State of the Division: Heavyweight

Photo: Will Hart

Photo: Will Hart

By Eric Raskin

“As the heavyweight division goes, so goes boxing.” It’s an old fight-game bromide that, since Lennox Lewis fought Mike Tyson in 2002 and effectively brought to an end a great heavyweight era (or at least a great American heavyweight era), has been proven partially true. On the one hand, while the heavyweight division was slogging through several of its least interesting years ever, smaller fighters like Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao picked up the slack and set box-office records. On the other hand, with conversation about heavyweight boxing on the decline, the sport has steadily, with each passing year, continued its slide further from mainstream relevance in the United States.

Now, boxing’s most historically glamorous division finds itself at an inflection point. As Wladimir Klitschko — the most dominant figure of the post-Lewis-Tyson era — readies to take on Anthony Joshua — the most promising figure of the new era — on April 29, the stage is set for a new generation to take over and maybe, just maybe, return heavyweight boxing to some semblance of its former glory. This could be a passing of the torch that ushers in a series of fights between big men that we’ll be telling our grandkids about.

But it could also be exactly the opposite. The torch might stay firmly in the grasp of a 41-year-old future Hall of Famer, and fight fans eager for the next big thing would be left to watch their hopes set ablaze.

Here’s a look at who’s who in the only weight class without a weight limit, on the eve of the ultimate crossroads clash:

The Inactive Champion: Tyson Fury

Photo: Hennessy Sports

Photo: Hennessy Sports

Let’s get the elephant in the room (no weight jokes, please) out of the way first. Fury beat Klitschko in November 2015. It was ugly, but it was effective, and it made the 6’9” scrapper from the UK the one, true heavyweight champion of the world. But he hasn’t fought since. Fury has struggled publicly with mental health issues and drug issues. He was going to rematch Klitschko, then he wasn’t. He was retired, and now he isn’t — or so he says. Since he appears to be well over 300 pounds in recent photographs, it might be a while before Fury (25-0, 18 KOs) is ready to box again. He’s only 28 years old; there’s certainly time for him to get his head on straight and return to the title picture. But for the moment, Fury is little more than an asterisk as the division moves forward without him.

The Aging Great: Wladimir Klitschko

The Hall of Fame bonafides of the Ukrainian veteran of more than two decades in the pro game are beyond debate. He encountered one of the weakest heavyweight talent pools ever, yes, but he ruled over it for a ridiculously long time and, after being written off in 2004 following his third TKO defeat, rattled off a 22-fight winning streak that lasted more than 10 years. But he just turned 41 and hasn’t fought in 17 months, and, though Fury’s awkwardness is partially to blame, Klitschko (64-4, 53 KOs) looked truly terrible in dropping the title. He simply couldn’t pull the trigger. If he beats Joshua, a man who won Olympic gold 16 years after Wladimir did, it could go down as the defining win of his career. It could also go down as the fight that puts that career, and the era of the Klitschko brothers, to bed.

The Potential Savior: Anthony Joshua

Photo: Lawrence Lustig

Photo: Lawrence Lustig

If you were designing the next super-duper-star heavyweight boxer in a lab, you might very well come up with a prototype that resembles Joshua. Standing 6’6”, weighing just under 250 pounds, chiseled, handsome, articulate, charismatic … and, oh yeah, he can box a little and punch a lot. Joshua (18-0, 18 KOs) is drawing enormous crowds in England, and while he still has plenty to prove in the ring at age 27, when stepping up slightly against fringe contenders like Kevin Johnson, Charles Martin, Dominic Breazeale, and Eric Molina, he’s taken care of business easily. The Klitschko fight at Wembley Stadium represents a massive leap in pedigree. But it’s indicative of how impressive “AJ” has been so far that he’s more than a 2-1 favorite to win.

