The Heavyweight Championship: Dawn of a New Era
An edited version of this article was published on TheFightCity.com on February 5th, 2016. Thanks to Michael Carbert, Editor-in-Chief, for his help and patience in producing and publishing the edited version: http://www.thefightcity.com/dawn-of-a-new-era-joe-louis-rocky-marciano-muhammad-ali-mike-tyson-larry-holmes-tyson-fury-heavyweights/
Boxing is a cyclical sport. No matter how dominant, fearsome or skilled a reigning champion may seem at the height of his powers, sooner or later the old guard is forced to make way for the new. Once great kings are swept aside by the challenge of bold young pretenders; years later the new ruler will inevitably be usurped by a similarly brash, younger upstart. As we make our way into a new year, the transition into a new heavyweight era is upon us.
“I shook up the world! I shook up the world!” screamed a twenty-two-year-old Cassius Marcellus Clay, barely able to contain himself after seizing the world title from heavyweight king Sonny Liston, in February 1964. Standing next to Clay was former heavyweight champion, “The Brown Bomber”, Joe Louis.
Once considered unbeatable, Louis had ruled a bygone era, his heavyweight reign stretching longer than any other in the sport’s storied history. For eleven years and twenty-five defences the title could not be wrested from his hands: a record that still stands today. Nevertheless, he had eventually succumb to the inevitable sands of time and been forced to pass on the baton to the next generation. Tempted out of retirement in 1950, two years after relinquishing his crown, he was first beaten on points by successor Ezzard Charles and later blasted out of the ring by a young Rocky Marciano.
For his part in the heavyweight saga, Marciano was one of few men to defy father time and the cycle of nature. He retired undefeated in September 1956 after six defences with the title still in his possession, forgoing the temptation to return. He became the second ever heavyweight champion in history to do so – the other being Gene Tunney, in 1928. (In 1904, heavyweight James J. Jeffries had also retired as undefeated champion, but had been coaxed back into the ring six years later to face new ruler Jack Johnson, and was stopped in the fifteenth of a scheduled forty-five rounds.)
Now, having ripped the title from Marciano’s successor Floyd Patterson in a single, brutal round, it was Sonny Liston’s turn to pass the baton – or rather, to have it wrenched from his grasp. The new claimant to the throne hailed himself as the greatest of all time; “I can’t be beat” boasted Clay, with Louis smiling meekly, wisely, next to him.
Clay – or Muhammad Ali, as he later became known – may have been right in the first instance, but he was wrong in the second. His time to surrender the torch to a younger, fiercer lion would eventually come too, as it always did (the rare exceptions of Marciano and Tunney notwithstanding). After one of the most amazing careers in the history of sports, his ending would sadly mirror that of the great Louis.
After losing the title to seven-fight novice Leon Spinks in 1978 and regaining it in their immediate rematch, Ali retired as champion at thirty-seven years of age – but he was unable to replicate Tunney and Marciano’s accomplishment. Less than two years later, like Louis and Jeffries, he was also lured back into the ring for another chance to reclaim his old throne, but was similarly repelled by the brutal honesty of nature. He was dominated and stopped in ten rounds by a man who, in his younger days, had acted as a mere sparring partner for “the Greatest” – Larry Holmes.
Holmes would also go on to establish himself as one of the finest champions of the heavyweight ring, notching twenty consecutive lineal title defenses and coming within a whisker of matching Marciano’s mystical, undefeated forty-nine fight record. In his forty-ninth fight, Holmes was denied the accolade at the last hurdle, losing on points and ceding the heavyweight lineage to former light-heavyweight champion, Michael Spinks. “If you really want to get technical about the whole thing, Rocky couldn’t carry my jockstrap”, a disappointed Holmes infamously quipped after the fight.
In fact, though the great Ali had passed the baton to Holmes in their 1980 battle, his career did not end there, as it should have. As Louis had done thirty years before him, Ali returned to the ring again in 1981 for one last shot at the glory he had once known. In a disastrous final outing, he was beaten over ten long, tragic rounds by Trevor Berbick.
