Top 25 Heavyweights (As of May, 2006)
The world of the heavyweights is now officially turned upside down. Readers of this column have seen wonderings about the strength of the eastern Europeans contingent, but few would have guessed that in the space of a few months, men from the former Soviet bloc nations would gain a certain amount of dominance of the division.
To be sure, Hasim Rahman and a few other Americans are still alive and kicking. Gone are the days, however, that American heavyweights – much like American professional basketball players from the “Dream Team” era – simply owned the weight class no questions asked.
There will be many amateur sociologists who will point to simple economics as the driving factor, but of course such an analysis is much too narrow. What’s more important to know is that the culture of sport in the former Soviet Union has now progressed past placing the highest value on Olympic or amateur world championships. The pro game is now prominent.
Indeed, in the first few years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the mentality of the first eastern Europeans entering the pro ranks was very amateur-like. Quitting in the face of adversity was not unusual because fighters were accustomed to simply looking to the next fight for redemption.
Professional fighting skills were also an adjustment for amateur fighters intent only on landing a high volume of blows for scoring. A mass movement of young pros to western Europe and the United States helped close that gap.
Finally, the most important single factor in making champions from the masses of mere participants, is that the culture from which the Klitschkos, Valuev, Liakhovich, the Ibragimovs, Maskaev et al. emanated, places a high value on athletic success. Whereas Americans have prized boxing titles since the advent of the gloved era –much as they treasure basketball, baseball, and American football championships – the rest of the world is catching up. Just as our “Dream Teams” in basketball and our baseball players in the recent World Baseball Classic, have found out, athletes from other countries in those sports no longer quiver in the face of Americans.
All is not lost for American fighters. Many youngsters are on the horizon and the added worldwide competition will likely spur them on to greater achievements.
One last note on this shift in the sport: It is not due to the supposed terrible state of the heavyweight division. Heavyweight boxing has constantly been derided as “weak.” Look back through your old boxing magazines and see what the oldtimers said about Joe Louis’ opponents in his 25 defenses; check out the comments on Muhammad Ali’s foes, especially in his second reign; etc… We always see the “good old days” with more than a little bit of sentimentality. The shift is real. We’ll see just how long it lasts.
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1. Wladimir Klitschko, Ukraine – IBF Champion (Last month #3) Dominance. That’s the only word that suffices to describe his performance against a brave Chris Byrd. It is true that Byrd simply had too many mismatches– speed, size, boxing ability, power – to overcome. It also true that Byrd can still likely beat many of the fighters on this list. However one wants to look at it, Klitschko is at the top. He dismantled the skill fighter, Byrd, and he out-boxed and out-gutted the biggest hitter in the game, Samuel Peter, in his most recent outings. Klitschko won’t unify the belts – Don King is not dumb. He’ll not allow a Klitschko match with Liakhovich or Valuev, fighters in which he has financial interest. Free agent Rahman is a possibility and it is also the most meaningful fight in the division. More to follow.
2. Hasim Rahman, USA – WBC Champion (Last Month #1) Yes, Wladimir Klitschko passes him on this list without having met him in the ring. Rahman actually, and clearly, beat James Toney despite the bad decision resulting in a draw. However, his opponent was grossly oveweight, underpowered, and still he got by him with only a workmanlike performance. The one shining possibility here, however, is that Klitschko and Rahman could meet now that Rock is free of Don King. The gate and the payout would be massive. It is also the best fight this division can put together. If he can survive Oleg Maskaev (the Big O’s right hand has a history of landing on the chin of Rahman), he’s in for a megabuck showdown.
3. Serguei Liakhovich, Belarus – WBO Champion (Last month #20) Talk about huge!!! This man is the new “man”. He outboxed and outpunched Brewster who is arguably one of the biggests hitters in the game. Who else do you know who could withstand the high volume of clean shots Liakhovich (sometimes spelled Lyakhovich) did? His skills and finesse provided clear evidence that Liakhovich can continue to be a force in the division. The 15 month layoff did not seem to slow him at all. He can go for the big money right away --- Klitschko, Byrd, Rahman, and Valuev all represent mega paydays. Look for him to feast on Ray Austin first and then look out.
4. Lamon Brewster, USA (Last month #2) His major league loss to Liakhovich fortunately does not mean he is completely out of the picture. If anyone has ever seen a fighter with more heart I would like to meet him at once. He clearly lost but he was never completely out of the contest. Short fights of late may have cost him down the stretch. Look for “Relentless” to be back in action soon. Emphasis on action.