The Disgraced Veteran: Alexander Povetkin

Photo: Will Hart

Photo: Will Hart

Maybe the best non-Klitschko heavyweight of the post-Lewis, pre-Joshua years, Russian former beltholder Povetkin’s future is now as murky as Fury’s. The 37-year-old failed not one but two drug tests in the past year, scuttling bouts with both Deontay Wilder and Bermane Stiverne. Povetkin’s record of 31-1, 23 KOs, is impressive; the only loss was to Wladimir Klitschko in 2013, while wins have come over the likes of Chris Byrd, Ruslan Chagaev, Carlos Takam, and Mike Perez. The problem is, nobody knows if Povetkin was clean and how legit those results were. He’s currently barred from fighting for certain sanctioning body titles and, as capable a fighter as he is, it’s conceivable that he won’t ever have another fight of real significance again.

The Lurking Beast: Luis Ortiz

Photo: Golden Boy Promotions

Photo: Golden Boy Promotions

He might be a little old, at 38, for “next big thing” consideration, but Ortiz, who only turned pro seven years ago after escaping his native Cuba, is nevertheless on the short list of fighters with a chance to rule this division in the immediate future. His seventh-round knockout of Bryant Jennings in 2015 was eye-opening, and a sixth-round destruction of Tony Thompson in his next fight offered confirmation. “King Kong” found an unlikely Godzilla, however, in the form of Malik Scott’s stink-‘em-out style, and his stock dropped with each passing round of a dreadful distance fight. Still, Ortiz (27-0, 23 KOs, 2 no-contests) is a heavy-handed southpaw with skill, and the next top heavyweight contender who calls him out will be the first.

The Polarizing Puncher: Deontay Wilder

Depending on where you sit, Wilder is either the most scintillating or the most carefully matched American heavyweight up-and-comer in a couple of decades. The 2008 Olympic bronze medalist is now 31 and presumably about as good as he’s going to get, so hopefully answers are coming soon. Wilder (38-0, 37 KOs) boxed effectively in his step-up fight against Bermane Stiverne a little over two years ago, but ever since, he’s struggled more than expected against middling opponents — before ultimately locating his punch and knocking them down and out. If they can both remain undefeated, Wilder vs. Joshua could be the biggest cross-continental fight the division has seen since the then-record-setting Lewis-Tyson showdown.

The Other Young Gun: Joseph Parker

At only 25 years of age, undefeated, and boasting an 82 percent knockout rate, Parker should theoretically be as a big a deal as Joshua, Wilder, and Ortiz right now. But there’s just something about him that makes him a less sexy choice to get behind. The 6-foot-4 Kiwi’s step-up fights have been a mixed bag: impressive third-round knockouts of Kali Meehan and Alexander Dimitrenko, mildly disappointing narrow decision wins over Carlos Takam and Andy Ruiz. Parker (22-0, 18 KOs) is, for now, the other guy to keep in the back of your mind. But he’s such a well-rounded prospect that it should shock no one if he turns out to be the centerpiece of the next heavyweight era.

Also In The Conversation:

Kubrat Pulev, Carlos Takam, Andy Ruiz, Dillian Whyte, Tony Bellew

Cotto Destroys Rodriguez in Three

by Kieran Mulvaney

Delvin Rodriguez, Miguel Cotto - Photo Credit: Will Hart

The career obituaries for Miguel Cotto have surfaced periodically since 2008, when the possibly tainted fists of Antonio Margarito sent him to his first professional defeat, sixteen months before Manny Pacquiao bludgeoned him into his second career reversal. Back-to-back losses to Floyd Mayweather and Austin Trout last year saw the tombstone carvers readying their chisels anew, but by stopping Delvin Rodriguez just 18 seconds into the third round on Saturday night, Cotto proved, and not for the first time, that rumors of his professional demise remain greatly exaggerated.

Even at the relatively young age of 32 -- a figure that beggars belief, given how many years he has been fighting at an elite level -- Cotto’s career is far closer to its denouement than its apogee, and he would surely admit as much; but judging from his performance in front of an adoring crowd in Orlando, there’s plenty more life in it yet.

