Thursday 26 April 2018

Heavyweights in name only

Eamonn Sweeney

Have you seen the new reality TV show? It's brilliant right. There's this bloke called Dopey Del and he meets these Russian geezers and he slaps one of them in the face and spits at the other.

And then he's out in Germany talking to some people and this guy called Dodgy Dave starts having a go at him and Dopey Del has a go back and next thing Dodgy Dave has a swing at him and it all goes off. The Kraut coppers want to have a word with Dodgy Dave but he's done a bunk, ain't he? Gone to Vegas. Brilliant show. What's it called again? Oh yeah, Big Motherfucker.

If only. Because while Dereck Chisora and David Haye's handbag-fest in Munich would have made sense if concocted by the desperate producer of a trashy TV show, in reality it merely functioned as a further illustration of the utterly impoverished state of heavyweight boxing.

What a pair of charmers. In one corner you had Haye who said his fight against Audley Harrison would be "as one-sided as a gang rape," and wore a T-shirt depicting the severed heads of the Klitschko brothers before taking on Wladimir for the WBA, WBO and IBF world heavyweight titles. In the other, Chisora, a man convicted of assaulting his girlfriend two years ago, who in the run-up to last week's WBC title bout with Vitali Klitschko slapped his opponent's face at the weigh-in and then spat at Wladimir before the fight.

You could perhaps forgive such behaviour if it were the uncontrollable manifestation of an indomitable warrior spirit. But both Haye and Chisora caused their Ukrainian opponents more trouble before than during their fights. Haye was comprehensively outpointed by Wladimir Klitschko when they met last July after showing a distinct lack of desire to mix it with the champion. Chisora, whose name sounds like the first half of an Irish language proverb, lost by a similar margin against 40-year-old Vitali, who fought most of the fight with a torn ligament in his left shoulder. It was Chisora's third defeat in four fights.

That a man who was divested of his British title by Tyson Fury and beaten by Finland's Robert Helenius for the vacant European crown was fighting for a world title in the first place says a lot about the parlous state of the sport.

The press conference ruck earned both fighters the kind of worldwide publicity they wouldn't have been able to generate with their feats in the ring. I'm sure it won't be long before we hear that they've signed up for a 'Grudge Match' which will put another nail in the coffin of heavyweight boxing.

There was a time when the world heavyweight champion was the best known and most respected sportsman on the planet. The title represented one of the pinnacles of sporting achievement. It had been held by greats; Jack Johnson, Jack Dempsey, Gene Tunney, Joe Louis, Rocky Marciano, who seemed to have more in common with the heroes of legend than they did with other sportsmen. Then came Muhammad Ali, who confirmed the idea that the heavyweight champion was primus inter pares.

The Ali years brought heavyweight boxing to a pinnacle of achievement and recognition. Suddenly the heavyweight champ wasn't just the most popular and respected man in sport, he was the most popular and respected man in the world. Ali's talent and charisma had a lot to do with this but he couldn't have done it on his own. He needed George Foreman and Joe Frazier to make his legend irresistible. And there were other members of a stellar supporting cast, the likes of Ken Norton, Ron Lyle, Jimmy Young, Earnie Shavers, Jerry Quarry, George Chuvalo and Oscar Bonavena, who made it an era of unparalleled riches in the division.

It's sad to think that the likes of Lyle, Young, Shavers, Quarry, Chuvalo and Bonavena were never able to call themselves world heavyweight champion while David Haye has been, courtesy of the laughably fragmented situation of modern boxing which enabled him to win the WBA title. Haye may have been a fine cruiserweight but he probably wouldn't have lasted long against any of the genuine heavyweights mentioned above. Fellow Brits Henry Cooper and Joe Bugner, who both gave Ali plenty of trouble in their time, would have made short work of him too.

Haye profited from the fact that the alphabet soup nature of the contemporary fight game means you can have four world champs per weight. It leaves boxing with world champions who are barely world-class. WBA middleweight champ Gennady Golovkin is rated number 10 in the division by the authoritative Ring magazine rankings, WBO lightweight champion Ricky Burns is rated seven, IBF featherweight champion Billy Dib is ranked ninth, WBC bantamweight title holder Shinsuke Yamanaka is also at nine in the Ring rankings.

This situation is one reason for the precipitous decline in the popularity of boxing among general sports fans. Imagine if we had four different Champions Leagues or four different All-Ireland football championships. People would soon give up caring about any of them.

There are other reasons for the sport's loss of public affection. One is the lack of competition among the top fighters. It's notable how many of the top modern boxers bring unbeaten records to their first world title fight. It wasn't so for the boxers of Ali's era. A great fighter like Ken Norton, who beat Ali once and was denied a second victory by dodgy judging, ended his career with seven defeats, the fearsome Earnie Shavers had 14 defeats on his record in an 89-fight career. Back then the top boxers not only fought often, they fought against each other.

Today the strategy is often to pad a fighter's record with hand-picked opponents in the hopes of bagging a handy title shot. Fighters

can do this because there are plenty of titles to go round and also because the really good boxers seem hell-bent on avoiding each other. In the modern game, Ali and Foreman might never have met. There'd have been a title each for them and one each for Joe Frazier and Ken Norton. Witness the complex dance of avoidance which has gone on between Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao. By the time they do meet, they'll both be past their best.

David Haye has read modern boxing perfectly. He knows the time is ripe for trash talk and press conference skirmishes because there's so little excitement in the actual ring. Instead of Ali, or Holmes or Tyson or Holyfield, we have the two Klitschkos.

These reigning monarchs of the division are very good boxers but there is something bloodless and technocratic about the way they go about their work. There's little doubt that had they pushed themselves they could have knocked out both Haye and Chisora. But they settled for the points victories because that's the kind of fighters they are. The result is that they could walk down most streets unrecognised and the titles they hold have become devalued. And there is, sadly, no meaningful opposition in sight.

Wladimir's next opponent is Jean Marc Mormeck, a 5ft 11ins 39-year-old who was knocked out by Haye at Cruiserweight five years ago and has fought three times since. Who he?

Who cares?

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