The battle for undisputed

Lennox Lewis
Action Images/Richard Heathcote
Ronald McIntosh on the history of the undisputed heavyweight championship of the world

THE ideas of lineage, legitimacy and legacy, concepts that are crucial corner posts of the rich history of the Noble Art, have been tossed into turmoil, resulting in a frank exchange of views on social media between Hall of Fame inductee Lennox Lewis and Showtime Boxing, one of the sport’s leading broadcast outlets.

Their opposing outlooks may be summarised thus: Lennox Lewis states that he’s the last man to hold the undisputed heavyweight championship of the world, a widespread view among boxing aficionados and respected publications. Showtime, however, contend that Mike Tyson is the world’s last undisputed heavyweight champion, a perspective also shared by some historians.

And so, once again the sport of boxing and its custodians struggle to find consensus.  Alternative interpretations of the same history have resulted in a standoff as intense as the pre-fight stare-down between Sugar Ray Leonard and Wilfred Benitez.

But closer examination of heavyweight pugilism’s turbulent past reveals that consensus is relatively rare and chaos closer to the norm.

The belt once regarded as the richest prize in sport has been dumped in a dustbin (by Riddick Bowe), awarded retroactively without a title fight taking place (Ken Norton bequeathed the WBC strap), and won by a fighter writhing in agony from a foul (Max Schmelling v Jack Sharkey I). The confusion and lack of clarity and surrounding the man who would be king is perhaps a fair reflection of the splintered nature of the boxing business, which stands at stark odds with the simplicity of the sport.

Showtime’s stance – that Tyson is the last undisputed heavyweight champ by virtue of the fact that he held all of the available belts – also poses some philosophical points for us to ponder.  Does the belt make a champion, the fighter make the belt, or is “the man who beat the man” the rightful ruler of a division?  Is there, should there, be a distinction between a “belt holder” and a “champion”?

In March 1999, I travelled to the boxing Mecca of Madison Square Garden in New York City to watch Lennox Lewis battle Evander Holyfield for the heavyweight championship of the world.  The bout was billed as “Undisputed” by the event promoters, as the victor would be declared as the first undisputed world heavyweight champion since Riddick Bowe some seven years earlier. There were few dissenting voices about the promotional tag line, which adorned the official fight programme and an abundance of associated merchandise.


Ultimately, the fight would be declared a draw, a somewhat contentious verdict where opprobrium centred on the scorecard of judge Eugenia Williams.  Williams scored the fight 115-113 for Holyfield, including what appeared to be a dominant fifth round for Lewis in favour of the “Holy Warrior”.

Seven months later, I was at the Thomas & Mack Centre in Las Vegas to see WBC champion Lewis prevail in the rematch by unanimous decision, thus claiming Holyfield’s WBA and IBF straps to achieve his ambition of becoming the undisputed heavyweight champion of the world (he also had the vacant IBO belt conferred on him after his win). Lewis was even announced as “the Undisputed Heavyweight Champion of the World” by master of ceremonies Jimmy Lennon Jr as he delivered the result.

Showtime, however, declare that Lewis’s win over Holyfield didn’t make him undisputed King of the heavies, because Vitali Klitschko held the WBO belt.

This view significantly alters the course of boxing history and lineage.

The WBO was formed in 1988.  Unlike the IBF – which gained a measure of immediate credibility by recognising Larry Holmes, the lineal champ and world’s best heavyweight, as their first heavyweight titlist in December 1983 shortly after he relinquished the WBC belt following a dispute – the WBO proclaimed that the winner of Francesco Damiani versus South Africa’s Johnny DuPloy would be their inaugural Heavyweight Champion.

Italy’s Damiani, the super-heavyweight Olympic silver medallist from 1984 and European champion, uncorked a combination punctuated by a final left hook to win by a third round kayo and claim the vacant WBO crown in May 1989.  But with Mike Tyson holding the WBC, WBA and IBF belts, Damiani’s WBO title was widely dismissed as an irrelevance.  He was a titlist, but he wasn’t The Champ.

While Showtime’s position is crystal clear, what remains ambiguous is exactly when the WBO belt became a necessary component of the status of being an undisputed champion. Certainly the WBO title has acquired more gravitas over time, especially when one considers some of the outstanding champions who have held the organisation’s title.  But has it been endowed with such authority since its inception?

When Tyson lost to James “Buster” Douglas in February 1990 in Tokyo, in what still ranks among the biggest boxing upsets of all time, was Douglas regarded as anything other than the undisputed heavyweight champion of the world because of the fact that he wasn’t in possession of Damiani’s WBO belt?

Applying Showtime’s perspective to other weight classes, which point should be picked as the genesis of Bernard Hopkins’ reign as undisputed middleweight world champion?  When he stopped Felix Trinidad in the 12th round of their emotionally-charged unification clash in September 2001, or three years and four defences later, when he immobilised Oscar De La Hoya with a body shot to take the Golden Boy’s WBO title, adding them to his WBC, WBA and IBF belts?

Suffice to say, this extrapolation can be applied to every weight class in the sport.  Once it is, then conversations concerning the course of championship history in other divisions become discordant, as well.

But back to the heavyweights, Showtime’s stance also removes other great boxers from the mantle undisputed championship status at a stroke, namely the aforementioned Douglas, Holyfield and Riddick Bowe.

Using empirical evidence, Showtime is correct in that a heavyweight belt existed outside of Lewis’ grasp.  But is applying today’s sensibilities, when the WBO is recognised as a legitimate governing body, to a time when it patently was not, an exercise in revisionism?

Tournament-style boxing has long been regarded as a countermeasure to the confusion created by a profusion of champions.

In 1967, The WBA constructed an eight-man tournament to find their world heavyweight champion after Muhammad Ali was stripped of the title for refusing induction to the US Army as a conscientious objector.  Jimmy Ellis emerged as the WBA champion.  He would go on to be kayoed by Joe Frazier, who finally won universal recognition as the undisputed heavyweight champ when he dropped and defeated Ali in the Fight of the Century in March 1971.

Nearly 20 years later, another heavyweight tournament was created in a bid to crown an undisputed champion.  The brainchild of broadcasters HBO and ebullient promoters Don King and Butch Lewis, a prime Mike Tyson beat Tony “TNT” Tucker in the final to claim Tucker’s IBF Title in August 1987, adding them to his WBC and WBA belts.  Lineal recognition as “the man who beat the man” came in June 1988, when Tyson steamrolled Michael Spinks in just 91 seconds; the end of days for undisputed heavyweight champions, according to Showtime’s assertion.

The World Boxing Super Series is the latest incarnation of a global boxing tournament aiming to bring coherence to the crowded world title scene.

In the cruiserweight division, a singular, undisputed champion will emerge when Oleksandr Usyk and Murat Gassiev do battle later this year.  Anthony Joshua and Joseph Parker contested a heavyweight unification bout in Cardiff, but the undisputed title still remains fractured, as Deontay Wilder is the WBC bigwig.

But which lineage will any newly crowned, undisputed heavyweight champion be a descendent of?  That of Lewis, Holyfield, Bowe, Douglas and Tyson, or the one which currently ends at Kid Dynamite?

With the opposing positions of both Showtime Boxing and Lennox Lewis seemingly firmly entrenched, it appears that anything approaching agreement regarding heavyweight history will be a matter for opinionated discussion and animated debate, rather than definitive facts and categorical conclusions.  Variations of the classic barbershop scene from the movie “Coming to America” look set to be continued for a long time to come.

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