In the United States, there has been very little interest in boxing’s heavyweight division from boxing fans for nearly two decades. In the early to mid 90s, American heavyweights like Mike Tyson and Evander Holyfield ruled boxing headlines.
Since that time, there has been very little for American boxing fans to get excited about in the heavyweight division. The last American to hold a share of the heavyweight title was Shannon Briggs in 2007, and he lost his WBO title in his first title defense.
A lack of talented American heavyweights is the bulk of the issue, but most Americans probably blame the Klitschko brothers' long-lasting domination of the heavyweight class as the reason for their waning interest in heavyweight boxing.
The Klitschko name has been at the top of the heavyweight division for over a decade. When Lennox Lewis retired in 2003, the Klitschko brothers, Vitali and Wladimir, assumed control of the heavyweight division.
During their reign of supremacy, the talent pool of heavyweight boxing has been viewed as subpar to say the least. The days of blockbuster pay-per-view heavyweight bouts are long gone.
With Vitali retiring in 2012, Wladimir is the lone Klitschko controlling the heavyweight landscape. Over the course of his career, Wladimir has amassed a record of 61 wins and 3 losses, with 51 victories coming by way of knockout.
Going by the numbers, Wladimir Klitschko's record seems incredibly impressive. The problem is that respect in the boxing world doesn’t come from numbers alone, but rests highly on the level of opponents conquered in the ring. This is one reason why Wladimir struggles to command respect from boxing fans and enthusiasts all over the world, not just in the U.S.
Out of all the opponents Klitschko has ever faced, Chris Byrd (41-5-1, 22 KOs) is the only one that stands even a shot of making it into the Boxing Hall of Fame, and that’s a stretch. The lesson learned here is that arguably Klitschko may have faced worse opposition than any other undisputed boxing champion of all time.
This isn’t entirely Klitschko’s fault. He can’t help that there hasn’t been a heavyweight boxer, other than Lennox Lewis and his brother Vitali, that has possessed a combination of talent and charisma to tempt audiences to watch any of his fights. There’s no denying that heavyweight boxing has contained a significant void of legitimate contenders.
Saturday, Klitschko will defend his WBA, IBF, IBO and WBO heavyweight titles against lightly regarded Alex Leapai (30-4-3, 24 KOs). Leapai is a virtual unknown in the heavyweight division and is ranked 27th in the world by the Boxing Record Archive.
It’s matchups like this that are tarnishing Klitschko’s reputation in the court of public opinion.
Leapai’s biggest wins have come against a list of mediocre journeymen such as Owen Beck, Darnell Wilson and Travis Walker. He did win by unanimous decision in his last fight against fringe contender Denis Boytsov, but then again, Boytsov’s record of 33-0 at the time was also inflated with over-the-hill journeymen.
One has to question if Klitschko’s choice of opposition is hurting his popularity, particularly within the United States. It’s been six years since Klitschko has fought in the U.S. He fought Sultan Ibragimov at Madison Square Garden in 2008.
Scott Christ of SB Nation captures the American perception of Klitschko:
Klitschko, a robotic heavyweight who has mastered his jab and how to protect his vulnerable chin, hasn't faced anything resembling a stiff challenge in years, because nobody is good enough to test him, let alone beat him.
There are heavyweight contenders that the public would be interested in seeing face Klitschko, but there are very few American heavyweights that the public could imagine defeating Klitschko.
Deontay Wilder is starting to excite American fight fans, but he has not faced a high level of opposition. He garners attention because of his knockout percentage, which is 100 percent. He is 31-0 with 31 KOs.
However, Wilder has never had to box beyond the fourth round in his professional career. Time will tell if he has the boxing skills to work up to Klitschko’s level.
While boxing is not the most popular sport in the U.S., it does host the most lucrative fights. Las Vegas, Nevada is seen as the premier setting for world-class boxing matches. This is one of the reasons that Floyd Mayweather Jr. has made Las Vegas his home, literally and professionally. It stands to reason that the American public is hungry for a heavyweight superstar that can capture their attention and captivate their imagination as Mike Tyson once did.
Unfortunately, the reality might be that the next great American heavyweight hope is not out there yet and is still working his way through the amateur circuit. It would be easy to understand how the American public may have grown so pessimistic that they have lost faith in ever seeing an American boxer with the heart or the skill to equal past American greats.
My faith has been tested, but I have a reason to maintain hope. In my hometown of Chicago, Illinois, I have seen talented, hungry young fighters show off their grit in the 2014 Chicago Golden Gloves Tournament. In particular, winner of the above-200-pound open division, Nick Mazurek, gives me hope.
Mazurek is a 19-year-old amateur boxer that stands at 6’3” and weighs in the realm of 230 pounds, and he has a record of 34-2. He’s a two-time Chicago Golden Gloves champion and will be trying to make a name for himself nationally when he fights in May at the National Golden Gloves Tournament of Champions in Las Vegas.
As cliche as it sounds, Mazurek eats, sleeps and drinks boxing. He hangs on every word of his legendary trainer, Sam Colonna, and he rarely misses a fight on television. He is a true student of the sport. He has size, power, speed and stamina. More importantly, he has heart. He has dedicated his life to being a future world champion. He’s stated this sentiment to me personally on numerous occasions.
As long as there are young, driven boxers like Nick Mazurek out there, I have reason to believe that there’s the possibility of a great American heavyweight champion. It might take years for the era of Wladimir Klitschko to be erased, but I believe that someday in the not-so-distant future, an American will win the title and represent it in a way that will make American boxing fans excited and proud.