Commentary

No Mike Tyson? No Jack Johnson? No problem

Today's heavyweights aren't what they used to be. But is that such a bad thing? William Dettloff doesn't think so.

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

Wladimir KlitschkoTHOMAS LOHNES/AFP/Getty ImagesDespite being the heavyweight division's top fighter, Wladimir Klitschko is still considered vulnerable -- even against Tony Thompson.
Wladimir Klitschko, the closest thing we have to a heavyweight champion, will defend his several alphabet titles against Tony Thompson in Hamburg, Germany, on Saturday. It will take a very unusual circumstance indeed -- namely an upset by Thompson, who is at best a modestly talented challenger -- to generate any lasting excitement around the fight, at least in the United States.

Such is the state of the heavyweight class these days that even Klitschko, clearly the division's top fighter, is still seen by many as somewhat vulnerable -- even against 36-year-old Thompson, who didn't start fighting until he was 27.

Klitschko's three career KO losses have a lot to do with that, of course, and even with the progress he has made under Emanuel Steward, he remains, in the eyes of many, one overhand right from disaster. One only has to recall the way he shuddered at every contact made by Sam Peter in their fight several years ago to justify that perception.

[+] EnlargeBuster Douglas, Mike Tyson
AP Photo/Sadayuki MikamiBoxing fans didn't truly appreciate Mike Tyson, right, until after he suffered his first defeat.
His ultracautious nature, on display most demonstrably and most intolerably, last time out against Sultan Ibragimov, serves only to reinforce it.

This vulnerability, the sense that Klitschko is entirely beatable, is seen as representative of the division as a whole. The refrain is that none of the current crop of heavyweights stands apart from the others to any appreciable degree; that they're all generally mediocre and one can beat any other on a given night.

This is a bad thing, the thinking goes, and requires the urgent arrival of a heavyweight savior (preferably an American one) to clean up the mess mediocrity has made. We long, collectively, for the dominant heavyweight champion -- the Jack Dempsey, the Joe Louis, the Jack Johnson, of our era.

Here's where it gets tricky: This desire is equaled in intensity and duration only by our collective craving to see that dominant heavyweight, once delivered, knocked off his throne.

You might recall that Mike Tyson, recent history's most dominant heavyweight champion, traveled all the way to Tokyo, Japan, for what turned out to be the final fight of his electrifying first reign, the loss to Buster Douglas.

Why Japan? Because American fight fans, as enamored as they were of "Iron Mike" and his myriad soap operas, were bored silly by the ease with which he dispatched one challenger after another. The Japanese, having seen Tyson live just once before -- his first-round win over Tony Tubbs two years prior -- were not so critical.

Samuel Peter & Oleg Maskaev
AP Photo/Eduardo VerdugoA fun thing about today's heavyweights? Any one of them can beat the other.
As much as today's fans bemoan the absence of a dominant heavyweight, a common complaint during Tyson's reign was: "Why should I order the fight when it's going to be over in 90 seconds?"

Sure, it was great when Tyson cleaned up the division, unified the titles and demonstrated who the baddest man on the planet was, but once that was done, what else was there to do but root for someone to beat him?

Some of this sentiment existed during Lennox Lewis' long first reign, even after Oliver McCall stopped him. When Lewis proved his clear superiority in the rematch -- or, as it happened, his ability to throttle a man suffering a nervous breakdown -- and went on a long winning streak interrupted only briefly by a dubious draw against Evander Holyfield, the masses grew restless.

When would he get a real challenge? Couldn't anyone give him a fight? Where were all the good heavyweights?

They were there. He was just better than they were.

There was a kind of rejoicing that occurred when Hasim Rahman turned the trick in South Africa, an electric current that ran through the game but more or less fizzled out when Lewis knocked him cold in the rematch.

So there is no Tyson today, blowing out hopelessly frightened challengers in a minute or two. No Lewis turning back one "heir apparent" after another. No Jack Johnson beating the same three or four guys 16 times; no Dempsey knocking over giants; no "Bum of the Month" Club.

What do we have?

We have an assortment of hungry, modestly talented but willing heavyweights all clamoring to become the guy at the top of the division. They're not the most charismatic or athletic guys you'll find, the majority come from Eastern European countries and none of them will make us forget Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier or even Jerry Quarry.

But they're earnest, a couple of them have interesting styles, and they can fight. They'll serve us just fine until one of them, or one who comes after, steps up and becomes the next great heavyweight we've all been waiting for. At which point we will lament the passing of the days when, on a given night, any one of the world's better heavyweights could beat another.

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