Heavyweight hopes and lightweight lessons
It took the "Galaxxy Warrior," Nate Campbell, to remind fight fans that anything is possible in the boxing world. Can David Haye and Sam Peter follow Campbell's lead and reinvigorate the heavyweight division?
Updated: March 11, 2008, 9:55 AM ETBy Eric Raskin | ESPN.com
Eoin Mundow/Fightwireimages.com Taking chances paid dividends for Haye, right, as a cruiserweight. Will he take risks as a heavyweight?Just over a week ago, the sport of boxing celebrated a significant anniversary: five years since the last pay-per-view heavyweight fight that sold as much as one-tenth of the buys that Oscar De La Hoya vs. Floyd Mayweather generated. That fight was Roy Jones vs. John Ruiz, a curiosity that attracted 600,000 pay-per-view buys. Since then, we've had a curiosity that consumers weren't nearly as curious about (James Toney vs. Evander Holyfield), a failed attempt to squeeze the last few bucks out of a curiosity-turned-atrocity (Mike Tyson vs. Danny Williams), a sobering box-office flop that proved Ukrainian political angles aren't always the biggest sellers (Vitali Klitschko vs. Williams) and a handful of minor bouts (such as Oleg Maskaev vs. Hasim Rahman II) that landed on pay-per-view only because no premium networks showed interest. None of these fights even got within sniffing distance of 200,000 buys. If De La Hoya-Mayweather was a blockbuster of "Spider-Man"-esque proportions, then the heavyweight division over the last five years has been "The Hottie and the Nottie." It's only natural, therefore, that fight fans are desperately seeking a heavyweight savior. And when hope is all you have, a hopeful instantly becomes a hero.
In a pair of fights 5,000 miles apart on Saturday night, two potential heroes surfaced. In Cancun, 250-pound Samuel Peter overwhelmed Oleg Maskaev to solidify his standing as the No. 2 heavyweight on the planet. In London, 198-pound David Haye obliterated Enzo Maccarinelli to successfully defend the cruiserweight championship of the world. Both Peter and Haye have just one defeat on their records, both are only 27 years old, and both have the punching power to mandate a BYOP (Bring Your Own Pillow) designation for opponents. About two hours apart, fight fans were given two reasons to get optimistic about what the future of the heavyweight division may hold. But in between, in a major lightweight bout between Nate Campbell and Juan Diaz on the Peter-Maskaev undercard, they were reminded of the importance of making sure that optimism is of the cautious variety. There's a tendency in sports to crown someone king before we know for sure that he bleeds royal blood; with Diaz, it seems we may have gotten a little ahead of ourselves. Even those of us who recognize Joel Casamayor as the linear lightweight champion were pronouncing "The Baby Bull" as the division's best after he made Acelino Freitas and Julio Diaz surrender in back-to-back fights last year. But few fighters are actually as good as they appear to be when everything's going their way, and though Diaz may still be the best lightweight in the world someday, 36-year-old veteran Campbell, playing Vince Phillips to Diaz's Kostya Tszyu, proved on Saturday that the kid from Houston isn't there yet.
John Gichigi/Getty ImagesHaye, right, has the potential to light up the heavyweight ranks.
