THE BLACK HOPE ERA OF HEAVYWEIGHT BOXING
The dawn of the Black Hope era in heavyweight boxing has dawned. Incongruous as it may seem in a historical context, almost exactly one hundred years after Jess Willard achieved the culmination of the commonly-styled White Hope era by knocking out Jack Johnson, the first champion of African heritage, the pugilist establishment is almost frantic for a black hope to restore normality, as they see it, to the heavyweights division. Those brought up on the tradition of Joe Louis, Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier, George Foreman, Larry Holmes, Mike Tyson, Evander Holyfield, Lennox Lewis and a few others in-between have been much put out by the loss of promotional, television and merchandising outlets during the East European exile presided over by the Klitschko brothers.
Now that they have gone it seems only a black heavyweight can bring the sport back to where it belongs. You can almost hear Johnson laughing from beyond the grave – and he wouldn’t be alone. The thoughtful, plodding, but boring Ukrainians were not popular with those who think that they have every right to be pulling the strings. Although Wladimir may yet regain the linear title from Tyson Fury, the bubble of mystique has been punctured and a whole new game is afoot. What is needed apparently is punching, panache, excitement and showmanship associated with the heavyweights of yesteryear. Is there an African in the house? He could be the saviour that boxing awaits.
Stand up Anthony Joshua
The undefeated 26 year-old Anthony Joshua has the required physical attributes and pedigree, and he could not have announced his candidacy in a more appropriately spectacular manner. Just a fortnight after the drab bout between Fury and Klitscho, Joshua and Dillian Whyte produced an old-fashioned punch-up for the British and Commonwealth crowns. They went at each other hammer and tongs from the opening bell to the explosive climax. After Anthony had dominated the first round, his Brixton-based opponent, whose supporters had invaded the ring after the bell, came back strongly in the second putting Joshua under greater pressure than he has experienced in his entire professional career to date. It proved that he can take punishment as well as give it out. Then Anthony took a grip on the fight in using his greater reach to keep Dillian at bay. Suddenly in the seventh Joshua caught his tormentor with a long-range right as he stepped back from the in-fighting, and the ensuing denouement was swift and total. The battering left the South Londoner lying inert on the canvas and a good many of those present, and many more watching on television, worried for his health. This victory seemed to set-up an enticing match with David Haye, the former schismatic world champion who has announced his return to the ring. Dereck Chisora, the Zimbabwe-born erstwhile world championship challenger, won another fight in his come-back campaign on the same bill and was hardly noticed in the clamour for attention but he, too, must be in the mix.
Anthony Oluwafemi Olaseri Joshua, the Watford-born son of Nigerian heritage parents, is seen to be the natural successor of the much loved and respected Lennox Lewis. Both are big men and have won Olympic Games crowns in the heaviest divisions and both ooze charisma and confidence. Not, however, that that is a sure foundation for ultimate success. Audley Harrison had those qualities but so disappointed as a professional that his name has become a media by-word for ridiculed braggadocio and unrealised expectations. Yet ever since Joe Frazier progressed from the Olympic Games heavyweight gold medal in 1964 to the perceived “richest prize in sport” – Floyd Patterson and Muhammad Ali (then Cassius Clay) won their medals in lighter weight-divisions – the Olympic king is considered to have one glove and a thumb on the professional crown.
That Anthony has gained that assurance could be seen by the manner in which he had handled Dillian Whyte, who had beaten him when they were amateurs, in the build-up to the fight. His smoothness of approach made the other man appear to be worse than uncouth. Joshua is wise, too, to insist that he is still in the learning process and is not yet the finished product. By this time next year, however, he should have tightened up on his weaknesses and answered most of the questions. In spite of the pressures on him to get to the title quickly, Joshua should not be pushed too far too quickly.
The champion they wanted
The Americans, too, got the “world champion” they wanted when the fearsome, 30 year-old puncher Deontay Wilder (unbeaten now in 36 fights) from Alabama picked up the WBA-recognised title which had broken away from the other three of the more widely acknowledged administrative bodies. The manner by which he cut through the division by knocking over-and-out a string of less-than-imposing adversaries may have resembled Sonny Liston or Mike Tyson but was more in keeping with Tommy “Hurricane” Jackson in the 1950s. The hurricane, though, blew himself out before he got to the top. Wilder – and rarely has a surname seemed to be so appropriate to his style, too, has laboured once the belt was fastened around his waist. There are rumours that he was vulnerable to a good smack on the jaw while he was an amateur and he hasn’t been tested too severely in that department since he started fighting for pay.
