Sunday, March 27, 2005

Brief Comments --- Decline of Boxing's Popularity in the U.S.

By JE Grant

The decline of boxing in the U.S. can be attributed to a few major factors: 1. Promoters more intent on promoting themselves than investing in star-making; 2. The seemingly growing number of sanctioning bodies; and 3. Lack of TV network exposure.

Everyone in American knows Don King. While that's not necessarily bad -- what is bad that if you ask 10 people on the street to identify a top fighter such as Antonio Tarver the result would not be encouraging. The numerous sanctioning bodies allow for promotion of "title" fights featuring fighters who are unknown to the public. Finally, network TV, despite its loss of market share to cable, is still the primary venue for TV entertainment.

I would like to see someone like Sugar Ray Leonard who fights regularly on network TV and builds a following of not only hard-core boxing fans but of sports fans in general.

Saturday, March 26, 2005

Bring back the 15-round championship limit

Want to bring championships back to prominent events? Bring back 15-round limits for championship bouts.

The shift to 12-rounders started as a knee-jerk response to the death of Korean lightweight Deuk-Koo Kim following his 14th round knockout loss to then-WBA champion Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini, November 13, 1982.

The WBC, in an effort to appear to be considered progressive, quickly decreed that all of WBC world title bouts would be set for 12-rounds. For a short time after that the WBA and IBF maintained the 15-round limit, but like sheep eventually followed suit. When the plethora of other organizations such as the WBO, WBU, IBA etc… (ad nauseam) came into being, the 12-round limit was seen as the norm. (As an aside, it is ironic that Mancini went on to lose his WBA lightweight title to Livingstone Bramble by way of 14-round knockout and later lost a 15-round decision in their rematch).

Virtually no one has produced any evidence ever that suggests the 12-round limit is safer.

But what was the real effect of the change? Did it really protect fighters? I suggest, admittedly without a long-term scientific study to back me up, that the 12-round limit unduly props up weak champions and gives hope to second-tier challengers. It also leads to more decisions and the prospect of bad calls. I also have a sneaking suspicion that 15-round bouts --- with all the difficulty involved in preparing for --- tend to dissuade part-time heroes dabbling in return fights.

It is clear that champions such as Larry Holmes, Roberto Duran, Ray Leonard and the old-timers, were able to prove their wares over the five championship rounds --- separating themselves clearly from the run-of-the-mill 10-round main event fighter. Witness Holmes vs. Norton, Duran vs. Leonard I, and Leonard vs. Hearns I.

Think of what some of the other great fights and surprises the 15-round limit gave us. Would Ali-Frazier I or III have been the same in a 12-round format? Frazier’s knockdown of Ali in the 15th, cemented the greatness of that fight and left no doubt about the winner of their first bout. Ali’s win in their third bout was equally as convincing as Frazier couldn’t answer the bell for the 15th.

Contrast that with their 12-round NABF championship bout in their second meeting. Although many saw Ali as the clear winner, a review of the tapes indicates a closer bout than the initial result indicated. Do you know anyone who calls that bout “great”? Ask Frazier to this day if he thinks he really lost that bout.

The 15-round limit also exposes champions who have some severe limitation. Who can forget Mike Weaver, far behind on all cards against the undefeated WBA heavyweight champion, John Tate, coming back to score a resounding 15th round knockout that left Tate unconscious for several minutes? That bout, held in Knoxville, Tennessee, March 31, 1980, and seen nationwide in primetime, had fans clear as to the victor and in awe of the power of Weaver’s left-hook.

Of course Tate was never the same again, and while Weaver’s tenure was not especially distinguished, the fight did have the effect of showing the world the greatness of Larry Holmes (a knockout winner over Weaver in Weaver’s previous attempt at a world-title). No one had any remaining doubts as to who was the true champion.

Perhaps the strongest argument in favor of bringing back the 15-round limit is that it helps to produce clarity. In their March 17, 1990 bout in Las Vegas for the WBC and IBF junior welterweight titles, Meldrick Taylor and Julio Cesar Chavez engaged in a pitched battle. Taylor, exhibiting enormous skills, appeared to move ahead of the undefeated Chavez. Going into the 12th and final round Taylor was indeed ahead on two cards and could only lose by knockout. In the final few rounds he had noticeably faltered under the pressure of Chavez’ attack, but he was going to win on decision barring a knockout.

With approximately twelve seconds left in the final round, Taylor wilted and Chavez scored a stunning knockdown. Taylor regained his feet and while he appeared willing to continue, he was still in some trouble. Referee Richard Steele, in what would be considered one of the most controversial acts of his great career, stopped the bout with two seconds remaining, giving Chavez a knockout victory.