“It’s over. That’s all. And we, have a new era, in boxing.”
Almost thirty years ago, on a historic November night under the bright lights of Las Vegas in 1986, the poignant words of Barry Tompkins heralded the dawn of the latest era in heavyweight boxing. A young, irrepressible force by the name of Mike Tyson had just blown aside WBC heavyweight champion Trevor Berbick in two frightening rounds. Within two years Tyson had desecrated the division, solidifying his status as undisputed champion.
Following another narrow points defeat to Spinks in their rematch, Larry Holmes had gone into a two-year retirement before returning to meet the new king of the heavyweight castle, Mike Tyson, in January 1988. Tyson had a score to settle: The day after Muhammad Ali’s battering at the hands of Holmes in 1980, a distraught fourteen-year-old Tyson had been handed the phone by his trainer, Cus D’Amato. It was Muhammad Ali. Tyson reportedly told his idol, “When I grow up, I’ll fight Holmes and I’ll get him back for you”.
Standing in the ring prior to the Holmes fight, Tyson later claimed that Ali had whispered in his ear, “Remember what you said – get him for me”. Holmes was viciously knocked out in the fourth round.
At this point, Michael Spinks had already been stripped of the IBF title he won from Larry Holmes, but he had never been defeated in the ring. So while Tyson now held all of the sanctioning belts, it was Spinks who carried the intangible, and arguably more valuable, lineage stretching back through Holmes to Ali, Marciano, Louis, Tunney and beyond. In June 1988, Tyson’s emphatic ninety-one second demolition of Spinks therefore embodied the closing of disparate timelines and the fusion of divergent claims to that historical crown. The cycle was complete again.
A few weeks later and a few thousand miles away on the opposite side of the Atlantic, a father and proud fighting man by the name of John Fury witnessed the birth of his newborn son. He named him “Tyson”.
“I knew I had the heavyweight champion of the world. I didn’t know when; I didn’t know where. But I just knew I had him”, Fury recently claimed.
“Say it and believe it!” exclaimed Sky Sports commentator, Ian Darke. “Britain has an undisputed world heavyweight champion for the first time this century, in the last fight of the century.”
It was November 1999, a decade since Tyson had lost the undisputed championship to the unheralded Buster Douglas, and exactly seven years to the day that Evander Holyfield lost the championship he took from Douglas to Riddick Bowe. After defeating Holyfield, Bowe had fractured the unified titles by refusing to defend against the next mandatory challenger, Lennox Lewis – instead dumping his WBC belt into a rubbish bin. Now, following a crazy, brilliant period of 90s heavyweight boxing in which a myriad of pretenders laid claim to various portions of the throne, Lewis’ victory over Holyfield had consolidated the divergent bloodlines once again. There was only one name left for him to beat.
In April 1984 Lennox Lewis and Mike Tyson had sparred, with Tyson’s trainer Cus D’Amato predicting the two would one day meet for the sports greatest prize. In June 2002, the prophecy finally came true. The Tyson era that Tompkins had once so eloquently announced to the world was conclusively put to bed as “Iron Mike” was felled in the eighth round by a huge Lewis right hand and the bleeding, forlorn shadow of the once terrifying “Baddest Man on the Planet” was counted out by referee Eddie Cotton.
“I like to profit by other’s mistakes, and if Joe Louis couldn’t make a successful comeback, I will not try it”, Rocky Marciano had told the press at his retirement speech in 1956. Half a century later, opting wisely to profit from the words of Marciano and the harsh lessons dished out to Louis, Ali and Holmes, Lennox Lewis walked away from the sport after a final, brutal title defence in which he was rocked and shaken by challenger Vitali Klitschko, before the Ukrainian giant was stopped due to horrific facial cuts.