5. Chris Byrd, USA (Last month #5) Byrd finally secured a giant payday and he paid for it dearly. He can give anyone else on this list fits. He can still speed past the lumbering Valuev. He has more left in the tank than James Toney – and Toney can’t dent Byrd’s chin. He won’t ever beat Klitschko but he can still cash in and score some significant wins. More importantly he’s a fighter American fans can be proud of, and we are. Thanks Chris.
6. Calvin Brock, USA (Last month #6) If he can take the measure of Timor Ibragimov in June, he may find himself in the ring with Wladimir Klitschko. He may be America’s best chance at securing a title in the long run.
7. Samuel Peter, Nigeria (Last month #7) Peter stretched 7-footer Julius “Towering Inferno” Long in one round in April. Long presented no offense. Nonethelss, Peter remains active and dangerous.
8. James Toney, USA (Last month #4) We noticed that in the Ring ratings that followed the Klitschko-Byrd fight, Toney is still way up there. Why the continued lovefest for Lights Out? He had his heavyweight day in the sun and its over. No unified set of belts will adorn his growing waist. Five heavyweight contests and he has yet to beat a top ten man in that division. That’s right – he can’t get credit for anything against Ruiz when he followed their fight with a positive steroid test. This is not a knock on the tremendous career of Toney, just a realization that the end is near.
9. Danny Williams, England (Last month #8) He’s on tap for another all-British slugfest with Matt Skelton. Getting past Skelton likely means a shot at one of the trinket holders.
10. Nicolay Valuev, Russia – WBA Champion (Last month #9) If you ever thought Valuev was going to be a serious “champion” you now have your answer – his June defense is against Owen Beck. “What the Heck” showed signs of being a good prospect and then he met his first top opponent, Monte Barrett, and was stopped. He then faced his second top opponent, Ray Austin, and lost again. Since that time he has fought once, taking an 8-rounder against low-level opposition. Somehow this qualifies him for a title shot. If this is going to be representative of Valuev’s reign, let’s hope it is a short one.
11. John Ruiz, USA (Last month #10) Nothing is lined up. Is he waiting for something gift-wrapped in a nice box marked “WBA?”
12. Sultan Ibragimov, Russia (Last month #13) Yes, another strong, able heavyweight from the former Soviet bloc. He has talent and he has power. Riches await.
13. Oleg Maskaev, Uzbekistan (Last month #14) This man better realize the enormity of the opportunity in front of him. He has declined in ability sharply in the last couple of years but he can still whack. The Big O needs to muster all of the power remaining in his right hand and unload on Rahman when they meet this summer. A win against Rahman means riches he could not have imagined just a few years back when he was fighting in clubs. This is his last best chance.
14. Shannon Briggs, USA (Last month #15) In May the busiest heavyweight on this list is back in action. Although opponent Chris Koval is not exactly representative of the elite of the division, it is the activity that is important. Someone will be required to give Briggs a shot at some big cash and some kind of title soon. By the way, have you seen his collection of lesser “title” belts? He has almost every region covered.
15. Ruslan Chagaev, Uzbekistan (Last month #19) Now is the time for Chagaev to make his move on the scene. A good recent win against Vladimir Vichis should propel him to a bout with a major name.
16. Ray Austin, USA (Last month #18) The most important thing about fighting in April is the fact that he fought --- the opponent, Jeremy Bates, is unimportant for now. Since beating Owen Beck, Austin has somehow climbed the IBF ladder and may be the next mandatory for the winner of the Byrd-Klitschko event in April. Austin needs only to stay busy because based on recent evidence, the name of the opponent is not all that important to the IBF.
17. Dominick Guinn, USA (Last month unranked) The “Southern Disaster” took the first of what will need to be many steps to get back into real contention by beating Audley Harrison. Guinn was on the verge of the club-show circuit and he fought as if he was fully aware of that fact. He’ll now get other chances to be a contender. Hopefully the win over Harrison will give him the confidence to continue moving forward.
18. Monte Barrett, USA (Last month #11) More inactivity means further movement away from the elite of the division.
19. David Tua, New Zealand (Last month #16) He didn’t look all that good in any of his latest comeback fights and now he seems to have vanished from the scene. Time is running out.
20. DaVarryl Williamson, USA (Last month #17) Williamson returns to the ring for the first time since his dreadful decision loss to Chris Byrd in May. His opponent is Mike Mollo who, in spite of being 15-0, has never been more than six rounds. Williamson will have to be impressive if he is to get back in the title hunt soon.
21. Matt Skelton, England (Last month #21) Easily starched Armenian Suren Kalachyan in April. He gets a rare shot at quick redemption when he meets Williams in a July rematch. The heat is on.
