Heavyweights - by Don Stradley

Trying to explain the declining presence of American heavyweights is like trying to explain the disappearance of the dinosaurs. There are plenty of theories, but like all vanishings and extinctions, it seemed to have happened gradually and then all at once.

It wasn’t that long ago that Americans were still a factor among the big men. During the early 2000s, such Americans as Hasim Rahman, John Ruiz, Roy Jones Jr., Lamon Brewster, and Shannon Briggs, had brief, uneventful turns with different alphabet belts. Chris Byrd had an admirable run with the IBF title (2002 - 2006), but his loss to Wlad Klitschko more or less marked the beginning of an American dry spell now in its sixth year. Of course, some would say that if the Klitchko brothers didn’t exist, an American heavyweight might have grabbed a title belt by now. But would boxing be in a better place if Calvin Brock, “The Boxing Banker,” won a title? That’s doubtful.

The answer given by lazy pundits is that the nation’s best big men have gravitated towards American football, where the money is better, and college scholarships more enticing. But the football theory is too glib. Football attracts most of its players from a working or middle class background; boxing has always been the sport of the poor. Perhaps the social and ethnic groups that used to go into boxing have improved their lots and are now going into “America’s game,” as football is sometimes called. But that still doesn’t explain why there are so few American heavyweights that Tony Thompson, kayoed by Klitschko in 2008, is scheduled for a rematch this summer.

To understand why the American heavyweight is so close to extinction, perhaps we should consider where they came from in the first place. From the 1940s through the 1990s, the majority of American heavyweights were from poor black neighborhoods in urban areas, or from the deep South. So what happened to those areas? Crack is what happened. Drugs and crime ravaged the cities where future heavyweights may have existed. This writer doesn’t think our heavyweights are on the football fields; they are more likely behind bars or under the ground.

By the time the next generation was of age, boxing was off the radar. American television’s major networks had all but abandoned boxing, partly because of the stigma associated with Mike Tyson’s antics, and partly because of the influx of Mexican fighters - sponsors wouldn’t buy ad time on shows where the fighters, or the audience, didn’t speak English. Golf and car racing programs grabbed all of the top advertisers, and boxing was relegated to pay cable channels, unlike the 1970s and 1980s when it had been on the free networks. Tyson, the most visible heavyweight, did most of his fighting on HBO or pay-per-view, which prevented the poorest kids from seeing him fight, the very kids that might have gone into boxing.

Another factor, rarely considered, was America ‘s growing success in amateur wrestling, with Greco-Roman practitioner Rulan Gardner winning a gold medal at the 2000 Olympics. Gardner’s sensational win (over a Russian who’d been undefeated in 13 years of international competition) no doubt boosted amateur wrestling programs throughout America, especially since a grappling background seemed an entry to mixed martial arts, which was beginning its phenomenal rise in America. As boxing coverage dwindled, many American youths turned to rolling around in a dojo.

As these changes were occurring in America, a number of good heavyweights from countries like Ukraine and Russia began to appear like strange new animals emerging after the Ice Age. Faster than you could say “Tony Tubbs,” our clumsy heavyweights were being outjabbed by guys whose names we couldn’t spell or pronounce.

Finally, boxing has always been a way for members of America’s lowest economic groups, starting with the Irish, the Jews, the Italians, and then African-Americans, to establish themselves. The most recent group to carry on that tradition are Mexican- Americans. Unfortunately, Mexican fighters are rarely big enough to compete in the heavyweight class. Chris Arreola is an exception. If all Mexican fighters were as big as Arreola, we might not be writing this story.

But Arreola’s ongoing struggle with his weight points out another distinctly American problem: obesity. So many of our heavyweights of the past 20 years have been fat guys who probably would have been cruiserweights if they’d pushed away from the dinner table. But the eatin’ is good in America. Just ask James Toney.

Perhaps the real answer to our question is that American heavyweights were never very good to begin with. Such a flat statement may sound sacrilegious, especially when you consider that the heavyweights have always been regarded as the money division. True, the 1970s and early 1980s saw the division bursting at the seams with American talent, but for the most part, the division has been a case of a champion dominating a bunch of weak contenders.

At times the heavyweight division has been so depleted that many entrepreneurial types have attempted to simply “manufacture” a champion. The most obvious example was the “white hope” era when promoters and managers scoured all corners of America searching for a challenger to unseat the first black heavyweight champion, Jack Johnson.

This idea that a heavyweight could be discovered falls in line with an American tradition of people being plucked from obscurity and “made into stars,” like the time a Hollywood talent scout discovered Lana Turner at Schwab’s on Sunset Boulevard. It has occasionally been part of boxing, too, as evidenced by a scouting project undertaken back in the 1960s by none other than Rocky Marciano.

Marciano, along with friend Lou Duva, appeared at various professional football camps during those years, attempting to lure some young player into boxing. Like music moguls stalking the shopping malls to create the next “boy band,” Marciano and Duva had their pitch prepared. Their theory was that these youngsters only went into football because they had never been exposed to boxing. Duva and Marciano felt they could convince them that a heavyweight champion was far more important than being an anonymous player in the backfield.

The Marciano-Duva duo thought they hit the jackpot when the great Cleveland running back Jim Brown showed interest. Brown certainly had the kind of speed and aggression that might have transferred to the ring. But after consulting his agent, Brown changed his mind. The agent instead proposed Brown fight Marciano. Marciano, nearly a decade into his retirement, wasn’t interested.

Marciano and Duva never found their man, but their concept was still strong as recently as the 1990s, when the enormous Lance Whitaker, who had never boxed, was spotted at a Los Angeles Burger King by a fellow from a local gym who promised to make him into a millionaire. That’s how Whitaker’s career began, for better or worse.

In a similar vein, Jeff Wald, co-producer of The Contender television series, once told this writer of a secret gym in California where a new breed of heavyweight was being trained, a so-called ‘monster factory,’ where a dozen or so ex-football players and MMA types were being mentored by boxing trainers, in hopes that the final season of The Contender would showcase these savage new heavyweights and eventually lead to one of them fighting Wladimir Klitschko. But The Contender was canceled, and the clandestine heavyweight experiment disappeared into the fog of urban legend.

But we’re not completely out of the loop. American heavyweight Deontay Wilder had very little amateur experience, but was good enough to win a bronze medal at the 2008 Olympics. As a professional he has won 21 consecutive bouts by knockout. Seth Mitchell, a 29-year-old former college football player, has 24 wins to his credit. Both are on the verge of having breakout years.

Then there’s the old warhorse, Hasim Rahman. Rahman created a stir in 2001 when he landed a thudding right hand and kayoed Lennox Lewis for the WBC and IBF championships. Lewis promptly reclaimed the titles by knocking Rahman out cold in the rematch. Rahman continued fighting, with mixed results, and seemed all done when he was knocked out by Oleg Maskaev in 2006, and Wladimir Klitschko in 2008. But courtesy of some very weak opposition, Rahman has kept his career alive. More than a decade has passed since he shocked the boxing world, but Rahman was penciled in to face WBA titlist Alexander Povetkin this summer. Maybe Rahman can land that old right hand again, with the weight of America behind it. But even if he does, we have to wonder if having an American heavyweight on the title scene will mean quite as much as it once did.

Don Stradley is an American writer who has contributed regularly to such magazines and websites as The Ring, Boxing World, ESPN.com, and the UK’s Boxing Monthly.