Read the Complete Miguel Cotto vs. Delvin Rodriguez Fight Recap at HBO.com

Klitschko Dominates A Game Povetkin

by Nat Gottlieb

The really scary part about Wladimir Klitschko’s destruction of Alexander Povetkin on Saturday is that last month Dr. Steelhammer called the Russian fighter “the best opponent I’ve ever had.” If that’s true, then perhaps the only one who will ever beat the long-standing Ukrainian champion is Father Time. And even that fight looks like it would be a tossup.

Povetkin, the former Olympic Gold winner and unbeaten heavyweight, fought a game, aggressive fight, but Klitschko adapted well an inflicted a sloppy beat-down on the Russian to earn a huge, one-sided defeat, with all three judges scoring it 119-104 before a sell-out crowd at the Olimpiyskiy Arena in Moscow. Povetkin, who had never had tasted canvas in 132 amateur fights and 26 as a professional, was knocked down four times by Klitschko, once in the second round and three times in the seventh.

For those keeping score, Povetkin is the 19th straight opponent Klitschko has beaten in defense of his heavyweight titles, a streak dating back seven years to 2006. Klitschko is the second longest-standing heavyweight champion in history. Only Joe Louis, who reigned for 11 years between 1937 and 1949, held the title longer. 

Read the Complete Wladimir Klitschko vs. Alexander Povetkin Fight Recap on HBO.com.

Bragging Rights and Title Belts on the Line as Russia Meets Ukraine

by Kieran Mulvaney

For better or for worse, boxing – and particularly the heavyweight championship of the world – has often featured as a proxy for broader battles, struggles being waged in social, political and even military arenas far outside the ring.

There was, notably, Jack Johnson having to chase Tommy Burns all the way to Australia to become the first black heavyweight champion; former champ James Jeffries coming out of retirement in a failed attempt to reclaim the title for the white race; Joe Louis facing German Max Schmeling one year before the outbreak of war in Europe; and Muhammad Ali colliding with Joe Frazier for the first time in 1971, in a fight that split the country down the middle.

To American viewers, Saturday’s contest between heavyweight champion Wladimir Klitschko and mandatory challenger Alexander Povetkin carries no such extracurricular drama. But far to the east, where the contest will be taking place, there are some definite undercurrents. Klitschko, accustomed to being the hometown favorite on his adopted German soil, will be in hostile territory as he walks to the ring in Moscow to face Russia's Povetkin. Willingly or otherwise, Povetkin and Ukrainian Klitschko will be carrying the hopes and fervor of two nations that have had, and continue to have, a complex and intertwined relationship that reaches back hundreds of years.

Given that history – in which Ukraine has at various times been partitioned and fought over by Russia and other neighboring powers, and was incorporated into the Soviet Union between 1922 and 1991 – Moscow is often seen as the bully in the relationship; but it is Kiev’s standard-bearer who will be heavily favored to throw his weight around on Saturday.

Klitschko's mid-career hiccups have long disappeared into the rear-view mirror; he is closing in on 10 years unbeaten since his shocking loss to Lamon Brewster in Las Vegas. Under the guidance of the late Emanuel Steward, he corrected his defensive flaws and emphasized his strengths: he fights tall, as a 6'6" man should, softening up his opponents with a thudding left jab that blinds as well as hurts and leaves his foes vulnerable to the steel hammer right hand that gives Klitschko his nickname. Meanwhile, he keeps his historically troublesome chin tucked far out of range. The result has been 18 straight wins since the Brewster debacle—15 of which have been a title challenge or defense—of which only four have lasted the distance. Klitschko is a king at the height of his pomp.

There was a time when Povetkin seemed the most serious potential challenge to that reign. An accomplished amateur (and the 2004 Olympic gold medalist), he truly announced himself as a professional in 2007 and 2008, with consecutive victories over American veterans Larry Donald, Chris Byrd and Eddie Chambers. That trio of scalps elevated his record to 15-0 and made him Klitschko's mandatory, but he withdrew from that challenge due to injury, and from a rescheduled appointment because his new trainer, Teddy Atlas, determined that he needed more seasoning. Since then, his outings have been infrequent and his opposition rarely inspiring; still, he remains undefeated and, courtesy of boxing politics, has picked up a title belt in the process.

