How the heavyweight crown lost its shine

The boxing heavyweight title was once the greatest prize in sport, but recent titleholders and their avoidance game have devalued the belt. Can the division return to its glorious past?

Nobody expected the underdog to deck the world heavyweight champion, especially after he had visited the canvas himself a little earlier. Especially this underdog. Once described as a walking barrel, he gave away 12cm in height to the titleholder, yet outweighed the champ by nearly 15kg.  

For a brief moment, fans who packed into the Yankee Stadium in New York, United States, in June 1939 thought “Two Ton” Tony Galento was going to make good on his promise to dethrone fellow American Joe Louis. 

“I’ll moider da bum,” Galento said famously in his Newark drawl in the build-up to the bout. It became his mantra as he repeated it numerous times, even at the medical check-up before the fight. 

Galento was a bar brawler through and through, but his crouching style from which he launched his attacks made him an awkward proposition and allowed him to get ahead on the scorecards after three rounds. 

Galento had won the opening round after rocking the Brown Bomber, but Louis took the second after dropping the challenger. Galento’s moment came in the third round when his right hand exploded on to Louis’ chin and the champion went down. 

Louis stayed down for all of two seconds and then he got up and did what all great champions do, he fought his way back. Louis destroyed Galento, forcing the stoppage in the following round. 

Back to the future

Travel forward 80 years to June 2019 and almost 13km southwest to Madison Square Garden, and Mexican-American Andy Ruiz Jr did what Galento failed to do. He stunned the planet by stopping Britain’s world heavyweight champion, Anthony Joshua. 

The similarities between the two fights are uncanny. Both Louis and Joshua were making their seventh title defences. In both cases the challengers were more experienced than the champions. Louis had 38 wins and a single defeat compared with Galento’s 76 wins, 23 losses and five draws; Joshua had an unblemished 22-0 record and Ruiz was 32-1. 

Joshua, like Louis, was the taller man, by 10cm, and he gave away weight on the scales, by 9kg. Like Louis, Joshua dropped Ruiz first before getting put down himself. But after that the script changed. 

So too, potentially, has the discourse of the world heavyweight scene. 

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Joshua, the unified World Boxing Association, International Boxing Federation and World Boxing Organization (WBO) champion, was supposed to be on a collision course with unbeaten rivals American Deontay Wilder, holder of the World Boxing Council crown, the fourth and final mainstream belt, and fellow Briton Tyson Fury, owner of the linear title he won by dethroning Ukrainian Wladimir Klitschko in 2015. 

Fury, a troubled soul, lost his belts in the boardroom, not in the ring. Until Ruiz’s victory, the heavyweight division was dominated by three unbeaten men. The last time the biggest heavyweight stars with undefeated records gravitated towards each other was when American legend Muhammad Ali returned from exile to take on reigning champion and countryman Joe Frazier in their Fight of the Century at the Garden in 1971. 

Wilder and Fury have already fought, their entertaining contest ending in a draw. Wilder lacks technical ability, but his speed, heart and punching power make him a threat. 

Fury possesses better skills and a massive heart, which allowed him to get up from two big knockdowns, but he lacks that explosive power to transport a foe into slumberland with a single blow. The Joshua factor added spice to this equation, but when fans were going to be treated to a proper fight-off was anybody’s guess.

A blow to boxing’s greed

Boxing is more a business than a sport. The best fighters, or at least their backers, play avoidance games. Look how long it took to get Briton Lennox Lewis and American Evander Holyfield, then the two best heavyweights on the planet, into the same ring in 1999. 

Even Floyd Mayweather’s long-awaited fight against Manny Pacquiao in 2015 took place five years after it should have, at which time the Filipino would have had a better chance of success against the defensively brilliant American. 

The powers that be in boxing, namely the promoters and the broadcasters, are ultimately the ones responsible for the delays. 

In a way, Ruiz’s victory was a blow against boxing’s greed, a poetic justice for fans wanting to see the best fight each other sooner rather than later. The result appears to have expedited another Fury-Wilder showdown if US promoter Bob Arum is to be believed, promising a trilogy.  

Joshua himself has opted to go for an immediate return against Ruiz. That’s the only fight for him right now, he has to redeem himself. Some are hailing this as the biggest heavyweight upset of all time, but that’s overstating the point. 

