- Joe Tessitore, Boxing
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The cruiserweight division has always struggled with its identity. Who hasn't? Have you looked at any of your high school photos lately?
Boxing's top "junior heavyweights" walk the streets as anonymous as most sparring partners. So what! I love the cruiserweights. More TV executives, promoters and boxing writers should love the division, too. Clearly, the fans love the division -- when you get the rare chance to enjoy it, that is.
Since Lennox Lewis put Vitali Klitschko's filleted eye behind him, all we have done is complain about the remaining heavyweights. After Lewis' retirement, we have heard that boxing's big men aren't that skilled. We have heard that these big men make horrible heavyweight fights with little action. We have heard that there aren't even compelling fights to be made.
Hey! Hello! Over here! I know where there are big men who satisfy all those concerns. Open your eyes. They're fighting at the 200-pound limit.
Did you see O'Neil Bell vs. Jean-Marc Mormeck II a few weeks ago? It was awesome. Both times they fought, it was awesome. The first go-round of this brutal, power-punching cruiserweight title fight was on the lesser-seen of the American subscriber-based cable networks. And it was given prelim-bout status, at that. For their rematch, just two weeks ago, a regional cable network picked up the international feed on the cheap. Wow, did boxing miss a chance to thrill a nation of sports fans hungry for a great fight.
Could you ever imagine watching the classic Boise State Fiesta Bowl tape-delayed on regional cable rather than live on one of the big networks? Ridiculous. The Fiesta Bowl had identity issues similar to the ones cruiserweights have. It was one of college football's also-rans, much like the cruiserweight division is the heavyweight also-ran. Yet TV execs in football are smart enough to realize the obvious -- a great game with something on the line is still a great game regardless what you title it.
Now move to the world of boxing TV rights and promotion, where execs spent millions to show Wladimir Klitschko dismiss Ray Austin with three punches. Let's get some respect here for the cruisers -- or, at the very least, some common sense.
This week, "Friday Night Fights" is going to pay attention to the division. Unbeaten Matt Godfrey (14-0, 8 KOs) is taking on Felix Cora Jr. (18-1-2, 9 KOs) in what should be a very well-fought, action-packed bout (Friday 9 ET, ESPN2).
This fight couldn't even be made if we were talking about the heavyweight division. It would be impossible to make a fight of similarly established heavyweights. You ask why? It's simple -- there isn't an unbeaten heavyweight prospect as good as Godfrey in the entire division. And a one-loss heavyweight with the skill of Cora probably would be holding a world title belt. Plus, a heavyweight version of Cora would be enabled by a TV network to just cash a fat check for an easy mandatory defense.
I'm not going to hide the fact that the cruiserweight division has long been flawed. The name itself is an issue. For years, the term "cruiserweight" was interchangeable with "light heavyweight" in British boxing.
American sports fans still don't grasp the concept of a cruiser. To them, it sounds more like something a motorcycle magazine would be pushing. At least a featherweight is easily understood. It's light like a feather. A cruiser? What is that? An upscale RV for Grand Canyon-touring retirees?
The fact that the division between light heavy and heavy has existed for just 28 years is also an issue. It has a troubled history. For most of the '80s, the division was perceived as a middle ground for guys not dedicated, or good, enough to fight at 175 pounds. Or worse than that, it was viewed as guys not capable of challenging legitimate heavyweights.
Then came Evander Holyfield.
The Olympic star was the greatest cruiserweight of all time -- chiseled muscle, skilled and a sensational finisher. His first battle with Dwight Muhammad Qawi was an all-time classic. When Holyfield toppled Carlos De Leon in 1988, he stood atop the 190-pound horizon (yes, it was a 190-pound limit back then) like a king. And what did he do next? He ran to the bigger paychecks and glory of the heavyweights.
But now, that isn't the case. Or at least it shouldn't be. Now, with the super heavyweights being so super heavy -- in size, not skill -- there is a place for great 200-pound fighters who aren't going to gravitate north. Two hundred pounds, this is where they are to stay.
Cruiserweights deserve money and attention for the great fights they're providing fans. They are big athletes who can punch for 12 full rounds. They are heavyweights who have to be in shape.
The top cruiserweights in the world have provided us with thrillers in recent years. Undefeated Vadim Tokarev goes after it. Bell and Mormeck are world champions who fight as though they are scripting "Rocky VII." The "Ding-a-Ling Man," Darnell Wilson, has made a home on ESPN with one KO after another. Canadian Dale Brown is a warrior who can box. Kronk gym unbeaten Johnathon Banks got up off the canvas to win by KO last year. Philadelphia's Steve Cunningham, Poland's Krzysztof Wlodarczyk, British-based Enzo Maccarinelli -- all are top-level cruiserweights. If you watched any of them enough, you would swear off the heavyweight division until a Klitschko brother fought Sam Peter.
Godfrey could really be something special. Cora is already very good. This is a meaningful fight. I applaud both fighters for taking it. The fact that the division doesn't get respect means that the fighters are willing to take more chances like this. They aren't pampered like the heavyweights. They are making good fights. Expect a good one this week.
Joe Tessitore is the blow-by-blow announcer for ESPN2's "Friday Night Fights."
17mThomas McKean, ESPN Stats & Information