Both sides of the argument were seen in his most recent defence against Artur Szpilka in Brooklyn, New York. Although he was hardly rated in the highest heavyweight echelons the Pole gave Wilder as many problems as he could handle over the first eight rounds as to suggest that an opponent with greater ability and punching power could be too much for the American’s universal championship pretensions. Yet the manner in which Deontay knocked the challenger cold in the ninth says that such finishing strength makes light of all other limitations. Did it matter that the invincible Rocky Marciano trailed on points in several of his fights before he delivered the knockout punch which rendered all else irrelevant?
Bizarrely on the Wilder/Szpilka bill the undefeated but unrated 29 year-old Charles Martin disputed with Vyacheslav Glazkov for the IBF version of the same title. (It doesn’t make sense, I know – please do not try to understand)*. And here the term fight would not be appropriate. Martin assumed the crown when his slighter, and seemingly over-hyped, opponent twisted his leg in the third round and could not continue. The action such as it was taught us nothing except that Charles was not as much out of his class as had been supposed but that his upright style, and more tentative demeanour, is not yet ready for the tougher contests to which his title would seem to entitle him. One thing, however, is certain, the Californian is unlikely to be cast in the mould of the previous champion of that surname – Charles Sonny Liston. His record stands now at 23 wins with one draw and no defeats.
Big news across the Atlantic
The realisation that heavyweights can again be big news on the western side of the Atlantic has encouraged a few more to edge towards, if not exactly into, the frame, of whom Luis Ortiz, the 36 year-old Cuban, boxing now out of Miami and unbeaten in 24 bouts, is probably the most impressive. Last time out he stopped Bryant Jennings, the former world championship contender who had gone the distance with Klitscho. Time is not on the side of the Cuban, whose approach brings back memories of his fearsome compatriot Nino Valdes, in the 1950s, and he needs to fight frequently against top-class opponents. Although Ortiz would give a lot of trouble to title pretenders Fury and Wilder, let alone Martin, I cannot see them being in a hurry to get into the ring with him.
Martin isn’t the only Californian to interest the cognoscenti: they have enthused over 30 year-old Dominic Breazeale’s fifth-round stoppage of hard-man, ring-veteran and former prison inmate Amir Mansour. The pundits were impressed by the manner in which Dominic survived a knock-down to come back so strongly as to persuade Mansour that there was no point in his continuing. That victory takes him to 17 straight wins without either loss or draw. Breazeale still needs to get a few more fights under his belt before he is deemed to be ready to take on the best men in the division on equal terms.
A match for anyone
Just below the highest level 35 year-old Carlos Takam, the French resident who was born in Douala, Cameroon, is very much a match for anyone. He laid the bogey of Tony Thompson, the American veteran who seemed to be getting more effective with age, and was trading punch for punch with Alexander Potevkin until the Russian produced what many considered to have been the “finish of the year 2014” in the tenth round. He has 33 victories to 2 defeats and one draw (to the then highly-rated Mike Perez which several commentators thought he was unlucky not to win).
The African presence in the heavier weight-classes strengthens by the month. At cruiserweight, just two divisions lighter, for example, Ilunga Makabu, a Congolese based in Johannesburg, has gate-crashed the top of the division by knocking out Thabiso Mchunu, the highly-regarded South African, and Olanrewaju Durodala, 35 year-old Nigerian living in Kansas City, caused one of the sensations of the year by hammering out tough Dmitray Kudryashov in two rounds. He is a couple of places above 27 year-old Yain Kayembre Kalenga, a Congolese living in France, who took incumbent Denis Lebedev all the way when he challenged him for the WBA title a year ago. Meanwhile Ola Afolabi, 35 years-old, has been in so many close and exciting fights that he is a popular and promotional favourite. This colourful cruiserweight was born in London to Nigerian parents and has since moved to Los Angeles. This month Afolabi takes on Marco Huck for the fourth time, with whom he has shared three hotly-disputed verdicts (two narrow losses and a draw) and is probably the pundits’ favourite to win.
It was fashionable during the years of the East European hegemony to decry the decline of heavyweight boxing in the U.S.A. and the United Kingdom, where, according to those who should have known better, it really mattered. Whatever the merits of the argument the division was not dead – but was only sleeping. Boxing doesn’t go away. It sometimes repeats itself – even if in the image the black/white negative is reversed.
Of the numerous bodies claiming to administer/control international boxing the most widely recognised are the International Boxing Federation (IBF), World Boxing Association (WBA), World Boxing Council (WBC) and World Boxing Organisation (WBO).
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