Ruiz isn’t a bum. He’s lost only once in the paid ranks and that was a narrow defeat to Joseph Parker for the vacant WBO heavyweight title in the New Zealander’s hometown of Auckland. One judge had it even and the other two judges gave it to the local guy by two points.

Joshua outpointed Parker convincingly. 

There have been bigger upsets than Ruiz’s over Joshua, like German boxer Max Schmeling knocking out Louis in their non-title fight in 1936, Swede Ingemar Johansson knocking out Floyd Patterson of the US in 1959 and American Oliver McCall knocking out Lewis in 1994. 

All three beaten champions avenged their defeats inside the distance, although Lewis’ was bizarre after McCall refused to fight while suffering a mental breakdown mid-fight. But that is the yardstick by which Joshua will be measured in his rematch with Ruiz; he’s got to beat the American convincingly. 

If he does, he’ll be back on track and the loss can be dismissed as one of those things. If he doesn’t, his stocks will remain devalued unless Ruiz makes mincemeat of Wilder and Fury, an unlikely scenario. 

Olympic gold medalist to world champion 

Joshua, judging on how he lost that fight, could struggle in the return. He’s not as good as his British fans like to believe. Joshua won Olympic super-heavyweight gold at London 2012, but success at the Games is no guarantee of greatness in the professional ranks. 

Frazier and American George Foreman, Olympic heavyweight champions in 1964 and 1968, did make it. But does anyone remember who won the Olympic heavyweight gold at Rome 1960? 

It wasn’t Ali, then known as Cassius Clay, who lifted the light-heavyweight gold, but rather an Italian by the name of Francesco de Piccoli. The man he beat in the final was South Africa’s Daan Bekker, who won the national crown as a professional in his third outing, lost it in his eighth and retired after his ninth. 

Of the three Italians who won gold in 1960, only Nino Benvenuti converted into a renowned professional world champion, winning the middleweight crown. Joshua’s other claim to fame was beating former world champion Klitschko, himself an Olympic champion from 1996, but that’s another dubious indicator. 

Klitschko was blown away inside two rounds by South Africa’s Corrie Sanders in 2003, and that was no fluke. Klitschko was the heir apparent to Lewis at the time, but the man was no genuine athlete. According to reports out of Germany, Klitschko did a public workout where he was put through a ball-catching exercise by his coach. 

The ball was thrown to his left and his right and he was supposed to catch it and throw it back quickly. He didn’t need to be acrobatic, it was just a gentle test of hand-eye coordination. Klitschko was embarrassingly bad. 

Dropping the ball and the standards 

He kept dropping it and then awkwardly resembled an oil tanker changing direction as he chased after the rolling ball. 

Sanders, though, was blessed with coordination. He played flyhalf for then Northern Transvaal schools at Craven Week – an annual rugby tournament for schoolboys – and, at his best, was a scratch golfer.

The Ukrainian, to his credit, came back to dominate the division, beating smaller and even more inept fighters than himself. The heavyweight crown was once the greatest prize in world sport, but not in Klitschko’s hands. 

He’s a nice guy and bright scholar, but Klitschko epitomised the downside of the dreadnought invasion of the sweet science. His was the yawn of a new era. 

And yet Joshua made a meal of beating an ageing Klitschko, allowing the 41-year-old to look like a slick boxer. Joshua, after putting Klitschko down in the fifth, was dropped himself in the sixth. 

The Briton then went into his shell for a few rounds, doing almost nothing except retreating. It surely didn’t take him that long to recover, which suggests he lacks heart. 

Joshua eventually knocked out Klitschko spectacularly in the penultimate 11th round, but those lost rounds were telling. Had this Joshua been given the biblical task of marching around the walls of Jericho seven times, there’s a serious risk that he and not the ramparts might have fallen. 

One got the sense then that Joshua was not the man destined to reignite world heavyweight boxing. 

Wilder and Fury, on the other hand, have breathed new life into the division, proving there are some crowd-pleasing contests out there. 

The heavyweight division of the 1970s was electrified by the rivalries between Ali, Frazier, Foreman and American Ken Norton. The four produced 10 fights in five and a half years, and none of them got through that unscathed. 

Wilder, Fury, Joshua and Ruiz won’t replicate that, but they have the potential to take the heavyweight division to heights not seen for a long time. If nothing else, there are fights that fans will want to watch. 

Whether Joshua will be a bit player or a serious contender in that will depend on the Ruiz rematch. 

Just don’t hold your breath, he’s no Joe Louis.

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