“I am proud to have been recognized as the best heavyweight of my time; a distinction which links me with great boxers like Jack Johnson, Jack Dempsey, Joe Louis, Muhammad Ali, and Larry Holmes” declared Lewis, as he announced his retirement from the sport, in February 2004. “Let the new era begin.”
Unsurprisingly given the strength of his showing against Lewis, Vitali Klitschko became one of the major contenders to inherit the throne upon Lewis’ retirement, later winning the vacant WBC title. There were two issues preventing Vitali from succeeding the undisputed heavyweight lineage from Lewis though. The first, common to the modern era of boxing, was that the numerous title belts had fractured again since Lewis had unified them in 1999; the second, unprecedented in the history of heavyweight boxing, was that his main rival for the throne was his own brother.
Since they had sworn never to fight one another, Vitali and Wladimir Klitschko reigned concurrently as holders of separate belts: Vitali the WBC champion; his younger brother Wladimir capturing the WBO and later the IBF and WBA titles. Both will go down in history as legitimate heavyweight champions. Yet it was the younger brother Wladimir who went on to establish the strongest claim as the true successor to Lennox Lewis. His second tenure as champion began in 2006, after teaming up with Lewis’ former trainer, the great Emmanuel Steward.
Ten years and eighteen successful title defences later, Wladimir had by now erased the doubts of his earlier knockout losses. With the retirement of Vitali in 2012, he was considered the defacto undisputed king (despite never capturing the WBC portion of the crown vacated by his brother) and had inserted himself alongside Larry Holmes and just behind Joe Louis on the list of longest reigning heavyweight champs in history. Defending in his adopted home of Germany, even at the age of thirty-nine, almost no one thought that the king would surrender his throne to a loud-mouthed “Gypsy Warrior” from England. But fate does not bow to the knowledge of boxing experts.
And so it was that the torch was passed again: twenty-seven years after his namesake demolished Michael Spinks, Tyson Fury etched his own name into the annals of boxing history, ending Klitschko’s long reign and vindicating the prediction of a proud father.
The new champion collected his belts and celebrated with his family-run team in the middle of the ring, as the world waited for his post-fight interview. Standing next to Fury with a microphone in his hand was none other than former heavyweight champ, Lennox Lewis. History, it seemed, had found a way of repeating itself again.
“I’ve said some stupid things about Lennox Lewis in the past” announced Fury. “But you know it was all tongue-in-cheek. You’re a great champion, and there’s my hand” he continued, addressing Lewis directly. Lewis, smiling, graciously accepted the handshake of the new king. Half a century earlier, when Joe Louis stood by, Cassius Clay had screamed uncontrollably and told the world how great he was. Fury took the microphone and sang a love ballad to his wife, with a dejected Klitschko camp looking on.
“I hope to have many more defences of these titles in the future… and if I can be half as good a champion as Wladimir Klitschko, I’d be very, very happy” Fury stated, magnanimously, at the post-fight press conference.
Weeks later, in a short video feature presented by the BBC at their “Sports Personality of the Year” award ceremony, the new king reflected philosophically on his title-winning victory:
“Past champions are like names in the sand. One day, they’re gone. Wladimir Klitschko is gone. It’s my time now.”
Whether Fury’s legacy is destined to echo the likes of long-reigning greats such as Muhammad Ali, Joe Louis and Larry Holmes remains to be seen. First of all, he must take care of a contracted rematch with the former champ; then he can turn his attention to the rival claimants for the undisputed throne, with undefeated WBC belt-holder Deontay Wilder a natural opponent from across the Atlantic.
“Anytime, anyplace, anywhere!” yelled Fury at his WBC rival, after clambering into the ring to confront Wilder following his most recent victory. “I promise you: when you do step in this ring, I will baptize you!” retorted the American, fueling the fires for a potential future showdown.
It’s impossible to predict with any amount of certainty which of them will go on to carve out the most dominant reign and take their rightful place among the legends. One thing is certain though: Fury’s victory over Klitschko signaled the dawn of a new era, and the next cycle of boxing’s heavyweight kings has begun anew.