Had that bout been scheduled for 15-rounds, there is no way Taylor would have made it to the end even if Steele had allowed the bout to go on. Chavez got stronger as the bout progressed and Taylor faded badly. The controversy would have been non-existent and everyone would have witnessed the true magic of Chavez over the championship distance. As it was, the controversy overshadowed the bout and was cause for acrimony for years.

The 15-round limit won’t solve all of boxing’s many ills but it will help restore the distinctiveness of championship bouts. The 15-round limit has a long and storied history in boxing and proved decisive in countless championship bouts, particularly in the heavier weight divisions throughout the gloved-era. The first sanctioning body to return to the 15-round limit will likely take heat --- but it will also be noticed. Champions will be on notice that to make a mark they will have to distinguish themselves from the pack over the long-haul.

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Saturday, March 19, 2005

Bernard is tops

By JE Grant

Bernard Hopkins’ 20 title defenses, including crushing wins over Oscar De La Hoya and Felix Trinidad, allows the 40-year-old champion the rightful claim that he is the current pound-for-pound champion.Hopkins is a fighter that a promoter would not seek out as part of a marketing scheme.

Although he is clearly very smart, and possesses far more business acumen than anyone credits him with, he does not possess the commercial charm of De La Hoya. He isn't a devastating puncher. He doesn't dance. He hasn't needed to climb off the canvas to eke out a victory. In short, he's no crowd-pleaser.What he does, and does better than almost everyone, is win convincingly. And he does it with astonishing consistency. Not that anyone would have thought he would one day hold a title for 10 years --- especially after losing his very first fight. He also failed to impress in his first venture into a major fight when he dropped a decision to Roy Jones. It wasn't an embarrassing loss but he sure didn't look like the "Executioner."

Since that time he has accumulated title belts (more than anyone in boxing), money (his account continues to grow), and respect by simply being the best fighter in the game. Going into his title defense against Trinidad, he was actually the underdog. Trinidad, unbeaten at the time and himself considered a top pound-for-pound champion, was considered by many to be too young, too strong and too skilled for an aging Hopkins. As we all know now, Hopkins was dominant in the bout, stopping Trinidad convincingly.

His victory over De La Hoya was equally devastating. He followed his well-known and proven strategy of doing enough to win most of the rounds while defending cleverly. The left-hook to the body that took out De La Hoya was a shot by a skilled student of the game.

Bernard’s recent near-shutout of Howard Eastman, a worthy contender, proved that he knows how to win and take away his opponent’s strengths.

Just as fellow 20 title defense champion Larry Holmes proved a couple of decades ago, it ultimately paid to be better than everyone else; it paid to fight only to win, not look good; and it paid to have absolute faith in his own abilities.

Young stallions wait in the wings just as they always do. Jermain Taylor, who has been given a deadline that is likely passed by the time you read this column, may be the fighter of the future. He, like all the others, have high hopes that father time will finally take its toll on the body of Bernard.

Germany’s Felix Sturm has scored some recent wins and his loss to Oscar De La Hoya was instrumental in getting him notice --- many thought he won their bout. In truth, while it seems that any middleweight contender has a chance against an aging champion, I think Sturm does not have the power to dictate any part of the action against Hopkins. He has a good jab and a very useful dose of confidence. It won't be enough.

Super-middleweight champion Jeff Lacy, himself an exciting prospect for the pound-for-pound ranks, has issued a challenge and is to be commended for wanting to go to the mountain. He, unlike fellow super middleweight Joe Calzaghe, is not bogged down by promotion problems and the WBO.

Obviously the torch will be passed at some point. In any case, Bernard Hopkins has earned our admiration. Long may the king live.

Saturday, March 12, 2005

The Cruiserweights

By JE Grant

The proliferation of junior and super weight classes, most of which were formed in the 1970's and 80's has indeed had a diluting effect to the word "champion." It can be argued, however, that the addition of the cruiserweight division makes the most sense when viewed from the perspective of competition.

If we were to accept the removal of the cruiserweight division we would in effect be saying that a 201 pound man would have a reasonable chance to win the heavyweight championship. In view of the increasing size of current champions, witness Vitali Klitschko, such a possibility is remote at best.

Yes we all know about the first successful challenge by a light-heavyweight champion for the heavyweight title, Michael Spinks v. Larry Holmes, and Spinks weighed 200 pounds for the challenge. (It is in fact true for history's sake that Spinks actually weighed 199 pounds but was listed at 200 at the suggestion of a promotionally-minded Larry Holmes).

