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 must make way for the new. Once great kings are swept aside by the challenge of bold young usurpers; years later the new ruler will inevitably be unseated by a similarly brash, younger upstart. As 2016 begins to unfold, we are startled to find that a new era of the heavyweights is upon us.
“I shook up the world! I shook up the world!” screamed a 22-year-old Cassius Marcellus Clay, barely able to contain himself after seizing the world title from heavyweight king Sonny Liston in February of 1964. Standing next to Clay at the unforgettable moment was former heavyweight champion Joe Louis, the legendary “Brown Bomber.”
Once considered unbeatable, Louis had ruled a bygone era, his 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. Even so, he eventually succumbed to the passage of time and gave up his crown after a final championship victory over Jersey Joe Walcott. Tempted out of retirement in 1950, he was first beaten on points by successor Ezzard Charles before being blasted out of the ring by a young Rocky Marciano.
For his part in the heavyweight saga, Marciano was one of few 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 just the second ever heavyweight champion to walk away for good while still at the top, the other being Gene Tunney who had retired in 1928. In 1904, heavyweight James J. Jeffries had also retired as undefeated champion, but he had been coaxed back into the ring six years later to face new ruler Jack Johnson, and was stopped in the fifteenth round of a one-sided battering.
Now, as the new champion, Clay, loudly reveled in his great upset win, it was Sonny Liston’s turn to pass the baton – or rather, to have it wrenched from his grasp, just as he had wrenched it away from Marciano’s successor, Floyd Patterson, in a single, brutal round. The exuberant new king hailed himself as the greatest of all time. “I can’t be beat!” he shouted, as Louis, standing next to him, smiled.
While he may have been right in the first instance, Clay – or Muhammad Ali, as he soon became known – was wrong in the second. His time to surrender the torch to a younger, fiercer lion would eventually come too, as it always does, Marciano and Tunney notwithstanding. After one of the most amazing careers in the history of sports, Ali’s end would 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 37 years of age, but he could not stay away for long. Less than two years later, like Louis and Jeffries, he was 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 Larry Holmes, a man who, in his younger days, had functioned as a mere sparring partner for “The Greatest.”
Holmes would also go on to establish himself as one of the finest champions of the heavyweight ring, notching 20 consecutive lineal title defenses and coming within a whisker of matching Rocky Marciano’s mystical, undefeated 49 fight record. He was denied his 49th consecutive win in 1985 when he ceded the heavyweight lineage by decision to light-heavyweight champion Michael Spinks. “If you really want to get technical about the whole thing,” a disappointed Holmes quipped after the fight, “Rocky couldn’t carry my jockstrap.” He would drop a second close decision to Spinks in April of the following year after which many thought they had seen the last of “The Easton Assassin.”
“It’s over. That’s all. And we, have a new era, in boxing.”
Just over six months later, the poignant words of Barry Tompkins heralded a new dawn. 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 devastated 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 face Tyson in January of 1988. In fact, Tyson had a score to settle. The day after Muhammad Ali’s battering at the hands of Holmes in 1980, trainer Cus D’Amato passed the phone over to a distraught 14-year-old Tyson. 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 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 lineal title, the championship which stretched back through Holmes to Ali, Marciano, Louis, Tunney and beyond. In June 1988, Tyson’s emphatic 91 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 unheralded Buster Douglas took the undisputed championship from Tyson, and seven years to the day that Evander Holyfield had lost the title 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 consolidated the divergent bloodlines once again. There was only one man 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 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.”
Two issues prevented Vitali Klitschko from claiming supremacy of that new era. 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. And 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 Emanuel 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, 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 39, 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: 27 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 former heavyweight champ, Lennox Lewis. History, it seemed, had found a way of repeating itself.
“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.” 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. Now, 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 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,” retorted the American, “when you do step in this ring, I will baptize you!”
It’s impossible to predict with any certainty which of the current heavyweights will go on to carve out the most dominant reign and take his 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. — Matt O’Brien