22. Fres Oquendo, USA (Last month #22) Returned in February and we’re waiting to hear what is next. Hopefully it won’t be another two-year break in action.
23. Luan Krasniqi, Germany (Last month #23) The former challenger for Lamon Brewster’s belt took a decision over American David Bostice in April. He’ll have to do much more than that to prove himself a real contender. Of course given the state of ratings in the alphabets, maybe all he has to do is breath for a few more months to be named a mandatory challenger again.
24. Jameel McCline, USA (Last month #24) A clear points win over club circuit king Rob Calloway in April keeps him active and in the picture for a big payday or two. He’s still trying and still in top shape. Anything is possible, but I have the feeling he has slipped.
25. Audley Harrison, England (Last month #12) With his decision loss to Dominick Guinn, the big guy is just one step away from oblivion. He appeared listless and uninterested in the Guinn bout. Obvious talent does not count for much when the bell rings, Audley. Boxing is a put up or shut up kind of sport. The mountain Harrison must overcome is growing.
Prospects, fringe contenders, and others who need mentioning listed in no particular order. Don’t read the fact that they are listed here as an indication a ranking is imminent:
Joe Mesi, USA – He trudged his way to a shutout decision over 40-something Ron Bellamy in Puerto Rico ending a two year layoff. Since no one outside the arena saw the bout it is hard to make a solid assessment. It is probably sufficient for now that he is simply back in the mix. He said on Friday night fights that he will be in action again in June.
Chazz Witherspoon, USA – Took a decision win in April at Philadelphia’s fabled Blue Horizon. He’s scheduled for another bout in May. Keep it up Chazz.
Alexander Dimitrenko, Ukraine –The youngster cruised to a 12-round decision over journeyman Fernely Feliz in April. He still has many questions to answer before moving into the top rankings but at age 23, with a 21-0 record, the boxing world is going to start noticing him soon.
Alexander Povetkin, Russia – With all of the attention focused on eastern Europeans, don’t forget Povetkin the Olympic Gold medallist. At 6’2” and floating around 220 he is not big by current standards. At age 26, though, he’s a relative baby. He’s also 7-0 after having beaten Friday Ahunanya on the Byrd-Klitschko undercard. This is the same B-level Ahunanya who fought to a draw with Dominick Guinn.
Jean Francois Bergeron, Canada – He has run-up a 23-0 record against folks not on a “top” list of any kind. Time to put or shut up for the 32 year-old.
Timor Ibragimov, Uzbekistan – He has arrived at the perfect time in heavyweight history to score a major upset against the top American new guy, Calvin Brock, in June. With a win, everyone will believe that the rising eastern European tide is really a tidal wave.
Tye Fields, USA – His best win is over a terribly shopworn Bruce Seldon. Despite his 36-1 record, he’ll have to do much more than that to become known by more people than his immediate family.
Roman Greenberg, Israel – The 22-0 (15 KOs), 23 year-old is, by many accounts, a talent worth a close look. Perhaps he’ll fight next in a real boxing venue instead of Monaco.
J.D. Chapman, USA – This 23 year old Arkansan chugged to 22-0 (20 KOs) stopping previously undefeated Matt Hicks in April in a scheduled 4-rounder. Don’t be fooled by the fat record. The youngster has a very long way to go. Too heavy. Too slow. Too hesitant. Stay in the gym big fella – you’ve got some lessons to learn.
Malik Scott, USA – The light-hitting 25 year-old hasn’t fought since January. His 24-0 record will have to be tested at some point.
Gonzalo Omar Basile, Argentina – In April he won his 19th straight contest. Once again it was in Argentina against someone that none of us will recognize. We just don’t know enough about him to make a meaningful assessment. Hey, Gonzalo could you squeeze in an ESPN2 date?
Kevin McBride, Ireland – He finally returned to the ring after a 10 month layoff following his stoppage of the shell of Mike Tyson. He scored a 4th round stoppage of someone named Byron Polley, but at 286 was a full 15 pounds heavier than for his Tyson bout. He’ll be back in action in May against another journeyman. Can we really be expected to take McBride seriously? I think not.
Juan Carlos Gomez, Cuba (living in Germany) (Last month #25) Since being suspended in Germany for a positive drug test, he’s fallen off the (boxing) planet. Please report any sitings.
Kali Meehan, New Zealand – After his back-to-back losses to Hasim Rahman and Lamon Brewster, he’s captured two straight club show wins. In April he defeated Brazilian Rogerio Lobo in Fiji. At 36 he better take his best shot very soon.