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
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
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
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
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