And more recently, of course, Roy Jones, 193, captured a piece of the very fractured pie in defeating champion John Ruiz for the WBA title. He certainly would not have been able to do similar magic over the real champion at the time, Lennox Lewis.

But in both instances, the exception proved the rule. Spinks and Jones were all-time greats in the light-heavyweight division. No one --- no one --- would expect that current WBC champion Clinton Woods could do the same.

Consider the other great light-heavyweight champions who unsuccessfully challenged for the heavyweight title, such as Billy Conn and Bob Foster, and we can quickly surmise that a division should indeed exist to provide opportunities for gifted 200 pound fighters or for light-heavyweight fighters who legitimately outgrow the 175 pound limit.

Finally, thinking of great of fighters in history it is likely we would never have known the names Tunney, Charles, Marciano, Patterson or maybe even Joe Louis, had they been forced to compete with today's 230-250 pound champions. In his record 25 title defenses, Joe Louis weighed an average of 203 pounds. Evander Holyfield, often considered a "small" heavyweight, or even a "blown-up" cruiserweight, has ALWAYS weighed above that mark as both a heavyweight contender and champion.

Champs and chumps enter the ring at all weight classes. The cruiserweight division is no different. In its short history, the class has had some champions of note including Carlos DeLeon, Dwight Muhammad Qawi, James Toney (if ever so briefly) and of course Evander Holyfield.

The cruiserweight division is here to stay ------ and so it should be.

The Ring Heavyweight Ratings – Emotionally Driven?

By JE Grant

In recent months more and more pundits, boxing writers, and even the vaunted TV pinnacle of boxing, HBO, have begun placing tremendous credence to the The Ring magazine ratings. Unlike the alphabets, The Ring recognizes fighters regardless of belts held --- isn’t it ridiculous, for example, that the WBA and IBF do not even acknowledge the existence of, say, Lennox Lewis. It also appears that political and monetary influences play no role in the ratings. High praise to The Ring.

Despite a solid reputation it has to be said, however, that the #1 through #3 heavyweight ratings are cause for some head-scratching. Heading the list is the decision to maintain Chris Byrd as #1. Byrd is an affable, likeable, reliable and capable small heavyweight --- he’s the kind of guy we WANT to be a great fighter. He has also proven that against the top-level big guys he just can’t overcome his lack of power, despite considerable skills. His blowout losses at the hands of Ike Ibeabuchi and Wladimir Klitschko were no accident. He was not close to being in either fight. As for his win over Vitali Klitschko, give him credit for hanging in there but let’s not kid ourselves into thinking that he was marching toward victory when Vitali quit.

Corrie Sanders and Roy Jones each achieved status as #2 and #3 respectively, on the basis of one victory over rated fighters. However convincing Sanders was in bowling over Wladimir Klitschko, we again must think back into the not too distant past to see him being pounded into the ground by Hasim Rahman. And, where was he rated before the Klitschko victory? The 37 year-old Sanders may ultimately prove himself worthy of consideration but one victory shouldn’t do it. (Thankfully, we don’t see anyone rushing to rate fellow Klitschko conqueror Ross Purrity).

Many fans were so emotionally impressed by the fact that the great Roy Jones defeated a heavyweight that they fail to put the win into perspective. Consider this: Billy Conn faced Joe Louis; Archie Moore faced Rocky Marciano; Bob Foster faced Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali; Michael Spinks faced Larry Holmes. And Roy Jones? Well, he faced John Ruiz. Certainly a solid victory over a top-15 heavyweight but taken against the backdrop of great light-heavyweight champions that tested the waters against truly great heavyweight champions, it should be clear that the evaluation of the magnitude of the victory should be tempered.

While we should all rejoice in the honesty of The Ring ratings, the ratings committee needs to take a deep breath and reevaluate. The folks at The Ring haven’t allowed corruption to influence the ratings, but, it appears to this humble observer, emotionalism has overtaken a sober assessment of the heavyweight division.

Sunday, March 06, 2005

Felix Sturm

By JE Grant

Felix Sturm's recent string of victories will likely propel him to a shot at Bernard Hopkins. Importantly, his loss to Oscar De La Hoya was instrumental in getting him notice --- many thought he won their bout.

In truth, while it seems that any middleweight contender has a chance against a 40-year-old champion, I think Sturm does not have the power to dictate any part of the action against Hopkins. He has a good jab and a very useful dose of confidence. It won't be enough.
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