March 1, 2006.
Why is the heavyweight division so awful today? It’s not just a lack of talent, but also a lack of good quality match ups between the talent that does exist. In the current era of fractured, multiple titles the 3-4 best fighters in each division do not have to face each other. This means that the best potential match ups often do not occur. This seems especially true in the heavyweight division.
What if there was only one recognized world heavyweight champion? What if today’s fighters were forced to fight top competition more often? Vitaly Klitschko recently retired with a record of 35-2 that included 34 knockouts. That is the highest knockout percentage for any heavyweight champion ever. He can also claim to have never been knocked down. But did he fight the division’s best fighters? What was his level of competition? Why did he not “unify” and avenge his loss to Chris Byrd? Why did he not avenge his brother’s loss to Lamon Brewster? Why did he bail out of a fight with top contender Hasim Rahman four times in one year? Certainly Vitaly had many questions to answer about how good he was or was not. Alas we will never know. One of the contributing factors of this evaluation is the current political climate in boxing.
The idea of four “world champions” goes against the definition of the words. There is only one world and there can be only one “World Champion” and that is the man who beat the man who beat the man. The champion is the man considered to be the best heavyweight in the world until he is beaten. When the lineage is broken, there are two ways to restore it.
The first method is to have the two top-rated contenders fight for the vacant title. When Joe Louis retired Jersey Joe Walcott and Ezzard Charles fought for that right. When Rocky Marciano retired it was Floyd Patterson and Archie Moore. The alternative method is to have a tournament to determine the true champion. Such was the case when Ali was banned from boxing in the late 1960’s. A tournament was set up to determine a new champion. The winner of the WBA tournament was Jimmy Ellis. However, the best fighter in the division at the time was Joe Frazier, recognized as champion by the powerful and influential NYSAC. So the tournament was not truly complete until those two met and Frazier came out the knockout winner in 1970.
When Muhammad Ali retired after winning the title for the third time, a similar happenstance occurred in 1978. Leon Spinks, whom Ali lost and won the title from, was stripped of his title for refusing to fight number one contender Ken Norton and instead granted a rematch to Ali for the bigger money. Ken Norton was matched with Larry Holmes the best available contender. Holmes won the WBC title but was not recognized as the true champion. When Ali retired Holmes was the world’s best heavyweight, the next top contender was Earnie Shavers. When Holmes beat Shavers in a title defense some historians considered Larry Holmes as the true champion. It was the number one and number two guys fighting for the title. On the other hand, the WBA set up a tournament to determine their version of the champion. John Tate won that tournament. He lost that title to Mike Weaver, who had already been beaten by Larry Holmes. Needless to say Holmes was considered the true champion.
Having a tournament does not guarantee that the winner is the best fighter in the division unless all the top men participate. If they do then that leaves the winner with virtually no one to fight. The best method is to let the top two rated contenders as decided by say Ring magazine or a panel of writers, fight it out for the title to determine who is the best heavyweight in the world, that man is then considered as champion until he is beaten.
The point of this analogy is simple, if there were no alphabet groups and the two top men had fought it out for Lennox Lewis vacant crown and Vitaly Klitschko was deemed the winner, he would have plenty of contenders to fight against. The heavyweights wouldn’t avoid each other for fear of losing their precious “title” because there would be only one champion.
The argument that there cannot be one champion in today’s market doesn’t ring true. The fans are the ones who pay the salaries of the fighters and promoters. The fans pay to see the fighters. They don’t care about the names WBC, WBA, IBF, or WBO. They are meaningless. The fans know that these groups declaring someone a “champion” doesn’t make it so. They buy the fights to see the fighters involved not because they are a “title holder.” If Wladimir Klitschko and Lamon Brewster were to fight a rematch as top contenders the fans would buy it with the same numbers as if it were billed for the “WBO championship.” The fans would tune in because they want to know who is going to win and how and for no other reason.
Look at the year 1974. At the beginning of that year George Foreman was the undefeated heavyweight champion, Muhammad Ali was the number one ranked contender, Joe Frazier was a clear number two, and Ken Norton was third. At the time, they were without a doubt the top four heavyweights in the world. In those days the best fighters actually wanted to fight each other, imagine that. It meant something to the fighters to be a true champion.
With all four fighters wanting to prove they were worthy to called “The Heavyweight Champion of The World” they all agreed to face each other. So a two-fight mini tournament was held. In the first fight, Ali and Frazier were to meet in a rematch to settle their dispute. The second fight would see Foreman defending his title against Norton with the winners to face each other to prove once and for all who was the best.
The fighters and promoters are not making more money today because they are paying some alphabet group a sanctioning fee. That is a myth. Fans pay to see good fights and good fighters. If they are well matched the fans will pay to see it without some “W” organization applying their name to the card.
Was George Foreman vs. Ron Lyle in 1976 any less an attractive match up because neither were title holders? Was the rematch in 1973 against Muhammad Ali and Ken Norton any less interesting because neither held a meaningless paper title? Or was Ali versus Frazier in 1974 lacking significance because there was no “championship” involved, but was rather a title eliminator. The answer is clearly no.
If Vitaly Klitschko had been the only recognized heavyweight champion then the other current “title” holders would have been nothing but contenders vying for the one true crown. That means one would see the top heavyweights fighting each other to get in line for the next title shot.
If Vitaly Klitschko had been an active and fighting champion one may have seen defenses against Chris Byrd, Lamon Brewster, John Ruiz, and perhaps even his brother Wladimir, if the latter wanted to be champion. Instead we were fed meaningless fights like Corrie Sanders and Danny Williams. The fans want to see the best possible match ups. If boxing is to be saved the top contenders must be forced to fight each other in order to put themselves in position for a title shot at the one “world” champion. This means there would still be money to be made for all of the top men and there would be more meaningful fights for the fans instead of being forced to digest a banquet of stiffs and setups.
The fighters themselves might be better because they would be fighting more often and against a better level of competition. Nothing beats ring activity for staying sharp and nothing is better than good opposition to improve oneself as a fighter. Instead of a quantity of four “title holders” we would see one quality “World Champion.”