December 13, 2006 Sean Burns
Donald Jeremiah Trella
To understand the current state of the heavyweight division in boxing today, an analogy to a very different sport might be surprisingly enlightening:
Any longtime thoroughbred horseracing fan will tell you the 1970s were the glory days of horseracing, and they’ll often provide the same explanation for why this was the case: In the most prominent division (3-year olds), there suddenly emerged a plethora of horses with unprecedented levels of natural ability. This surplus of talent made racing’s three greatest showcases (the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness Stakes, and the Belmont Stakes, respectively) some of the most exciting competition in all of professional sports at that time. Three times in the 1970s, a horse was able to dominate all three of those races to win the most elusive prize in all of professional sports – the Triple Crown. Just to illustrate exactly how elusive it truly is, consider that it has been 28 years since Affirmed captured the Crown in 1978 as the last horse to do so. Seattle Slew also did it in 1977, but Secretariat broke a 25-year Crownless streak in 1973.
Longtime boxing fans will speak of their sport in a way remarkably similar to horseracing aficionados. In the 1970s, boxing was also more popular than ever before, and its most prominent division, heavyweight boxing, was king. “The King of the World” himself, Muhammad Ali, gave us legendary nights that somehow managed to live up to hype that a Clash of the Titans could not: an improbable victory over an undefeated George Foreman in the “Rumble in the Jungle”, a comeback win in his third and final battle for heavyweight supremacy against Joe Frazier at the “Thrilla in Manila”. Not to be forgotten are some of the other great champions of that golden era like Ken Norton and Leon Spinks.
In another strange parallel, it has also been 28 years since Leon Spinks held boxing’s greatest prize and perhaps the most coveted prize in all of sports – the undisputed heavyweight championship of the world – that is, to be recognized as heavyweight champion by holding the championship belt of all four of the major sanctioning bodies in boxing: the WBC, the WBA, the IBF, and the WBO. Some wonder if it will ever be achieved again in an age where working out the financials to the satisfaction of the promoters, the media, the agents, and the boxers takes longer than ever, and often times the negotiations simply break down and the fans’ desire to see the best of the biggest go head-to-head is left unfulfilled.
Enter Nicolay Valuev. Standing at 7 feet tall, weighing in at 330 lbs, and hailing from Russia, he is no fictional character from a Rocky sequel being revived for the upcoming 6th installment of the movie series. He’s real, and he’s been the WBA heavyweight champion for just about a year now. If you did not know that, however, don’t be surprised – it’s confusing – the four sanctioning bodies now recognize four different men as heavyweight champion (Oleg Maskaev – WBC, Wladimir Klitschko – IBF, and Shannon Briggs – WBO).
Early in his career, Valuev often endured a “freak show” reputation as a result of his enormous stature, but it was one he dealt with in the same way he has dealt with all whom have stepped in the ring with him – destroying it. Valuev’s record stands at a perfect 45-0-0 with 33 KO’s. And of course, how would any boxing story, with an epic character like Valuev, be complete without another larger-than-life character like Don King?
King, who vies for the title of “Most Loved and Hated Man in Boxing” with his former client Mike Tyson, has vowed repeatedly that he will stage a heavyweight unification tournament. Some might take words from the mouth of Don King with a grain of salt, if not a tablespoon of it, but it looks as if this might be one he can deliver.
Two of the 4 heavyweight champions, Valuev and Briggs, are promoted by King. Klitchko is in the unusual position of being able to more or less set up his own fights through owning his own promotions company. And according to a recent BBC article, he wants in too – badly. He stated after his successful title defense against Calvin Brock on November 12 that his next fight will be against one of the other recognized champions. The fourth champion, Oleg Maskaev, is promoted by Dennis Rappaport. King claims he wants a tournament, Klitchko claims he wants a tournament, Rappaport is said to want a tournament. Frustrated boxing fans have to wonder why this deal has not yet been done.
One theory is that King is afraid. Kltichko is a serious threat due to his 6’7” height (i.e., his ability to stand in against Valuev with relative ease) and his supreme technical proficiency in the eyes of some experts. If Klitchko (or Oleg Maskaev) were to win the tournament, Don King would be, at least for awhile, without any share of the heavyweight championship for the first time in decades.
Also, King’s contract with Valuev is only for his next 2 fights, and King finds himself in the middle of a strange paradox: if he doesn’t get a tournament for Valuev, Valuev will be missing out on a big payday opportunity, and might well not re-sign with King. If King arranges the tournament, the exposure that the event (and hence, Valuev) would get is so great, King would have to pay a fortune to keep Valuev.
A second theory is that HBO, while uniquely capable of putting such a tournament together, does not desire to do so for some reason and blames the promoters. A third theory is that HBO deeply desires to do so, but the promoters want so much money that HBO finds the deal disadvantageous, so the promoters conveniently blame HBO for not delivering when in fact it is the promoters’ own greed that stands in the way. And countless other theories abound.
In horseracing, there’s only a select few opportunities for the truly giant paydays. There’s the three big Triple Crown races, and owners and trainers can either run their horses or not run them, but if they choose not to, they miss out on an opportunity that they’ll never have again – the horses are only 3 years old (and thus, eligible to compete at those big races) once.
Boxing has an advantage over horseracing in that there are theoretically infinite opportunities for the enormous paydays, because people – the fighters, the promoters, and the media – have the power to create the big events themselves by arranging different exciting matchups. But in practice, it seems that this power actually works to boxing’s disadvantage.
Last night Oleg Maskaev successfully defended his title in Russia against Peter Okhello. The sellout crowd of 10,000 included Nicolay Valuev at ringside. The speculation runs wild. Was he taking notes? Has something been worked out that is not yet public? If so, there might be a bright light at the end of the great heavyweight tunnel.