Dubbed the greatest prize in sport, the heavyweight championship of the world has been synonymous with fame, fortune and prestige. The likes of Muhammad Ali, Mike Tyson, Lennox Lewis and so many more have revelled in the revery the pinnacle of boxing brings.
Yet for over 10 years, April 2004 to November 2015 to be exact, the heavyweight division was reduced to a shadow of its former glory, desperately clinging on to past success as two brothers ruled seemingly unopposed. Wladimir and Vitali Klitschko, who grew up in the Eastern Bloc before spending the better part of their careers fighting out of Germany, enjoyed a combined 31 successful title defences as the division stagnated.
Credit has to be given to the brothers for their dominance, you can only beat who is put in front of you, but it was the manner in which they did so that riled pugilist punters. Both employed jabs stiffer than a House of Lords Conservative and regularly relied on their superior height advantage to pick their opponents off. Any potential threat was negated by Wladimir immediately holding his opponents as if they were a long-lost relative, whilst Vitali relied on a granite chin that ensured he would never be knocked down in his entire professional career. Put simply, their styles were blood-boilingly robotic but begrudgingly effective.
What’s more, the two’s academic backgrounds and modest personalities were at loggerheads with the chest-pumping, fist-flailing champions of yesteryear. Both held PhDs, are bilingual, play chess and were even given the fighting nicknames Dr. Steelhammer and Dr. Ironfist to reflect these. Neither exactly roll off the tongue like Shannon ‘The Cannon’ Briggs.
Every opponent unable to dislodge either Klitschko from their respective thrones seemed another nail in the coffin, with no challenger on the horizon appearing equipped to prize them back out again. Meanwhile, fighters including Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao lit up the smaller weight classes as interest in the big men wained.
Eventually, a combination of old father time and political ambition saw Vitali make his final title defence in 2012 before announcing his retirement. His WBC belt was won by the competent, but limited, Bermane Stiverne against Chris Arreola in 2014. It was considered a hollow victory – the Haitian-Canadian merely seen as the temporary keeper of the title until Wladimir cast his eye on it, with the chance to become the first undisputed heavyweight champion since Lewis’ retirement in 2004. Coincidentally, his last fight was an unconvincing win over Vitali.
But two things talk in this sport – money and boxing politics. Wladimir was ordered to make mandatory defences of his current titles, during which time Stiverne had lost his belt to the knockout specialist ‘The Bronze Bomber’ Deontay Wilder. Dr. Steelhammer’s next compulsory fight was against the giant Tyson Fury. At 6ft9, Fury was one of the rare few who possessed a longer reach than the champion. However, his comparative inexperience, poor temperament and questionable chin saw him as a 7/2 underdog.
The fight, delayed by a month after Wladimir sustained a calf injury, wasn’t a classic. Instead, it served up 12 rounds of eye-catching intrigue as Fury made Wladimir look every bit as robotic as his critics had lambasted him as. Playing up his unconventionality, both in the build-up and during the fight, Fury won by unanimous decision.
In under an hour on a cold winter’s night in Dusseldorf, the heavyweight landscape hadn’t been changed; it had been nuked. Fury was not the knight in shining armour, riding in to rescue the division – his comments regarding homosexuality and gender equality have put paid to him ever becoming an icon. Rather, he, and to a lesser extent Wilder, has made heavyweight boxing competitive again.
For so long the idea that anyone could beat anyone as a heavyweight, sometimes only taking one punch such was the power of the men in the ring, had lay dormant. It lit up the division and captured the imagination of fanatics and the general public alike. Now the perceived vulnerabilities of the current champions, today including Charles Martin who holds the IBF title after Fury was stripped of it in farcical circumstances, coupled with the new wave of emerging talent is turning heads.
Olympic gold medallist Anthony Joshua, who challenges Martin for the IBF strap on April 9, and Joseph Parker are two standout names. Coupled with current contenders like Alexander Povetkin and the return of David Haye now means boxing’s premier division boasts a host of hard-hitting, brash fighters willing to take on anyone.
Of course, things still aren’t perfect and they probably never will be. The WBA having a ‘super champion’ (Fury) and a ‘regular champion’ (the Australian Lucas Browne) is as unnecessary as it is confusing. Television pay-per-view prevents wider accessibility and, let’s be honest, there are too many champions. We could even be back to square one if Wladimir wins his proposed rematch with Fury.
Amidst all the politics and feuding, it can often be forgotten that boxing is entertainment and the heavyweights are the biggest attractions. The division is a circus, certainly in more ways than one. At times you don’t know what’s going to happen next and, for better or worse, that’s part of the fun. The current crop of contenders are members of a division that is in somewhat of a flux, with no dominant figure as of yet. But for the first time in the 21st century we can potentially look forward to mouth-watering bouts as fighters aim to put their stamp on a division that is well and truly up for grabs. From on the ropes to knock-out entertainment, the heavyweight championship of the world may finally be getting its mojo back.