Will Top Heavyweight Challengers Hold a Belt During Their Careers?
The woeful state of the heavyweight division is a regular topic of conversation for boxing nuts and has been for years now. The situation gets somewhat overblown by American fans who can't bring themselves to appreciate the Klitschko brothers, and the Ukrainians' domination of the rest of the field gives the appearance that things are even worse than they are.
But there's no denying that it has been bad for a long time in what is traditionally the sport's glamour class. For fans old enough to remember the 1970s or even the 1990s, things today just aren't the same.
But I believe hope is on the horizon. Now it's true that I make it a point to pursue optimistic thinking. But when I look at the current heavyweight scene, I legitimately see the potential for excitement.
Earlier this year, Vitali Klitschko pulled out of an expected defense against Bermane Stiverne due to an injury. The older Klitschko brother is 42 and likely to be elected president of the Ukraine in the next election.
I think there's a good chance he is done fighting, and even if he comes back for one last hurrah, the WBC should vacate his title in the meantime.
Younger brother Wladimir, who holds the rest of the belts, is 37 and likely entering the final stretch of his own career. So a post-Klitschko universe is beginning to take shape.
And plenty of exciting heavyweights are waiting to fill the vacuum.
According to the WBA, Alexander Povetkin is already a world champion at heavyweight. But nobody outside of his own camp and fans regard him as such.
When I interviewed Chris Arreola before his loss to Bermane Stiverne last April, the always-entertaining Arreola scoffed at the idea that Povetkin deserved to be ranked as a world champ: "That's not a world title. That's like a watch or something they give you for a consolation prize."
People have been waiting for Povetkin to fight a Klitschko brother for over half a decade now. He is officially the WBA "regular" world champion, while Wladimir Klitschko is the "super" world champion.
The WBA elevated Klitschko to his extra-special status in 2011 to allow Povetkin to fight for the "vacant" title against Ruslan Chagaev. The WBA does this "regular" and "super" world champion nonsense all the time, and the practice deserves nothing but ridicule from boxing writers.
But Povetkin just might be the best heavyweight on the planet whose last name doesn't start with a K. And on October 5, he will finally face off against Wladimir Klitschko in Moscow.
I'm excited for the fight, though not as much as I would have been two years ago, before Povetkin narrowly beat cruiserweight champion Marco Huck by majority decision.
I just don't see a guy who had that much trouble with a 200-pound fighter being able to beat Wladimir Klitschko.
While Alexander Povetkin has spent the past two years fighting 40-year-olds and cruiserweights, Bulgarian Kubrat Pulev has been actively earning his status as the heavyweight division's true No. 1 contender.
No heavyweight with less than 20 fights has a more impressive resume. In May 2012, he knocked out Alexander Dimitrenko in Round 11. In September, he knocked out undefeated Alexander Ustinov, also in 11 rounds.
Pulev's best win yet came last month, when he beat the 41-year-old but still dangerous Tony Thompson by unanimous decision.
Right now I would give Pulev the best chance of any current heavyweight to upset Wladimir Klitschko. The former amateur standout has the boxing skill and size to reach the champion's historically vulnerable chin.
Tyson Fury was supposed to fight David Haye this weekend, but the fight has been delayed until February due to a cut that Haye suffered while training. Fury is currently 21-0 with 15 KOs, and if he can get by former world champion Haye, he should be in line for a title shot.
That is a big if, though. Last April, Fury got knocked on his back by former cruiserweight Steve Cunningham and was trailing on the cards when he caught up to the much smaller man and knocked him out in Round 7.
Haye is not as good of a boxer as Cunningham, but he has far more power. If he catches Fury with the same kind of flush shot that Cunningham caught him with, the 6'9" giant is going to take a nap.
Fury has some talent. I thought his unanimous-decision victory over Kevin Johnson last December was impressive. Fury's giant frame makes him a problem for most heavyweights.
But right now I would give him no chance to beat either Klitschko brother.
Still, Fury is just 25, so he should have many years left in his career. His Irish-Traveler roots and outspoken personality make him an easy fighter to promote in the U.S.
I would not be shocked to see him win some version of the heavyweight title at some point in his career.
Deontay Wilder entered 2013 simmering. He had a perfect 27-0 record, with all of his wins coming by way of knockout. Nobody had made it past the fourth round against the former Olympic bronze medalist.
If Wilder entered this year simmering, he's now approaching a boil. In April, he fought veteran journeyman Audley Harrison and beat him by Round 1 TKO. In August, he faced former world titleholder Siarhei Liakhovich, whom he knocked out before the end of the first round.
Liakhovich had lost by TKO in 2011 to Robert Helenius and in 2012 to Bryant Jennings. But nobody had ever flattened him the way Wilder did.
Wilder is a world-class puncher with legitimate boxing skills. He'd be a dangerous opponent for Wladimir Klitschko, even if he'd be a long shot.
The big question mark is how well he'll handle getting hit by an equally formidable offensive fighter. The 6'7" Wilder is built much more like an NBA 2-guard than a heavyweight contender.
He's young and a very good bet to wear a world title someday. But I still wonder how well his lean torso will absorb a heavyweight body punch or how well his legs will stand up once he catches a big shot on the jaw.