By no means is Diaz a fraud and it may even be a stretch to say that Campbell "exposed" him. It was a close fight; Diaz never stopped trying (though he seemed to stop believing a couple of rounds before the end) and to be fair, he was probably slightly ahead in the fight until a nasty gash over his left eye became a hindrance in the sixth round. "The Galaxxy Warrior" fought the fight of his life while Diaz came up a few points short. To write the Baby Bull off now would be every bit as foolish as to think a few days ago that he was unbeatable. But the fact remains that Diaz isn't quite everything we convinced ourselves he is. Because Diaz makes for great action, because he's an exemplary young man on track to graduate from college in December, because his swarming style caused a series of world-class fighters to cave, the line blurred between what we wanted him to be (a lighter punching Roberto Duran) and what he actually is (plain old Juan Diaz, a darned good lightweight contender who's never going to carry the sport on his back). And if we're not careful, we may fall into a similar trap with Peter and Haye, especially because one is a heavyweight and the other is about to be. Anyone in that division with a hint of upside makes fight fans weak in the knees. It's a shame to diminish a fine sixth-round knockout win for Peter on Saturday night, but you can't ignore the fact that he was fighting a 39-year-old man who had already been stopped five times and was coming off a 15-month layoff. The ending was spectacular: A right hand to the ear wobbled Maskaev; moments later, a left-right-left-right combo, both right hands connecting beautifully on the chin, forced referee Guadalupe Garcia to jump in. The ending was perhaps spectacular enough, in fact, to make people forget the uninspiring pace of the first five rounds and how slow both men's hands looked. In a division in which the No. 1 rated fighter, Wladimir Klitschko, thinks there's a cash refund for returning an unused right glove after the bout, it's no wonder that Peter has inspired hope with his refusal to let Maskaev hang around any longer than he needed to. But we must temper that hope. Just because Peter has something more closely resembling the mind-set we seek in our heavyweight champions doesn't change the fact that Klitschko defeated him in September '05 -- and would be favored to do so again in a rematch. Klitschko's trainer, Emanuel Steward, was correct to point out immediately after the Maskaev blast-out that this isn't the same Peter that Klitschko saw a couple of years ago. "He's a much improved fighter," Steward said. "He didn't have upper-body movement and placement of his punches like he did tonight." The problem, however, for those resting their hopes on "The Nigerian Nightmare" is that Klitschko has also made strides since that wild battle in Atlantic City. He came into that fight with major confidence issues, but by going five fights without tasting the canvas since, he's a mentally stronger fighter now. And Klitschko is still a 6-foot-6 specimen with a jaw-dropping offensive arsenal (when he chooses to use it).
LUIS ACOSTA/AFP/Getty ImagesCampbell, left, dug down deep and fought the fight of his life against Diaz.
It's perfectly reasonable to believe that Peter can flatten Klitschko and it's certainly a more enticing scenario than the reverse. But it would be dangerous to forget that the fighter who excites us most isn't always the fighter who goes the farthest. In fact, if excitement was all it took, British slugger Haye would already be wearing all of the heavyweight belts. The reality, of course, is that Haye wears the legitimate cruiserweight gold but has only had three fights against heavyweights. Sweet as a first-round blowout of Valery Semishkur, a third-round stoppage of Garry Delaney and a one-round destruction of Tomasz Bonin sound, they don't exactly qualify Haye for a top-20 ranking in the open weight class. Still, the right hands that brutalized Maccarinelli in the second round at the O2 Arena on Saturday evening were captivating, and the brash declarations Haye made afterward painted him as a heavyweight Naseem Hamed, a potentially polarizing figure with the mouth to attract mainstream attention. "It's time to step up to heavyweight and put a bit of life into that s---- division," he announced after making his first and apparently last defense of the cruiserweight crown. "It's terrible at the moment. You got Klitschko disgracing boxing, you got Samuel Peter nearly getting beaten by [Jameel] McCline. They're supposed to be the two best heavyweights in the world. Heavyweight boxing's a disgrace; it's time for me to finish up where Lennox Lewis left off and clean up the division." With the hand speed advantage he'll hold over nearly every other heavyweight, plus the fact that we know his 6-foot-3 frame can carry 215-220 pounds comfortably, it's not out of the realm of possibility to declare this fighter, who has yet to prove anything at heavyweight, the future of the division. But it would be imprudent to view it as anything more than that -- a possibility. There's nothing wrong with optimism and hope, really. You just don't want to set yourself up for a fall by dismissing entirely the pessimistic voices in the back of your mind. After all, if a sure thing like Juan Diaz can come up short, then there truly are no sure things -- especially when you're talking about heavyweights. Eric Raskin is a contributing editor for and former managing editor of The Ring magazine.
David Martin WarrNote to Klitschko: This is how heavyweights are supposed to fight.