his was but I had it closer to even. Both fighters had taken some brutal shots, but Lennox cut Vitali's face and the fight ended with a 6th round stoppage.
The brothers started dominating in the early 2000's after Lennox Lewis retired. The Klitschkos have dominated the sport, but their get-the-job-done style isn't fan friendly. Boxing didn't die with these two guys. They just dominated the division like nobody had. The supporting cast of fighters were missing but they cleaned up everything that was there. The only fighters they didn't beat were the ones that wouldn't fight them. They didn't have greats like Holmes, Tyson, Bowe, or any elite heavyweights. The brothers could only fight what was available, and they did whether it was action packed or not.
There had been some promising heavyweight contenders to challenge the brothers, Chris Byrd, Corrie Sanders, Samual Peter, Chris Arreola, Shannon Briggs, Tomasz Adamek, Dereck Chisora. They were all beaten by Vitaly. Wladimir found the most success. He beat Chris Byrd, Ray Mercer, Jameel McCline, Corrie Sanders, Lamon Brewster, Sam Peter, Calvin Brock, Ray Austin, Sultan Ibragimov, Hasim Rahman, Eddie Chambers, David Haye, and recently Bryant Jennings.
The Klistchko brothers have dominate a weak heavyweight division, but we've given other fighters the benefit of the doubt when the division was weak. Remember Rocky Marciano or Mike Tyson? You can only fight what's there and the Klitschkos did that.
The Current State of the Heavyweight Division
There have been ongoing talks between Wladimir Klitschko and Tyson Fury. Undefeated knockout artist Deontay Wilder says he'll fight Wlad, but he wants another fight to tune up with first. Bryant Jennings was a hopeful in the heavyweight division, but it's not clear how he'll bounce back from the decision loss to Wladimir. Bermaine Stiverene will bounce back from his decision loss to Wilder.
Deontay Wilder appears to be the next best thing. He's the WBC heavyweight champion and has an undefeated record of 34-0 with 33 of those wins coming by knockout.
Does The Heavyweight Division Dictate Boxing's Success?
Since Lennox Lewis retired in 2003 the Klitchkos took over the heavyweight division. Wladimir still holds claim on it today. The best boxing hasn't been in the heavyweight division. The welterweight division has been where the most talent has been since the 2000's began. Floyd Mayweather has gone undefeated an made more money than both Klitschkos combined. Mayweather has found ways to make money despite not being in the heavyweight division. The best money and most popular fighters have always been heavyweights. History had shown that the best boxing matches aren't always the heavyweights though.
The Gatti-Ward Trilogy was some of the best boxing that a fan could ever hope for. They were both good but not great fighters, but when they hooked up the result was something that legend is made of. The two of them went to war.
With the heavyweight division trying to make a comeback. The focus never shifted to the welterweights or the super lightweights that were both loaded divisions. The middleweight division was strong and the light heavyweights were too. There were good fights in just about every division. The heavyweights were undecided with the departure of Lennox Lewis, and some fans didn't hang around to see where it would go from there.
Oscar De La Hoya fought Mayweather and Pacquiao, and then the showdown between Mayweather and Pacquiao came into sight. Some boxing fans started to make a comeback. The Manny Pacquiao groups and the Floyd Mayweather groups started to form and there was some real interest in boxing.
The mega fight took too long to happen, but it kept the fringe boxing fan hanging on. The fight didn't live up to the hype, but I think some of the fans that came back have stayed. The real boxing fans know it's not all about the heavyweights, and now the fringe fans know it too.
Boxing isn't Back - It Never Died in the First Place
The heavyweights are the most interesting when the talent is there, but when it hasn't been throughout history the smaller fighters filled the seats. In the early 1980's when Larry Holmes was the only thing going the welterweight division was thriving and getting stronger. It demanded attention during Mike Tyson's run, but Hearns, Hagler, Leonard, and other non heavyweights were not captivating the fans like Tyson did in the mid to late 80's.
There have always been great non heavyweight fighters, from Ray Robinson and Willie Pep to Roberto Duran. The 90's were a strong time in the heavyweight division, but Roy Jones Jr often stole the spotlight. The fight between Roy Jones Jr and James Toney at middleweight was an all time classic.
Boxing has not survived on the heavyweights alone. Most experts consider Sugar Ray Robinson the best pure boxer that the sport has ever seen. Some of the most interesting fights, like Gatti and Ward weren't heavyweights. The richest boxer in the sports history Floyd Mayweather wasn't a heavyweight. The overall popularity of the sport does seem to hang on the success of the heavyweights.
The fans are coming back. Boxing is back on regular broadcast television and more cable channels are picking up fights. Somewhere along the way the MMA fans realized it was alright to like boxing too. You don't have to pick between the two sports you can watch and enjoy both. Sure they'll like one more than the other, but boxing is the part of MMA fighting that the fans like most - the hand to hand striking. There's a better grade of athlete entering boxing today.
If boxing did away with pay-per-view fights and structured the rankings were the best had to fight the best, then the sport would rebound in popularity to heights it had never seen. The fighters are there and the competition is constantly getting better. The trainers are turning out good fighter after good fighter. Boxing has to find a way to make the best fights and abandon the pay-per-view concept. Most of all people just want to see the best fight the best.