THEY were champions but not rulers. Pretty but hardly beautiful. A few spare coins but by no means wealthy. This was a posse of men chasing ‘The Man’, trading titles and triumphs, but failing to budge Lennox Lewis from the top of the tree. The Briton’s WBC strap was his symbol of domination, but other trinkets, those he had left by the wayside, pushed the door of opportunity ajar.
The most powerful man in all the land following his conquering of Evander Holyfield in the final heavyweight battle of the 20th century, Lewis ruled with relative ease – a later-avenged blip against Hasim Rahman in 2001 forming the notable exception – until exiting with dignity following an almighty struggle with Vitali Klitschko two years later.
“Lennox was head and shoulders above anyone at that time and I certainly wasn’t ready for him,” admits former WBO champion, Lamon Brewster, who steadily climbed the rankings of the ever-alternating glamour league during Lewis’ stay in office. Brewster flirted with the summit in 2004 after shocking Wladimir Klitschko in a stunning upset. His reign – exciting but short-lived – encapsulated the scene in that period, as the transition from Lewis to the Klitschko brothers proved laboured.
John Ruiz, a mainstay of the top 10 as the nineties yielded to the new millennium, recalls the era with slight bitterness.
Dismissed by most following a super quick loss to David Tua in 1996, “The Quiet Man” was reconstructed and placed himself in a position where opportunities would become a little more straightforward. Aligning himself with shock-haired guru Don King, a controlling force since the 1970s, Ruiz mixed with the leading contenders and gained a fragment of power with a revenge victory over the fading Holyfield for the WBA crown in 2001. Ruiz would lose the belt to a division-jumping Roy Jones Jnr in a historic encounter two years later, but a further reign included victories over Rahman and unpredictable Pole, Andrew Golota. Oft-criticised for his roughhouse tactics, Ruiz claims the mainstream neglect he experienced cannot be explained purely by his style and places the blame at the door of television.
“What did guys at HBO or Showtime do for fighters like me?” asks Ruiz, showing a similar dogged determination to that which often carried him far beyond his physical gifts. “Everything they did was for Lennox Lewis and after that it was for the Klitschko boys. I’m going to tell you now that I have no problem with HBO getting behind Lennox because I respect Lennox and I know he was a good fighter but the Klitschkos? Really? Wladimir lost to [journeyman, Ross] Purity and his brother just quit against Chris Byrd [retired with an injured shoulder], but the people were always told that these would be the guys to take over from Lennox. They did that eventually, but how many chances were they both given? A lot more than the likes of me and Byrd who were good, tough fighters, both world champions, but who never got the big TV star treatment that other fighters were getting.”
Byrd, a Michigan stylist who won middleweight silver at the 1992 Olympics, probably should have stayed away from visiting the heaviest division. With potential managers and promoters put off by the charming fighter’s protective family, Byrd ate himself way past the 200lb mark to compete with the sport’s most dangerous punchers, surrendering height, weight and regularly taking the short end of purses to become a two-time champion against all the odds. Today, nursing the wounds of combat, including severe damage to his hip and ankle, Byrd harbours regrets regarding the route he took to glory.
“One of the reasons I went to heavyweight was because it was before the land of the giants, and a lot of the good heavyweights were around the six-foot mark, and when I’d see them at shows I always felt I could compete with them because they didn’t look much bigger than me,” Byrd reflects. “Guys like Holyfield, Michael Moorer and [Mike] Tyson were the guys I had in mind when I went to heavyweight and slowly you started getting much bigger guys from Europe and then I had to stay there; that’s why I’m in such bad shape now as I spent all my time giving away so much size and just fighting monster after monster. If I could go back and do it all again I probably wouldn’t. I’d take the Roy Jones way around, and try going through the divisions and ending up at heavyweight. It really bothers me that I wasn’t a three or four-weight world champion as I definitely believe I had the skills to do so.”
