Timeline of the Decline of Boxing's Heavyweight Division

Kevin McRae@@McRaeWritesFeatured ColumnistJune 7, 2013

Timeline of the Decline of Boxing's Heavyweight Division

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    The heavyweight division was once the glamour division of the sport. 

    The list of greats that used to compete for the biggest prize in sports is legendary—Ali, Foreman, Tyson—and championship fights used to be not just boxing events, but sports events. Everyone would tune in, houses would fill up with people on the couch, food would be ordered, drinks would be served and you'd settle in to see "Iron Mike" or "The Real Deal" defend their titles.

    But those days are gone. The heavyweight division has become a shadow of its former glory, with the Klitschko brothers—Wladimir and Vitalit—together holding all four titles and facing a seemingly unending string of nobodies and no-hopers.

    But how did we get here, to the point where the heavyweights have become basically irrelevant to everyone but the most hardcore boxing observers? Let's try and trace the decline of boxing's biggest glamour division.

March 13, 1999: Holyfield vs. Lewis I

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    The last true heavyweight super fight took place over 14 years ago inside New York City's Madison Square Garden, and was a unification clash between WBA/IBF champion Evander Holyfield and WBC champion Lennox Lewis. 

    Holyfield had won his titles. impressively, by shocking Mike Tyson and then avenging a defeat to Michael Moorer, while Lewis had held the WBC title for over two years and made several impressive defenses.

    The hype and magnitude of the fight were immense, as the three main sanctioning organizations and, more importantly, boxing fans around the world would recognize the winner as undisputed champion. 

    The fight itself was pretty much a dud. Lewis was absolutely dominant, using a piston-like jab and cleaner punching in what should've been one of the easiest fights to score in recent memory. But the judges got this one horribly wrong, rewarding Holyfield with a ludicrous draw and setting the stage for a rematch.

November 13, 1999: Holyfield vs. Lewis II

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    Eight months to the day from a decision HBO's Jim Lampley called a "travesty," Holyfield and Lewis again locked horns, this time in Las Vegas. 

    The rematch was a far more entertaining, and competitive, affair with Lewis again controlling the action with his jab in the early going. Holyfield rallied in the middle rounds, but Lewis seized control again down the stretch to win a clear, and deserved, unanimous decision.

    With the victory, Lewis became the undisputed heavyweight champion. But Lewis, in one of the oddest scenarios in boxing, was quickly stripped of the WBA title by a court, which would eventually be recaptured by Holyfield.

    But that set in motion one of the absolute worst trilogies in boxing history.

2000-2001: Holyfield vs. Ruiz I, II, III

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    The WBA belt, stripped from Lennox Lewis, was immediately put up for grabs in a fight between the former champion Holyfield and the No. 1 contender John "The Quietman" Ruiz. The two would trade the belt back and forth in a horrific three-fight series.

    Ruiz was the type of fighter who a prime Holyfield would've taken to the woodshed. But if their three fight series proved anything, it was that "The Real Deal" was anything but the fighter who once unified the cruiserweight and heavyweight divisions while scoring impressive wins over Riddick Bowe and Mike Tyson.

    Holyfield narrowly won the first fight by decision, but then dropped the second, making Ruiz the first Latino heavyweight champion. He would retain the belt with a draw against Holyfield, in a fight most felt Evander won, to close out the trilogy. 

    Say what you will bout Ruiz, but he was one of the, if not the, worst heavyweight belt holders in history.

April-November 2001: Lewis vs. Rahman I, II

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    When Lennox Lewis signed up to defend his heavyweight titles against Hasim Rahman in South Africa, most felt it would be an easy victory for the dominant champion. But as we've seen throughout boxing history, one punch can change everything.

    Lewis came into the fight in less than peak physical condition. A combination of under-training and possibly underestimating his opponent led to one of the most shocking knockouts in history, when Rahman landed a dynamite right hand along the ropes that knocked the champ cold.

    While Lewis would regain his title in impressive fashion just under seven months later, this fight signaled the beginning of the end of his dominance. It was the second time in his career that he had been cold-cocked by a guy he was heavily favored to beat.

June 8, 2002: Lewis vs. Tyson

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    When it was announced that Lennox Lewis would finally defend his titles against Mike Tyson in 2002 you could feel the air come out of the room. Since losing his rematch to Evander Holyfield, in the famous ear biting fight, Tyson had beaten a bunch of fringe contenders and was clearly no longer the baddest man on the planet. He was simply a shell.

