Heavyweight division is light on talent

Originally Published: April 22, 2004
By Tim Graham | Special to ESPN.com

It looked like the ultimate guys' night in: cards, beer, boxing on a large-screen TV.

The testosterone was percolating and the cards were already being dealt when I arrived, beverages in tow. I dropped my precious cargo, offered my obligatory hellos and asked how much money anybody wanted to contribute for the pay-per-view that was minutes from starting.

"Who's fighting?"

Lennox Lewis vs. Vitali Klitschko
Vitali Klitschko, right, gave Lennox Lewis a battle before the fight was stopped in the sixth round.
Not a good sign, that question. It was a significant card in my mind, and I was going to have to make a sales pitch.

"Two heavyweight title fights ... Chris Byrd-Andrew Golota and John Ruiz-Fres Oquendo."

The only reply was the sound of chips clapping into the center of the table.

"The Ruiz-Oquendo fight is the first time two Latinos have ever fought for a title."

Bet. Call. Raise. Fold.

"You never know what will happen when Golota gets in the ring," I said, before adding, out of near-desperation, "Ricardo Mayorga's on the undercard."

One impassive face looked up and asked, "Can you grab me a Bud Light?" before peering back at his hole cards.

I know I follow boxing more passionately than most folks, but I guess I needed to be reminded how much boxing has plummeted from the public's consciousness.

Nobody gives a damn.

And what drove the point home even harder for me was that these guys aren't your average Joe Sixpacks. Of the seven seated at the poker table that night, four are former NCAA athletes (three of them in multiple sports), four are current or former high school coaches, two are prep athletic directors and one is a golf pro. Most of them, if not all, are intrepid sports bettors who love any kind of action.

Yet they still didn't care about the fights.

I'm sure I would have had to explain which Klitschko was which -- or maybe what the hell a Klitschko was in the first place -- had I mentioned Saturday's fight pitting Vitali Klitschko against Corrie Sanders for the WBC title vacated by the now-retired Lennox Lewis.

Boxing is desperate for a dynamic personality to capture the public's imagination again. It's not Byrd or Golota or Ruiz or Oquendo or Lamon Brewster or Wladimir Klitschko.

It's not Vitali Klitschko either, unless he can do something to the unremarkable Sanders we've never seen before. Vitali would have to land every punch he throws and not let Sanders lay a glove on him for starters. Perhaps Vitali can make Sanders' head eject like a Rock 'Em Sock 'Em Robot or pulverize Sanders into pugilistic residue with a single punch. That might force the general public to take notice.

Alas, come Sunday morning, boxing fans still will be searching for someone to rally around in the heavyweight division.

"I watched that fight & and I didn't know who they were," former champ Larry Holmes told me after the April 10 Brewster-Wladimir Klitschko match. "All the good fighters are gone."

The list of those on the cusp of a shot at the heavyweight title is equally uninspiring.

James Toney.

Joe Mesi.

Juan Carlos Gomez.

Monte Barrett.

Dominick Guinn.

Jameel McCline.

Lance Whitaker.

How do those names grab you?

Guinn, at 29, is the youngest. Toney and Gomez are blown-up lesserweights. Mesi and Gomez are the only ones from the group who haven't been beaten, although Mesi has been knocked down four times in his past 14 rounds.

Nevertheless, any or all of the above could be heavyweight champ before the end of the year. If they play their cards better than I did last Saturday, then each one has as much chance as the next.

No wonder 55-year-old George Foreman wants to make a comeback. No wonder Evander Holyfield and Mike Tyson refuse to retire. No wonder such retreads as Hasim Rahman, Shannon Briggs, David Tua and Michael Moorer theoretically are all one victory away from fighting for a belt.

Butterbean, where art thou?

"Without a heavyweight champion, you can't get the average person excited about boxing," said Pat Putnam, who started covering the sport in 1960 for the Miami Herald before continuing his distinguished career at Sports Illustrated.

"You see the people fighting today and you know -- at best -- they're 10-round club fighters. And many of them couldn't have survived at that [in a previous era]. When I see what's out there I don't give a flying [expletive]."

Ed Schuyler, the venerable former Associated Press boxing reporter who has covered all the great heavyweights since Sonny Liston, added the division is "weak as a whole. It's probably the weakest it's been since the (Floyd) Patterson Era, obviously. There's never been great depth in the heavyweight division, but it's really low now."

Boxing observers were hoping the heavyweight landscape would be streamlined in April, but instead it has been further muddled.

Four world heavyweight championships were or will be on the line this month. Brewster shocked Wladimir Klitschko in a bout that concluded with little bro pathetically and suspiciously out of gas. Golota, despite fighting his first ranked opponent in nearly four years, drew with Chris Byrd to illustrate the division's woes more than Golota's ability. Ruiz stopped Oquendo in a yawner -- as expected.

The stage, for those who care to gather around it, has been set for Vitali Klitschko and Sanders. If the bout were to have taken place a few years ago, then it would be nothing more than a novelty, the first time two white men have fought for the widely accepted heavyweight title since Marciano beat Englishman Don Cockell in May 1955.

In 2004, however, Klitschko-Sanders is important. It will produce Lewis' only logical replacement to the linear title, based on Klitschko's near-upset of Lewis and Sanders' victory over Wladimir last year.

Kathy Duva, president of Main Events, sighs when asked if there's a dominant young heavyweight on the horizon. Main Events promotes Guinn, who appeared to be the next great American prospect before he looked unmotivated and ordinary in his March 27 loss to Barrett.

"Yeesh," Duva said last week. "It's a pendulum. They say as the heavyweights go, so goes boxing. At the moment the heavyweight division is not pretty. Once the heavyweight division becomes interesting again, the rest of the world will jump back on."

Legendary trainer Angelo Dundee is optimistic another great heavyweight will emerge to revive the sport, even though his latest heavyweight prospect, Attila Levin, tasted defeat April 15 against Jeremy Williams.

"Somebody's going to come along. It always happens," Dundee said from Toronto, where he's working with actor Russell Crowe on "Cinderella Man," a motion picture on the life of former world champ James J. Braddock.

"We have our highs and lows. It comes in cycles. We had the Bum of the Month Club with Joe Louis. This exists. But you can't help but see the glass as half-full. I don't want to be depressed. You gotta see the good in anything."

Perhaps another Braddock will come along to wow us again. Braddock, as you may recall, was an arthritic, pedestrian pug who stunned the world by upsetting champion Max Baer in 1935.

Based on what I see at the moment, I'll wait for a new deal before I bet on the heavyweights again.

As of now, I'll fold and wait.

Tim Graham covers boxing for The Buffalo News and is a contributor to ESPN.com.

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