WORLD heavyweight champions were once the flag bearers for boxing. Almost mythical figures due to their size and physical gifts, these heavyweight kings were always willing to fight any contender to prove themselves to be the leader of the division.
When I fought and held the Commonwealth and European belts, I had a feeling of invincibility and was prepared to fight any heavyweight in the world.
The landscape is a lot different these days. The world heavyweight championship – if such a thing still exists – now can’t be taken seriously. There are many reasons for that, and time moves on. But as someone who used to compete in an era that is now regarded as one of the division’s best in history, it’s certainly frustrating.
I am often asked questions regarding fights and fighters. These days, the most common of which is: ‘What do you feel about the current heavyweights?’
To answer the question, it is not simply a case of me saying that they are good, or they’re flawed. It is more than that, particularly today. Perhaps it’s too easy to compare today to eras of the past, where there were regular competitive championship fights or one prominent champion at the top. But it shouldn’t matter what division we’re focusing on: A world champion should prove they’re the best at their weight.
Thankfully, we’re seeing that in several other divisions outside heavyweight where the lower weight classes are giving the fans the fights they want to see. Women’s boxing is also setting a high standard, as the best fighters seek out their closest rivals.
At heavyweight, it’s different. The champions tell everyone on social media they want their closest rivals then do something different entirely.
I’m sure plenty of readers can remember the British wrestling that used to take place in the 70s and 80s, which was a staged set, always with a crowd favourite and villain. Grandmothers would grab their handbags and swing them at those we had been conditioned to dislike. In the following decade, WWE rose to prominence in the USA, with wrestlers battling with blood streaming from their head after being walloped with a plank or a chair. It was still staged, but the violence was more real. After a while, you couldn’t tell what was genuine and what was not.
Boxing must be careful that it does not become a complete joke. And it is not only the fighters to blame. The promoters and television networks appear to join in with the antics because it seems to attract bigger numbers, with new supporters emerging from social media. So, in that regard – bigger numbers, new fans – it’s easy to see why the sport is in danger of losing what made it so special in the first place.
Everyone benefits. Apart from the real boxing fans who just yearn to see the best versus the best. One is left to wonder what will become of boxing in years to come, if the social media storylines continue to take precedent over the sport.
Perhaps things are not that different. John L. Sullivan used to declare he could ‘lick any son of a bitch in the house.’ Muhammad Ali called himself the ‘Greatest’. That brash cockiness will always draw attention. But for the words to mean anything, they must be backed up.
Even in my day, there would be athletes from other sports coming over to boxing. Those who fancied their chances. But they learned the game locked away in a boxing gym, away from the public. It was not about posting pictures or videos while they hit a heavy bag and called out a boxer who’d been doing it all their lives.
Back in the 80s and 90s, three fighters who would go on to be recognised as some of the best of all time, Mike Tyson, Lennox Lewis and Evander Holyfield, were among the finest in the division. There were also other great fighters, some held a version of the title, but in such a stacked division, you had to be exceptional to keep hold of your belt. There were contenders who, in another era, would surely have become champion.
Today, there are numerous good fighters at heavyweight and that’s perhaps what makes the current trend all the more frustrating.
So, my opinion on heavyweight champions today is a simple one: They are not fighting the best in their division. Until there are genuine fights, where the challengers are deemed a real threat – and not massive underdogs – it would not be right to pass judgement on their boxing ability or place in history.
Imagine how big boxing would be if those fans whose attention was stolen merely by looking at their social media feeds, then got to see a real fight at the end of it. I want people to be able to see what made boxing so special in the first place.
A world heavyweight champion should mean exactly that. The best in the world. And there’s only one way to prove that.