Atlas, though no longer his trainer, has picked Povetkin to knock Klitschko out; to do so, the Russian will have to work his way under Klitschko's jab, slip inside and fire away with combinations. It is a plan that many have sought to execute, but none have succeeded in doing in almost 10 years. If Povetkin were to be successful, it might not have quite the social and political repercussions as some of history's legendary matchups, but it would send significant shockwaves through the world of heavyweight boxing.

Crawford Isn't Fishing for Compliments, but He's Getting Them Anyway

by Kieran Mulvaney

Some boxers are more accustomed than others to the routine of answering an interviewer's questions. Naturally outgoing and expansive, they're more than ready to share the details of their life. Ricky Hatton was a journalist's dream: an open book, he rarely seemed to take life seriously and would often leave his audience in stitches as he cracked jokes and regaled them with tales of his life outside of boxing.

At the other end of the scale are the quieter types, more circumspect in their responses, answering what is asked and little more. Terence Crawford fits into that box, not out of a lack of friendliness, but more as a product of Midwestern reticence when speaking about oneself. Until, that is, the moment his features break into a wide grin, when he is asked if there is anything about him that boxing fans would find surprising.

"Oh man," he smiles. "I love to fish. That's one thing that I've been doing since I was probably five years old. River fishing, lake fishing, pond fishing, everywhere fishing," he expounds. "I just love to fish." He demurs with a laugh when it is suggested he may want to compare notes with Gennady Golovkin, the middleweight champion who had earlier confided his own love of the same activity. Perhaps they could arrange a fishing trip to Kazakhstan. "I don't know that I want to go all the way out there," he chuckles.

Crawford comes across as the kind of young man who just likes to get on with his job, and to do what he does best, which is boxing with impressive skill for a relatively inexperienced professional. His dismantling of Breidis Prescott on the undercard of Mike Alvarado's March win over Brandon Rios earned rave reviews; and as he prepares to make his third HBO appearance of 2013 – against undefeated Andrey Klimov – on Saturday, it is clear he has the full and enthusiastic backing of his promoter, Bob Arum.

Unsurprisingly, he does not get carried away by the praise he has received for his wins against Prescott and, in June, Alejandro Sanabria.

"I felt like, you know, I was overdue," he says. "I felt like I should have [already] been in the spotlight, but I waited my time and my time is here and I'm going to make the most of it." He concedes that, "it feels great to have those kinds of people believe in me, like I believe in myself," but he doesn't feel compelled to say too much about it.

Instead, he'll save the bulk of his talking for where it counts: in the ring.

Read the Complete Quick Hits: Terence Crawford at HBO.com.

 

CompuBox Analysis: Cotto vs. Rodriguez

by CompuBox

When Miguel Cotto turned pro in 2001, he was christened as the second coming of Felix Trinidad, especially when one compared their deadly left hooks. But in the 12 years since then Cotto has created his own legend that may land him in the International Boxing Hall of Fame one day.

Back-to-back defeats to Floyd Mayweather and Austin Trout as well as a career-long 309-day layoff certifies that Cotto is now in the sunset of his career. But before Cotto's in-ring presence dips below the horizon he still has business in hand, for on Saturday he will face Dominican veteran Delvin Rodriguez in Cotto's adopted home base of Florida.

The longtime welterweight contender has fought his last five fights at 154 and at 33 he is seven months older chronologically. His ring age, however, may well be younger for while he's taken his lumps in terms of blemishes on his record (several of which were undeserved), he's never taken the sustained beatings Cotto did. Will that fact, however, translate inside the ring? Will Rodriguez's younger 33 be enough to beat Cotto's older 32 or will Cotto's superior elite experience turn back Rodriguez's ambition?

Statistical factors that may influence the outcome are:

Read the Conplete CompuBox Analysis of Cotto vs. Rodriguez on HBO.com.