Bermane Stiverne surprised much of the boxing world last April when he broke Chris Arreola's nose and beat him by unanimous decision. The win was supposed to earn him a shot at Vitali Klitschko's WBC crown.
As noted in the introduction, Klitschko pulled out of that fight with an injury. The title should be vacated. At the very least, Stiverne should be given an opportunity to fight another contender for the interim belt.
He has been a slowly developing talent. In 2007 he was TKOd by Demetrice King, who had a record of 11-15.
But his performance this year against Arreola has to be taken seriously. Arreola might not be elite, but he's definitely one of the better heavyweights on the planet, as he demonstrated this month by dismantling Seth Mitchell in the first round.
And for anybody who thinks Arreola might not have trained properly for Stiverne, I have to point out that he only weighed five more pounds than he did against Mitchell, which is insignificant for a guy who checks in at 240-plus.
And Arreola told me before that fight that he'd had a great camp to get ready for Stiverne. So Stiverne is legit and could be a world champion in the future.
Two years ago, Robert Helenius was regarded as among the top prospects in the heavyweight division. In April 2011, he beat Samuel Peter by Round 9 KO. In August of that year, he stopped Siarhei Liakhovich in nine.
But in December 2011, he struggled against Dereck Chisora. He was very lucky to escape with a split-decision win.
It turned out Helenius had fought Chisora with an injured shoulder and hand. He took off most of 2012 to get healthy.
He returned last November and beat journeyman Sherman Williams by unanimous decision. He recorded another unanimous decision against another journeyman when he faced Michael Sprott in March.
Those wins aren't anywhere near as buzz-worthy as his 2011 performances were. But the 6'7" Helenius has legitimate boxing ability and has yet to turn 30.
So if the Viking from Finland is back to full health, he has to be viewed as future player in the division, especially in a post-Klitschko world.
Deontay Wilder has attracted more attention with his eye-popping knockout record, but Bryant Jennings is another undefeated American heavyweight with promising potential. He's a Philadelphia fighter who just might bring the world title home to the City of Brotherly Love someday.
He made his mark on the heavyweight scene in 2012, when he turned in a perfect 5-0 record. In January of that year, he won the Pennsylvania State heavyweight title when he beat fellow unbeaten prospect Maurice Byarm on a nationally televised NBC Sports card.
In March, he was back on television, this time stopping former world titleholder Siarhei Liakhovich in nine. In June, he recorded a unanimous decision over Steve Collins, and in September, he stopped Chris Koval in the first.
Last December, he was on television again, TKOing Bowie Tupou in five. He's only fought once this year in June, but it was another televised fight and another impressive performance. He stopped the tough Russian, Andrey Fedosov, in nine.
Jennings is 6'2" and weighs in between 225 and 230 pounds. That's not particularly big for a modern heavyweight, but his reach is an astonishing 84".
He has the arms and shoulders of a 7-foot tall man. The heavyweight champion Jennings most closely resembles in size is Sonny Liston.
Artur Szpilka is an undefeated, 24-year-old Polish heavyweight. He is 16-0 with 12 KOs. So far in 2013, he is 4-0 with three KOs.
He made a major splash in the U.S. this year, fighting two extremely exciting fights on ESPN2's Friday Night Fights against Mike Mollo. Their February battle will be short-listed for fight of the year. Szpilka came back from knockdowns in Rounds 1 and 4 to knock Mollo out in Round 6.
In their rematch last August, Szpilka had to get up from a Round 3 knockdown to TKO Mollo in five.
Mollo is as tough as they come, but he's also a somewhat portly journeyman. So a fighter who engages in wars with him isn't anywhere near ready to fight the likes of Wladimir Klitschko.
But Szpilka is a young, exciting fighter. Fans should be pumped to see more from him in the coming years.
Mike Perez is a former Cuban amateur standout who now lives in Ireland. The undefeated heavyweight has been enthusiastically embraced by his adopted country.
He is an explosive and compact heavyweight. Unlike some of his smaller, former Cuban teammates, he attacks with abandon.
He made a strong statement in 2011 when he appeared on the British Prizefighter show. Prizefighter features a tournament format, with three-round fights.
On the show, he beat Kertson Manswell by unanimous decision after dropping him in Round 1 and generally battering him. He knocked out both Gregory Tony and Tye Fields in the first round.
Perez missed all of 2012 with injury but returned to action last May and beat veteran journeyman Travis Walker by unanimous decision. In November, he faces fellow unbeaten gunslinger Magomed Abdusalamov in Madison Square Garden.
That fight will be a thriller.
As noted in the previous slide, Magomed Abdusalamov faces Mike Perez in November in a showdown of heavyweight contenders. This one is going to be on HBO, and you won't want to miss it.
A native of Dagestan, a republic in Russia, Abdusalamov is a human wrecking ball. So far he has compiled a perfect 18-0 record, with 18 KOs. He lives in Florida now and has made no secret about his bold ambition to reignite the heavyweight scene in the U.S.
His power is undeniable, but he often looks crude in the ring. His balance is an issue. Against journeyman Jameel McCline last September, he walked into a straight right that dropped him to the canvas.
He got up and stopped McCline the very next round. But if he walked into a punch like that against a Klitschko brother, it would be a different story.
Whether or not he can develop into a southpaw Rocky Marciano remains to be seen. But there's no question that he is an exciting fighter and will continue to be for the immediate future.