Justice Is Served

September 27, 2009 5:25 PM

Wanted: A heavyweight fans care about

Boxing is a dead sport walking, some people contend. And they might be right if they’re judging the sport on the men who lord over the heavyweight division.

Quick, can you name any of the division’s No. 1 contenders?

Only the most diehard fan can, because the heavyweight division is a mishmash of nameless, faceless palookas that draw yawns from folks who still insist boxing matters.

Think this is an exaggeration? OK, did you know that the WBC champion defended his heavyweight belt Saturday night? Vitali Klitschko fought the tub of Jell-O known as Cris Arreola. No reason to offer details about a fight that nobody noticed. Klitschko fighting anybody wouldn’t fill a middle-school gym unless the promoter gave away most of the tickets.

Making a fight fan fork over cash to watch the bout on pay-per-view television is about as appealing as paying top dollar for box seats to an Indians-Orioles game. Or, more to the sport, paying for ringside seats to see Larry Holmes (old and beyond his fighting weight) and Muhammad Ali (old and in poor health) fight again.

Sentimental value, perhaps; as high art, well … retired fighters in their 60s ought to stay retired.

And plodding fighters like Klitschko need to get out of the sport, too. Then again, he can’t be blamed for what’s happened to the most prestigious division in boxing. Not since Lennox Lewis retired in 2003 has the heavyweight division had a fighter anybody cared about, and even Lewis wasn’t a headliner in the Mike Tyson mold.

This is the nadir of the division. It had a transitional period after Rocky Marciano retired unbeaten in the 1950s and again when Viet Nam-era politics put Ali’s career in limbo during the ’70s. But the sports revived itself; it found new personalities to carry the banner of yesteryear’s greats.

But where are those personalities today? They can’t be found in Klitschko and his brother Wladimir, who combine to hold three of the four heavyweight belts. Before the bout Saturday, the two brothers had beaten two unknowns -- Ruslan Chagaev and Juan Carlos Gomez -- this year.

Did anybody notice those fights? Did the bouts make the SportsCenter highlights? Did they give fight fans things to talk about?

This is not to denigrate the Klitschko brothers. They can’t be faulted for breaking into boxing during a period when the heavyweight championship isn’t the glamorous title it used to be. Nor can they be faulted for being Ukrainian and for not being able to build a following among American fans.

The division might benefit if the Klitschkos played the role of the evil Soviets, stealing a persona that helped pro wrestling thrive: good vs. bad. But the ill-well toward Ukrainians isn’t what it was during the Cold War and when the Soviet Union stood as a threat to Americans.

That threat no longer exists, of course. And a legitimate American threat in the heavyweight division doesn’t exist either. Absent one, the division can’t grab the attention it once held.

That has allowed the smaller weight divisions to take the spotlight. The Juan Miguel Marquez-Floyd Mayweather bout eight days ago packed the MGM Grand and drew one-million buys as a pay-per-view attraction.

Klitschko-Arreola filled nothing, and the bout probably didn't draw a million viewers on cable TV, which is a pity. Then again, maybe the lack of interest in this bout simply proved that a boxer's size never should have been important when judging talent inside the squared circle.

The little men have always put on a great show.

(Photo of Vitali Klitschko by sunshinetrue's photostream)

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