Read the Conplete CompuBox Analysis of Crawford vs. Klimov on HBO.com.

Read the Conplete CompuBox Analysis of Klitschko vs. Povetkin on HBO.com.

CompuBox Analysis: Klitschko vs. Povetkin

by CompuBox

Like it or not, Wladimir Klitschko may well be among the greatest heavyweight champions who has yet lived. If longevity and dominance over his era are any indicator, he should rank highly on many historian's lists. But because he's not American and because his knockouts are preceded by long stretches of clinical boxing his accomplishments haven't been embraced, especially in the U.S. But the numbers speak highly for him.

* His current seven year, five month reign is now second on the all-time list behind Joe Louis' 11 year 8 months. Larry Holmes, at seven years three months, is now third.

* He is now 21-2 (17 KO) in title competition.

* He hasn't lost a fight in nearly 10 years and has gone 18-0 (13 KO) in that time.

* His 14 consecutive defenses thus far ranks only behind Joe Louis (25) and Holmes (20) and if one adds his five WBO defenses between 2000 and 2003 his 19 ranks him third all-time, tied with Muhammad Ali's 19 in two reigns. Given the current crop it appears that "Dr. Steelhammer" can rule for as long as he pleases.

However, Klitschko is facing a test in WBA "regular" titlist Alexander Povetkin, who is undefeated in 26 fights and has been looking good as of late. Still, a Povetkin victory over the 37-year-old Klitschko would rank as a monstrous upset but stranger things have happened in boxing.

Statistical factors that may influence the outcome are:

Read the Conplete CompuBox Analysis of Cotto vs. Rodriguez on HBO.com.

Read the Conplete CompuBox Analysis of Crawford vs. Klimov on HBO.com.

Read the Conplete CompuBox Analysis of Klitschko vs. Povetkin on HBO.com.

Plucked from Obscurity, Crawford Makes His Presence Felt at Lightweight

by Hamilton Nolan

Terence Crawford (21-0) may well be the best lightweight in the world. Which is funny, because two fights ago, few people even knew who Terence Crawford was--and they still wouldn’t had Breidis Prescott’s scheduled opponent not injured himself just before their fight last March, allowing Crawford to step up from an undercard spot to fill in. He ended up dominating Prescott, and making the entire boxing world do a double-take. Now, he’s probably one fight away from a world title shot.

Crawford was a talented amateur and a 2008 Olympic team alternate, but his pro career was off to an uninspired start, and he seemed destined to have years more of undercard slogs ahead of him before he might actually land on HBO. That all changed when he used fast feet, intelligence, and strategic aggression to outbox the much taller and more highly regarded Prescott, who spent the night resembling a helpless giant under attack from an angry hornet. Crawford’s speed and power are both above average, if not superlative; what most sets him apart is his skill, and his ability to take control of fights and never let go. He uses offense as defense, putting just enough punches on his opponent to ensure that he stays on his heels, and using slick footwork to stay out of trouble. Crawford is hardly a Mayweather-esque flitting fly, however--in June, he handily TKO’d Alejandra Sanabria in six, in a sterling show of sharp punching that built round by round until it became unbearable. The lightweight division is characterized by action fighters. What sets Crawford apart is his ability to combine action with control.

His opponent, Andrey Klimov (16-0), is coming off a decision win over the fading puncher John Molina four months ago. Klimov, a Russian, fights in the starchy Eastern European style: high guard and straight ahead punching. He is tough, but not a noted power puncher. Crawford, with his lateral movement, in-and-out footwork, and sharp jab, should be able to box circles around Klimov, who will doubtless be looking to land a power punch that will turn the tide right from the opening bell.

Should Crawford win, the division is wide open to him. The British champ Ricky Burns waits on the horizon. It still sounds odd to say, considering Crawford’s relatively paltry pro pedigree, but an impressive showing against Klimov would probably guarantee that he’d be favored over any other lightweight in the world, champ or not. It’s a boxing dream story, so far. Now he just has to make it a reality.