Special to Page 2
In 2005 the sweet science provided the usual dose of the savagely sublime (Diego Corrales' comeback KO against Jose Luis Castillo in May) and the ridiculous (Mike Tyson going out in a blaze of mediocrity against Kevin McBride in June). Now, the calendar's almost tapped and there's just one high-profile scrap left, the Jermain Taylor/Benard Hopkins rematch on Saturday, Dec. 3. Let Page 2 give you a recap of the best and brightest bashers of 2005, and give you an idea of how to spend your pay-per-view dollars in 2006.
"Moribund" is one of those words that you only see in print; no one I've ever met uses that term in conversation. So I'll resist the temptation to describe the fight game's glamor division as "moribund." That's an NPR level word, completely inappropriate when dissecting the brual beauty that is boxing. How about a word we can all comprehend without running to the dictionary: sucky. That works. The heavyweight division is in a sucky state right now. The only guy that people who follow the sport on an intermittent basis knew, Lennox Lewis, has defied the time-honored pugilists' tradition, and refused to come out of retirement. His alleged heir, the brittle Ukrainian Vitali Klitschko, just announced his exit from the sport.
Page 2 pug-lovers should keep their eyes on James Toney in the new year, for he is the best heavyweight currently plying the dangerous trade. Dabblers might recall Toney as a kick-ass middleweight in the 90s but he is the most crafty scrapper in the division, and has forgotten more tricks than Klitschko ever learned. Some of the tricks may, alas, be less than legal. In May, Toney was busted for using steroids after beating the awkward and rugged John Ruiz. Fight fans had trouble believing that; Toney, at 5-9, 235 pounds, looks like he ingests performance disenhancing products made by Frito-Lay, not BALCO. Look for Toney to be the Jason Giambi of the fight world in 2006 -- off the juice but still mighty productive.
Among the light heavyweights, Antonio Tarver had a stellar 2005. He downed Glen Johnson in June, and bested Roy Jones Jr. in October. That fight should have convinced RJJ to stick to HBO commentary full-time, but Jones' mammoth ego won't let him quit just yet. On the subject of not quitting, Rocky 6 is shooting now. Stallone's going the George Foreman route, getting into the ring with guys who were sucking their thumb when he was busy causing severe neurological damage to opponents. In the sixth installment of the consummate rags to riches sports flick, Rock will be trading phantom punches with opponent "Mason Dixon," played by Tarver. Page 2 predicts that Tarver won't dig the Slim-Fast regimen he'll need after filming ends to get to the 175 light heavyweight limit. Instead, he'll stay at heavyweight. Hey, it worked for Toney ...
Among the middleweights, Jeff Lacy emerged in 2005 as the man to watch at 168 pounds. In a span of nine months, he defended his super middleweight crown three times and in March 2006, he's booked to fight "The Pride Of Wales" Joe Calzaghe. Calzaghe pulls up lame more often than Grant Hill, though. So Page 2 will view this matchup like we do the Tom Cruise/Katie Holmes pairing: until we actually see them mixing it up, we will withhold serious analysis. At 160 pounds, Jermain Taylor gave Bernard Hopkins a July surprise, coming away with the middleweight belts Hopkins has owned since Holmes had Cruise cutouts from Tiger Beat taped on her bedroom walls. They'll do the rematch thing on Saturday, Dec. 3; Page 2 readers ponying up the $50 cable company surcharge should expect Taylor to be far busier and more relaxed than he was for the summer session. Then, Taylor and Lacy can meet in the middle at 165 pounds in the spring of 2006, with the winner being anointed as the game's Best Boxer Under 30 Not Named Floyd Mayweather. Then the Lacy/Taylor winner can face Winky Wright, and that victor can be called The Best Boxer, Period.
The block of hitters in the 140 pound range represent the best crowd the sport has to offer. Zab Judah is tops at welterweight; he beat Cory Spinks in February to snag that spot and will likely meet Floyd Mayweather, unsurpassed among junior welterweights, in early 2006. Mayweather was busier in 2005 than the people airbrushing Madonna on those magazine covers. But instead of seeking out mega-money bouts that would cement his name among the less hardcore fight fans, he took the easy route (wins against Henry Bruseles, Arturo Gatti and Sharmba Mitchell). In the not-so-grand tradition of the game, in which every man and entity operates for itself, and smoke-blowing posses convince their meal ticket to ask for CEO sized paydays, Mayweather avoided tests that would bring him the level of fame he thinks he deserves. I mean, Simpson vs. Lachey promises to be more closely matched, with faster and more furious action, than anything Mayweather did in 2005.
While in lecturing mode, it must be said that Ricky Hatton's people dropped the ball, badly. The Brit beat Kostya Tszyu in June and is a natural foe for Mayweather. So how'd they capitalize on the momentum? They pitted Hatton last weekend against a relative unknown, Carlos Maussa. Bad in itself, but the "brain trust" compounded the error by putting the fight on pay-per-screw, er, pay-per-view, insuring that only the hardest of the hard core in the States would view the bout. Did they make more dough in the short term? Sure. But the Hatton crew had a choice: wait, and sit down for a T-Bone with all the sides at Peter Luger, or gorge now on an all-you-care to eat Big Mac orgy at McDonald's. They went for the special sauce.
Contrast that business acumen with the path chosen by the handlers of lightweights Diego Corrales and Jose Luis Castillo. They engaged in a fight for the ages in May, with Corrales storming back for the win in the tenth round right after being knocked down twice. Their crew set them up for the sequel in October before our memories faded. Castillo didn't make the contracted weight limit and used his extra poundage to pound out a KO of his foe. It looks like the rivals will do it again in the first half of 2006, and that's how it should be. Hey, it's a no-brainer. No, Hatton Crew, Page 2's not talking about you.
The junior lightweights are in a fertile zone with intriguing matchups and fighters. Marco Antonio Barrera is the best of the bunch. Fight fans would be quite happy to see him fight Erik Morales another three times, but it wouldn't be fair to Zahir Raheem, who upset Morales in September. Morales faces Manny Pacquaio, the spellchecker's nightmare, in January, while Barrera goes at it with Jesus Chavez in March. All of these jockey-sized battlers give you great bang for the buck and when you watch them, all Page 2 readers should remember this: these cats weigh 130 pounds, so remember that the next time you use that beer-muscle mouth on that little guy in the bar when he accidently bumps into you.
The whole game is in a transitional phase now. Lewis looks like he's content being a homebody now, Tyson is busy helping police departments on numerous continents earn their keep, and De La Hoya is making money in the promotion racket, which sure beats getting punched for a living. Winky Wright sent Trinidad back for more hammock time. Don King is slowing down, with age and health woes jabbing away at the loquacious dealmaker. Bob Arum, another septuagenarian, will have to jockey with De La Hoya for fighters and funds.
So there are slots open for the next generation of promoters, and auditions are continuing for brand name boxers who can carry a pay-per-view match. Looks like 2006 will be the year for a handful to do just that. There is no young gunner in the heavyweight division that is seen as a candidate for crossover status, but the boxers in the lighter weight classes will fit the bill in the meantime. The sport as a whole would be well served to respect the burgeoning UFC/MMA scene as a potential drain of new consumers, and is still at a disadvanatge because the TV networks aren't showcasing the next generation of pugs. But don't get an obituary ready for boxing. As long as men are men, and fueled with testosterone, they will be interested in watching hand-to-hand combat.
Michael Woods writes a weekly column for Maxboxing.com, and has written about boxing for ESPN The Magazine, Boxing Digest Magazine and GQ. He can be reached at Mi28W@aol.com