Does the US Need a Heavyweight Champ for Boxing to Regain Mainstream Prominence?

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Does the US Need a Heavyweight Champ for Boxing to Regain Mainstream Prominence?
Patrick McDermott/Getty Images

Since the Klitschko brothers began their reign of terror by capturing every relevant championship belt in the heavyweight division, boxing’s big men have become an afterthought in the United States.

That said, one of the omnipresent question that pervades boxing circles usually centers around when the next great American heavyweight hope will emerge. It doesn’t seem to matter that major networks have minimal interest in the division, or that current title challengers are largely recycled, aging fighters who are garnering paydays thanks to a weak era; heavyweight boxing, however irrelevant, always means something.

Until the Klitschko era, Americans have enjoyed a monopoly on heavyweight champions. Whether one considers the likes of Jack Johnson, Jack Dempsey and Gene Tunney, or Joe Louis and Rocky Marciano, or the golden era of Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier and George Foreman, the U.S. has always produced the most skilled and dominant big men.

While it might seem like a lifetime ago for many, the era of Mike Tyson, Evander Holyfield and Riddick Bowe in the mid-late 1980s and through the 1990s acted as America’s last stand in boxing’s glamour division. To think that those fighter were at their best 15 (or more) years ago is both perplexing and disturbing.

When debating whether the U.S. needs a great heavyweight for boxing to regain complete mainstream relevance, one fighter who was glaringly omitted in the above lists should be considered: Larry Holmes.

Larry Holmes (69-6, 44 KO) had the unenviable task of carrying the heavyweight division after the era of Ali, Frazier, Foreman and Ken Norton. When considering how underappreciated Holmes was in relation to his stunning accomplishments, the formula for Americans caring more about boxing because of a great heavyweight champion becomes somewhat skewed.

Holly Stein/Getty Images
Larry Holmes was one of the greatest heavyweights ever.

First, let’s considering Holmes’ accomplishments: In 1978, Holmes defeated Ken Norton via split decision to capture the WBC title. Holmes would defend the WBC strap 16 times, beating the likes of Norton, Earnie Shavers, Ali, Trevor Berbick, Leon Spinks, Gerry Cooney, Randall Cobb and Tim Witherspoon.

Holmes would eventually be named the IBF champion and defeat James “Bonecrusher” Smith via 12th round technical knockout—on top of two additional defenses—before losing two close decisions to Michael Spinks.  Holmes would then suffer his only stoppage loss to a peak Mike Tyson, and while he would fight on too long, his legacy—at least on paper—was secure.

What stands out from the above list of opponents Holmes defeated is that the most recognizable ones were past their primes and that the rest, while solid, were never Hall of Fame candidates or long-reigning world champions.

Thus, Holmes was denied the signature win or trilogy that has become synonymous with so many great heavyweights, and his pounding of Ali was viewed as a villainous act.

Furthermore, when Spinks beat Holmes, he became the first reigning light heavyweight champion to capture the heavyweight crown, a feat that not even the great Archie Moore could accomplish.

Still, consider that Holmes was never a genuinely celebrated champion and then mull over these statistics: Holmes’ record in title fights was an impressive 20-5 with 14 knockouts. Holmes’ 20 consecutive title defenses are second only to Joe Louis’ 25, and Holmes was The Ring heavyweight champion for an impressive five years (1980-85).

Possessing one of boxing’s greatest ever left jabs, Holmes could box and bang, and his overall skill set has thankfully garnered him recognition as one of the greatest heavyweights of all time.

However, when analyzing the question of whether the U.S. needs one elite heavyweight to help boxing return to its former stature, the answer, based on Holmes’ experience, is a complicated “no.” 

Consider Holmes’ fight against Gerry Cooney in 1982. In an article on USATODAY.com, Tim Dahlberg succinctly captures the inequities of a fight where the challenger, uncharacteristically, was the bout’s main draw:

“Back in Cooney's dressing room, a phone had been specially installed. The president of the United States was going to be calling to congratulate him if he won.

There was no phone in Holmes' dressing room.

[…]

Holmes was the snarling black champion, unbeaten but unloved. Cooney, meanwhile, uncomfortably wore the mantle of the latest Great White Hope.

America may not have needed Gerry Cooney. But much of white America desperately wanted him to become the heavyweight champion.

If Holmes didn't understand that, he got the idea when Sports Illustrated put Cooney on the cover, with a picture of himself inside. Time Magazine didn't even bother with Holmes, putting Cooney and Sylvester Stallone on the cover together to preview the fight.

[…]

Holmes had helped stoke the racial tensions himself by saying if Cooney wasn't white he wouldn't have been getting the same purse as the undefeated champion. And while Cooney tried to deflect questions about race, members of his camp wore shirts that read ‘Not the White Man, but the Right Man.’”

That Cooney was introduced first and received the same purse as Holmes was unprecedented, and the media circus surrounding Cooney—a solid contender but generally limited fighter at the elite level—proves that perhaps the most important ingredient in a heavyweight champion is the ability to transcend the sport and captivate the public imagination.

Ali, unlike any other fighter, was able to do this, and his blend of skill and charisma made him a figure who transcended not only boxing but sports in general. Emerging from the backdrop of the civil rights movement and the revolutionary counter-culture in the 1960s and '70s, Ali was the man for his time and place.

Part of the problem is that fans and pundits cling to Ali’s bygone era and hope that a figure will emerge who is as captivating and skilled as “The Greatest.” The reality, however, is that this will not happen. As great as Ali was in the ring, his eloquence and outspokenness were enhanced by the era from which he rose to global prominence, and this is what secured his status as a cultural icon.

Being as accomplished and efficient as someone like Larry Holmes should be the basic prerequisite for a captivating heavyweight champion. Unfortunately, whether it’s Mike Tyson’s extensive troubles or Ali’s groundbreaking and sometimes-controversial persona, a larger than life standard has been established.

This is somewhat unfair to emerging heavyweights, and the lingering concern of not having had a viable American champion for so long undoubtedly weighs on the development of young prospects.

Americans with a vested interest in heavyweight boxing do have reasons for optimism. The Klitschko brothers are nearing retirement and a crop of American heavyweights like Seth Mitchell, Chris Arreola, Deontay Wilder and Bryant Jennings offer hope.

The reality, however, is that boxing presses on as a more global sport with depth and intrigue in the smaller weight classes. When Larry Holmes was in the midst of his historic yet uncelebrated title reign, it is no coincidence that the likes of Ray Leonard, Marvin Hagler and Thomas Hearns rose to prominence.

Having a viable American champion would undoubtedly be great for boxing. That said, should a young American heavyweight capture a title soon, it would be wise for fans and pundits to take notice and give the sport and division the attention it deserves, as opposed to finding more reasons to complain. One man cannot change a division; depth is required.

This is not to say that the next American to win the heavyweight title should be celebrated like Ali. But if a quality champion does emerge, he should not be ignored or bypassed the way Larry Holmes was, regardless of his appeal outside of the ring.

Boxing should not have to rely on the heavyweights; to do so ignores the immense talent and potential of all the great fighters campaigning in the 16 other weight divisions. As boxing prepares for a new era of heavyweights, a changing of the guard should be looked at with optimism and hope instead of just with longing for the great individuals of bygone eras.

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