Byrd, like old foe Ruiz, also reserves some bile for a certain US cable behemoth. “HBO, Home Box Office, an American station that every single American can relate to and they want to give all their exposure to all these Europeans?” asks Byrd, aghast. “That doesn’t sit right with me at all, and I feel they could’ve done so much more to give us guys a better platform to show what we could do. You’re probably looking at the last time America had so many world-class heavyweights and TV could’ve done a lot more to basically tell the viewers that there’s good heavyweights right here at home. It felt like a missed opportunity at the time.”
Below the dominant Lewis was an impressive depth lacking in today’s heavyweight environment – although contemporary champions possess the requisite ability to be competitive in yesteryear, the list of contenders available to today’s belt-holders contrasts greatly to the eclectic mix scrambling for the spotlight throughout Lennox’s tenure. There was a President, a Baby Joe, two Rhinos (one black, one white), A Southern Disaster and a Jamaican prospect with the moniker “What the Heck.” Admittedly, the majority failed to live up to their potential, and for fighters like Buffalo’s Joe Mesi (the aforementioned Baby) and the erratic Nigerian “President”, Ike Ibeabuchi, their quest to occupy the top spots ended due to medical and legal issues respectively. Brewster, a pivotal part of this congested landscape, albeit lacking a flamboyant nickname, proudly recalls his climb to world glory.
“Oh s**t, every fight was hard for me on the way up but that’s exactly how heavyweight boxing needs to be,” declares Brewster, now a consultant for Al Haymon and a successful entrepreneur.
“Look at every single thing that was going on then that you wouldn’t be able to do now. The Night of the Young Heavyweights [shows] where a load of big guys who would just get in there and fight, and if you lost then no one gave a f**k, and you were back at the beginning. [Promoter] Cedric Kushner was doing his thing with one-night tournaments and some of the action in that was scary, and you had guys like Maurice Harris in that, and Harris was a great fighter on his day and someone who could’ve achieved a whole lot more. That’s the point I’m trying to make, get any promoter anywhere in the world [today] and get him to put on a brilliant show featuring just world-class heavyweights. It couldn’t be done. People are more than right, Jesus, they are a million per cent right when they say that none of us could compete with Lennox, but look below him and what you had is so many good fighters capable of beating each other.”
With Brewster becoming a world leader at his first time of asking, one fighter who repeatedly fell at the final hurdle was Jameel McCline. With zero amateur experience but a burning desire to turn his life around following a period of incarceration, McCline’s late start did not prevent him from competing at the highest level, but the ability to move one crucial step further repeatedly eluded him as cracks at all four of the recognised major straps finished in disappointment. McCline’s education was acquired in East Coast gyms and, like Brewster, he believes the quantity of quality operators plying their trade at the time was vital in ensuring he was adequately prepared for a sustained assault on the division.
“With the exception of Tyson and Joe Mesi, there isn’t a single top 20 heavyweight from 1997-2007 who didn’t get work off Jameel McCline in the gym,” reveals “Big Time”. “Larry Holmes, Ray Mercer, Lewis, and the Klitschkos, everyone is on there and that’s two-three generations of leading heavyweights that I’ve sparred with. I’ve got no idea how heavyweights of today spend their times in the gym because there isn’t any. Back when I was doing my thing you had Gleasons, the gym on Fifth Avenue and there were a couple of hot spaces in New Jersey too. New York was an unbelievable place to spar with guys like Shannon Briggs and David Izon, but those days are gone, and I have no idea why because we put on good fights. Okay, most of us were no match for guys like Lewis but isn’t boxing all about competition and good fights? I’ll always remember it as the last great era of heavyweight boxing.”
Although once discontent with his repeated failures as a challenger, McCline, now a successful businessman with political aspirations, outlines how a recent visit to a heavyweight convention afforded him some welcome perspective: “It was a big event that had almost every heavyweight that mattered for the past 30 years and they put all the guys who had won a world title in their own area. That annoyed me and I was angry, but when I took my seat I took a closer look at them, and every guy in there, from guys who even fought me going all the way back to The Spinks brothers, had something wrong with them, whether it be physically, mentally or emotionally. These were guys I shared the ring with. It got me thinking and even though I didn’t win the big one, I came out of tough era with good fighters and I’m better now than I’ve ever been. Previous opponents of mine can’t say the same and I wish those guys all the best in whatever they’re doing.”