Commentary

The golden age of light heavyweights

Joe Calzaghe-Bernard Hopkins. Chad Dawson-Glen Johnson. Clinton Woods-Antonio Tarver. With the best light heavyweights mixing it up over the next two weekends, William Dettloff harkens back to the golden age of the 175-pound class.

Originally Published: April 11, 2008
By William Dettloff | Special to ESPN.com

Chad DawsonTom Casino/ShowtimeThey don't make 'em like they used to … or do they? Chad Dawson is doing his part in the light heavyweight revival.
It is unusual for any weight class in boxing to see as much concentrated action as the light heavyweight division will see over the next two weeks.

The Antonio Tarver-Clinton Woods, Chad Dawson-Glen Johnson and Bernard Hopkins-Joe Calzaghe bouts will shine the spotlight on 175 in a way that probably hasn't happened since the division's heyday, which could be loosely defined as the period from 1977-83.

That six- or seven-year run was unlike any the light heavyweight division has seen. For most of the modern era, light heavyweight had largely been viewed as a loser's class, a kind of pugilistic purgatory between middleweight and heavyweight, boxing's two glamour divisions.

Too big for 160 pounds and too small to succeed against the better heavyweights, even its royalty, its greatest and most dominant practitioners -- Archie Moore and Bob Foster -- tried again and again to assert their privilege at heavyweight and again and again were rebuffed.

Indeed, the most famous light heavyweight of the fertile 1940s era could not be found among the competent trio of Gus Lesnevich, Freddie Mills and Joey Maxim. It was the slight Billy Conn, whose accomplishments at 175 were comparatively modest, but whose brave challenge of heavyweight champion Joe Louis in 1941 made him a light heavyweight legend.

Moreover, the division's history is marked by long, fairly mundane reigns by dominant, established stars: Moore, Foster and, most recently, Roy Jones, enjoyed long tenures of unquestioned superiority, each turning away challenger after challenger without much difficulty or drama.

Griffin and Jones
AP Photo/Matt YorkDominant reigns, like that of Roy Jones, right, often meant mundane times for the 175-pound class.
The great era of the late '70s and early '80s changed that.

It's true that two dominant fighters served to bookend the era: the wonderful Argentine Victor Galindez inaugurated it with his title defenses against Yaqui Lopez and Eddie Mustafa Muhammad (then Eddie Gregory) in '77, and Michael Spinks closed it by decisioning Dwight Muhammad Qawi in 1983. But in between there was Matthew Saad Muhammad and Marvin Johnson and John Conteh and Mike Rossman and brothers Johnny and Eddie Davis and James Scott and Jerry Martin -- and on and on it went.

"That was really a great era," veteran broadcaster Al Bernstein told ESPN.com. Bernstein remembers the time well and will be calling the Dawson-Johnson and Tarver-Woods fights on Showtime on Saturday night.

"Maybe you could compare [the era] to the early days of Archie Moore, but I'm not even sure that was better. I'm sure the depth was good then, but the depth of this light heavyweight division [the late '70s through the early '80s] was astounding. There were so many good fighters and every style you could think of was represented. You had the all-action fighters [Saad Muhammad and Johnson], the boxer-punchers, [Mustafa Muhammad] and the stylists [Conteh]."

[+] EnlargeJohn Conteh and Saad Muhammad
AP PhotoJohn Conteh, left, and Matthew Saad Muhammad fought each other twice.
The best part? They all fought one another -- many more than once.

Galindez fought Lopez and Rossman twice each, and also fought Johnson and Mustafa Muhammad. Johnson fought Saad Muhammad (twice), Spinks and Mustafa Muhammad. Spinks fought Mustafa Muhammad, Lopez, both Davis brothers, Johnson and Qawi.

Saad Muhammad, arguably the most exciting fighter of the era regardless of weight class, fought Qawi, Lopez, Johnson and Conteh twice each, and also faced Mustafa Muhammad. Scott, who, remarkably, was an inmate at a federal penitentiary in New Jersey at the same time that he was a top contender, fought Mustafa Muhammad, Lopez and Qawi.

Almost all were champions at one time or another, but no one ducked anyone.

Bernstein said it is one of the few periods he can recall that did not carry the usual fans' lament of this or that dream matchup never having been put together.

Almost every possible matchup was made. And that was fueled by the afternoon TV shows on Saturday and Sunday. That made it so that there was enough money and exposure for them all to fight one another. They all got in on it.

-- Al Bernstein, on the golden age of the light heavyweights

"Almost every possible matchup was made," he said. "And that was fueled by the afternoon TV shows on Saturday and Sunday. That made it so that there was enough money and exposure for them all to fight one another. They all got in on it."

Mustafa Muhammad, now a successful trainer who will be in Dawson's corner Saturday night, said it was more than just the exposure and the money.

"Boxing was much more of a sport and more about the competition back then than it is today," he told ESPN.com. "Boxing is a business today, with all the money these guys can make. We all wanted to fight each other to prove who was the best. It was about the competition."

These repeated battles against other tough, hardened, well-coached pros produced an entire division of top-flight prizefighters. There wasn't one among them who was coddled, and it showed when the bell rang.

"Without a doubt [that was the best era]," respected trainer Tommy Brooks told ESPN.com. Brooks once beat Spinks in an amateur fight and was trained as an amateur by none other than Archie Moore himself -- so he knows from great light heavyweights.

"Yaqui Lopez and Saad Muhammad and Mustafa Muhammad, those guys were like throwbacks to the guys in the 1940s and '50s, the way they fought," Brooks said. "Those guys knew how to fight. They set traps. They weren't like a lot of these guys today that just run out there and throw punches. They knew defense as well as offense. They knew what they were doing."

It is no accident that four of the era's star players -- Galindez, Saad Muhammad, Qawi and Spinks -- have been enshrined in the International Boxing Hall of Fame. Of this all-star division, Qawi and Spinks stand out.

Qawi eventually won a world title at cruiserweight, and all this after turning pro with virtually no amateur background. Spinks, of course, became the first light heavyweight champion in history to win the heavyweight title when he beat Larry Holmes in 1985, after unifying the light heavyweight title against Qawi.

It's difficult to imagine even the era's lesser players -- Lopez, Johnson, Scott, Conteh, the Davis brothers -- not excelling in today's light heavyweight division. That's not a knock against today's 175-pounders; it's a testament to how unusually good the division was, from top to bottom, during that era.

"There were three levels [of fighters there]," Bernstein said. "Great, really good and good. You had the Davis brothers, who were good, all the way up to Spinks, who was great."

We've got a pretty good understanding by now of where all the light heavyweights seeing action over the next two weeks reside on that scale. As a group, they're a solid bunch of fighters. One qualifies as great, maybe two. The rest shouldn't feel bad about not measuring up to the 175-pound stars of the '70s and '80s. Very few have.

The Ring's senior writer William Dettloff co-wrote the book "Box Like The Pros" with Joe Frazier.