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Battle Features Mediocre Field

Tonight, the heavyweights return.

Haven’t noticed their absence? Understandable. Even hard-core boxing fans have trouble focusing on the heavyweight division these days.

That’s why the sport remains in the doldrums. The health of boxing depends on the heavyweights and, right now, the pulse is weak.

Consider tonight’s Don King-promoted Battle for Supremacy at New York’s Madison Square Garden. In reality, it’s a battle of absurdity. There are four heavyweight matches, two of them title fights. But none of the major heavyweights are fighting each other.

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The matches:

* John Ruiz (39-4-1, 28 knockouts) defends his World Boxing Assn. title against Andrew Golota (38-4-1, 31).

This could be the ugliest heavyweight title fight of all time. Ruiz’s favorite move is throwing one punch and then grabbing his opponent in a headlock. Golota’s is the low blow.

* Chris Byrd (36-2-1, 20) defends his International Boxing Federation title against Jameel McCline (31-3-3, 19). At 6-1 1/2 , Byrd is one of today’s smaller heavyweights. But what he lacks in size, he makes up for in speed and skill. Unfortunately, he has chosen to waste his talent on a second-tier heavyweight.

* Evander Holyfield (38-7-2, 25) versus Larry Donald (41-3-2, 24). Why is Holyfield, a four-time champion with absolutely nothing to prove, still going on? Holyfield at 42 should not be in any ring against any opponent.

* Hasim Rahman (39-5-1, 32) versus Kali Meehan (29-2, 23). Since his one moment of glory, knocking out an out-of-shape Lennox Lewis in 2001, Rahman, 32, has lost the rematch, lost to Holyfield and Ruiz, and fought to a draw with David Tua. He has since won four fights against opponents who would have to improve to reach the third tier.

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On Dec. 11, Vitali Klitschko, the World Boxing Council heavyweight titleholder and the man generally recognized as the true champion, will fight Danny Williams, whose claim to fame is beating a washed-up Mike Tyson.

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The other heavyweight champion is World Boxing Organization titleholder Lamon Brewster.

Nothing can be done about the mediocrity of the heavyweight champs, but if they fought each other they could at least generate some excitement, perhaps producing some public awareness and acceptance.

A true champion emerging from among the four titleholders, or even a champion fighting a bona fide contender such as James Toney, could invigorate this dismal division.

Don’t hold your breath waiting for that to happen

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Light-heavyweights Antonio Tarver and Glen Johnson both knocked out Roy Jones. It seems logical that they should fight to determine the world’s best light-heavyweight. Staples Center officials have bought into that logic, agreeing to put on that fight Dec. 18.

The WBC, whose title Tarver held, and the IBF, whose title Johnson held, have not agreed to sanction the bout, demanding instead that Tarver and Johnson face their mandatory challengers. For Tarver, that would be Paul Briggs, for Johnson, Rico Hoye.

Showing just how ridiculous their ratings are, the WBC doesn’t rank Johnson among its top fighters, nor does the IBF include Tarver. Yet the WBC ranks Jones 10th, the IBF 11th.

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The lifeblood of both organizations is sanctioning fees. But instead of sanctioning the most lucrative match possible within the division, the WBC and IBF are pushing for matches that won’t happen and wouldn’t draw much interest if they did.

The result: The public will get the best fight possible and the sanctioning bodies will sink deeper into insignificance.

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Felix Trinidad is expected to fight Felix Sturm, the man who earlier this year nearly upset Oscar De La Hoya, on March 12.... De La Hoya is still considering his options, but retirement does not appear to be one of them.

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