06.04.06 - By Tyson Craemer: The sport of boxing no longer has the appeal it once valiantly personified. This lack of interest can be rightfully placed on the demise of the heavyweight division. Thought to many as the greatest prize in sports, the heavyweight championship drives the boxing public. Boxing had a good run in the 90’s, but towards the end of the decade, it really took a dive. The Heavyweight Champion Lennox Lewis, although a great title holder, was more of a lackluster ambassador for the sport as his performances were fairly dull and his promotion was little to none. The average sports fan may have not even known who Lewis was, where as Mike Tyson and Evander Holyfield were household names.
Since Lewis’ retirement, the heavyweight division has seen no apparent frontrunner. Vitali Klitschko, thought to be the savior of the heavies, recently retired after a short stay as the WBC champion. We currently have four heavyweight title holders, still, there has yet to be a unification to distinguish which one is the true champion.
However, we have a major shift happening in boxing. Since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, we have seen a substantial influx of Ex-Soviet fighters join the pro ranks. Russian fighters have dominated amateur boxing for quite some time, but like the communist government of Cuba, they had not been permitted to compete professionally. As these Eastern European countries were newly formed, so was their claim in boxing.
The first recognized name out of this Ex-Soviet stable was the Russian born Kostya Tszyu. Within 10 years of turning pro, he had already won four titles and had unified the junior welterweight division for the first time since 1968. Now retired, Tszyu is considered a first ballot hall-of-famer and possibly the greatest junior welterweight of all time.
Currently, out of the 170 top ten ranked boxers throughout every division, over 40 of them are European. Within the 68 titleholders, 17 are from Europe, and, out of the 7 unified champions in the sport, 2 of them are also European. Most importantly, in Ring Magazine’s Top 10 Pound-For-Pound rankings, there are two Europeans ranked #5 and #8 respectively. There are only three Americans ranked within this list. These facts are beginning to scare some in the U.S. boxing industry. This past month, we have seen two of U.S. boxing’s biggest names, Jeff Lacy and Lamon Brewster, not only loose but made to look foolish by their Euro counterparts. Boxing media has recently brought much attention to this European domination with many articles and discussions about the shift. Nevertheless, not all of this attention has been positive.
Last month, boxing held a match for the WBC Heavyweight Title between two Americans, Hasim Rahman and James Toney. In what many were hoping for a definite answer to the heavyweight division, we were left with nothing. For 12 rounds, fans watched a boring, unmotivated fight in which neither fighter showed signs of champion qualities. Originally, Oleg Maskaev, an Eastern European, was scheduled to face Rahman after winning a title eliminator and becoming the #1 ranked challenger. But, the WBC mysteriously changed their verdict and named Toney, ranked #5 at the time, as the mandatory challenger although recently being suspended from boxing for the use of steroids.
At the post fight press conference, in which Maskaev attended, the viewing audience saw Rahman and Toney being praised as if their performances were anything more than amateurish. After discussing a possible rematch and being challenged several times as to Maskaev’s claim to the title fight, James Toney responded with his own comments. In what seemed as some of the most ignorant and racist statements in modern boxing, James was allowed to speak his mind without any correction.
These are some of the beliefs Toney conveyed:
"Rahman is a real fighter; we aren’t nothing like these Germans and Russians you all trying to build up."
"We Afro-Americans... we like to fight… we ain't scared to fight nobody."
"You all keep trying to build up the Great White Hype. It’s not gonna happen."
“The Klitschkos, the walking dead man over in Germany, Valuev.”
"It’s not going to happen. You all can stop all that. Stop it."
"There isn't going to be a white heavyweight champ, unless you see him Europe... and that's real."
“I’m gonna keep it real. I’m not gonna hide nothing.”
Quoted from MaxBoxing.com’s: Rahman/Toney Post Presser
The ironic premise about these statements is that James Toney was fighting for Vitali Kliitschko’s vacated WBC title. Before retiring, Vitali, a white European, was ranked as the #1 heavyweight in world for over a year. The fact of the matter is that James Toney could not beat Rahman, a man who Oleg Maskaev had previously knocked out. Instead of praising the deserving Maskaev, he would rather insult his culture and heritage. When he should be crediting Europeans for their recent uprising in the sport, he mocks and insults them. As a guest on the Max Kellerman show broadcasted by Fox Sports, James Toney was stated in saying that Europeans are dumb.
In the following weeks of Toney vs. Rahman, we saw Lamon Brewster, the WBO Heavyweight Champion and #4 ranked heavyweight by Ring Magazine; dramatically loose his title to Serguei Lyakhovich of Belarus. Brewster, winning 8 of his last 9 fights by KO, was considered the most dangerous heavyweight, and though Ring ranked him at #4, many other respected lists had him between 1 and 3. On the other hand, Lyakhovich was still green. This was his first title fight, he was coming off a 16 month layoff due to injuries, and he was not even ranked in the WBO top ten. Brewster, known for intimidating his opponents with talk of his street life, could not get to Lyakhovich. The Lyakhovich team had their own strategy, stating that Serguei has lived in places that would make Harlem look like a palace.
The fight turned out to be the most exciting heavyweight title bouts since Lewis vs. Klitschko in 2003. In what could be called a “boxing clinic”, Lyakhovich took Brewster to school. Brewster did have two big moments in the fight, one of them when he dropped the Belarusian, but Serguei was far superior. Lyakhovich won in all departments: speed, footwork, stamina, chin, power, and defense. Brewster was able stay in the fight based only on heart and will as he was nearly knocked out on more than one occasion. As the fight ended, Brewster, bloodied and swollen, seemed to be in disbelief along with the whole crowd. After Serguei was awarded the belt, he stated that he came to this country with nothing more than $100 in his pocket in which he borrowed.
Currently two of four heavyweight titlists are white. In two weeks, we will see the rematch between Wladimir Klitschko and Chris Byrd the IBF champion. In their WBO title fight during 2000, Klitschko nearly pitched a shut-out knocking Byrd down twice. If history repeats itself, that count will be three. Rahman, the owner of the WBC strap, is being forced to defend against Maskaev who knocked him out five years ago. Based on the outcome, boxing may have four white heavyweight champions by summer.
With that said, boxing or sports all together should not revolve around race. However, many like to bring the topic into the equation. James Toney, known for his over the top comments, has done it on multiple occasions. His actions have never been questioned directly, but his supporters have many excuses. Truly, there is no justification for this type of behavior. It must be rectified, and I challenge all those in the boxing industry to do so.
In response to the title of this article, I have my own statement: James Toney, he will never be a Heavyweight Champion.