    The fight devolved into something of a sideshow. It was held in the heavyweight boxing mecca of Memphis, Tennessee, and followed the predicted pattern. Lewis was just bigger and stronger than what was left of Mike Tyson.

    This fight would've been a huge, massive super fight if it happened when it was actually relevant. By this point it had become just another symptom of the decline of the heavyweight division. Mike Tyson was a great champion in his day, but he had no business being in this fight and Lennox Lewis proved that.

June 21, 2003: Lewis vs. Klitschko

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    After dispatching of Mike Tyson, there were few marquee challenges left for Lennox Lewis, who, despite nearing 40, retained the recognized heavyweight championship. But in stepped Vitali Klitschko, a 31 year old former WBO heavyweight champion, who was one of the few men to enter the ring actually taller and heavier than Lewis. 

    From the outset it was clear that Lewis was diminished, Klitschko was the real deal, or some combination of the two. Vitali dominated the early rounds, rocking Lewis on more than one occasion, and seemed on the verge of winning the fight. 

    But Lewis turned the fight around in the third round, opening a vicious cut over Klitschko's left eye. As the cut continue to worsen, it became clear that Vitali, despite being ahead on the scorecards, could not continue. 

    It may not have been satisfying, but Lennox Lewis won his last fight via sixth round TKO. He subsequently retired. In retrospect, this signified the beginning of the end of mainstream attention to the heavyweight division.

February 20, 2004: John Ruiz vs. Roy Jones Jr.

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    Roy Jones Jr. deserves a ton of credit for jumping up to heavyweight and winning a championship. But let's not sugar coat it. The man he beat is one of the worst fighters to ever hold a share of boxing's richest prize.

    Despite being outweighed by 33-pounds on fight night, Jones easily outboxed "The Quietman" to win a piece of the heavyweight title. But the accomplishment not withstanding, all you need to know is that HBO described him after the fight as a "new heavyweight beltholder."

    Jones would never fight again with the big boys, and that's a shame, he might just have beaten a good many of them. 

    With Lewis off the scene there was no recognized champion at the time and the era of virtually unknown heavyweight champions was set to begin.

The Era of Anonymous Champions

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    Corrie Sanders, John Ruiz, Lamon Brewster, Hasim Rahman, Nikolai Valuev, Siarhei Liakhovich, Oleg Maskaev, Shannon Briggs, Ruslan Chagaev, Sultan Ibragimov, Samuel Peter, David Haye and Alexander Povetkin.

    Not exactly a murderers row of great heavyweights. But all have held a belt since 2004. Not the era of Lewis, Holyfield and Tyson, that's for sure.

    Both Sanders and Brewster have the distinction of having won their belts, by stunning knockout, from Wladimir Klitschko. These two are probably most responsible for turning Wlad into the defense-first, risk-averse fighter he is today.

    But the rest got theirs mostly due to the politics of boxing. Sanctioning bodies don't like fighters who hold more than one title and hand out all sorts of second-tier belts to keep the money rolling in from sanctioning fees.

    It's hard for people, especially in the United States, to care about the division when they've never seen, or heard of, the guys holding the belts.

The Klitschko Era

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    Line em up, knock em down. That's been the Klitschko motto.

    Wladimir (WBA/IBF/WBO) and Vitali (WBC) Klitschko hold all four of the major sanctioning body heavyweight championships and they have for quite some time now.

    Their reign of dominance has certainly been impressive, but also tempered somewhat by the fact that they rarely fight outside Europe, and even more rarely fight someone you've heard of before. 

    Nobody can blame the Klitschko's for dominating what has been one of the weakest eras of heavyweight boxing in history. Until they retire, or someone bursts on the scene presenting a legitimate threat, its hard to see what can bring the drama back to the big guys. 

    Nobody wants to see the Manuel Charrs or Francesco Pianetas get woefully overmatched every few months. That may not be their fault, but that doesn't make it any less true.

What Does the Future Hold?

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    It would be great to look at the current state of the heavyweight division and have some sense of optimism and hope. But that's just not in the cards.

    Vitali Klitschko, at 41 years old, has been hinting at retirement for some time now. His active involvement in Ukrainian politics and lessening commitment to boxing seem to indicate that the writing is on the wall. 

    Wladimir Klitschko, on the other hand, shows no signs of slowing down. He's successfully defended his title 14 times, and with minimal effort, and could have an outside shot at Joe Louis record of 25 straight defenses.

    As for the young crop of heavyweights, there is some optimism, but nothing definite. Tyson Fury has shown a great deal of promise, as has Kubrat Pulev and Deontay Wilder. But none has proven yet that they can threaten the champs and, until they do, most people will tune out.