It’s David vs. The Goliath

By Graeme Barrow on November 15, 2013
It’s David vs. The Goliath
His has been a career of missed opportunities—fistic and financial. (Robert Ecksel)

Quick and slick Ustinov is not. So of all the ranked fighters, he is probably the one Tua has the best chance against…

David Tua is dreaming again. It’s the dream all comebacking fighters dream—just one big win, and then it could be the big money purse, and maybe even a shot at a world title.

It would seem an impossible dream for the Auckland heavyweight boxer who terrorized the division a decade and more ago. Tua’s only title challenge was nearly 13 years ago—a wide points loss to the undisputed champion at the time, and the best heavyweight of his era, Lennox Lewis. That’s an awfully long time between challenges, and boxing is not kind to heavyweights in their 40s coming back after long layoffs—the great George Foreman excepted.

And yet in boxing anything is possible—especially if you have knockout power. And on November 16, at Claudelands Arena in Hamilton, New Zealand, Tua will be hoping he has enough left to get him the win which, unlikely as it seems, could just possibly get him a shot at a world title. Tua’s opponent will be the largest, by some distance, he has ever faced. Giant Belarusian Alexander Ustinov is 6′7½″ and about 300 lbs. He’s 36 years old.

He’s no dancing master, but he’s no cumbersome plodder either. As a soldier he was decorated for bravery in the first Chechen war. A former kickboxer, he won numerous titles and tournaments. His record as a boxer is 28 wins and one loss—to top contender Kubrat Pulev from Bulgaria last September. He was stopped in the 11th round, but he was basically worn down and beaten up. He had not been on the floor prior to that fight. He is ranked #10 by the WBA and #7 by the IBF.

The last time Tua fought a genuine top ten fighter was in 2003, when he drew with Hasim Rahman. Since then his career has been characterized by long periods of inactivity and a succession of mediocre opponents, the only exceptions being Shane Cameron, basically a cruiserweight/heavyweight, and fringe contender Monte Barrett, with whom Tua first drew, and then lost to on points in August 2011—his last fight.

Tua’s last knockout was against Cameron, and that was in October 2009. He has been the distance in his last four fights. So he has to overcome inactivity, ring rust, and an apparent diminution of his punching power.

Yet there are three things which give some cause for hope that David can beat The Goliath. The first is that he dropped the (admittedly fragile) Barrett in their last fight, and he did so late (the 11th round), which was impressive. The second is the ancient boxing truism that the last thing a puncher loses is his punch. However, he has to land it first.

The third is that promoters Duco Events have proved, with the Joseph Parker win over Frans Botha, to be astute matchmakers. A quick, slick boxer would have been all wrong for an ageing Tua. Quick and slick Ustinov is not, and—having been a kickboxer—he fights with his hands held low. So of all the ranked fighters, he is probably the one Tua has the best chance against.

Should Tua defy the odds, and logic, and win, could he really get a world title shot? Strange as it seems, it could actually happen, although it’s a very long shot. The reason it would be a possibility is the way the only four boxing organizations which have any credibility operate. They are the World Boxing Council (WBC), the International Boxing Federation (IBF), the World Boxing Organization (WBO), and the World Boxing Association (WBA).

Each of them generally allow a newly crowned champion the luxury of a voluntary defense prior to defending against their mandatory (number one rated) challenger. Further, they sometimes allow an established champion a voluntary defense, as a warm-up, prior to defending against the mandatory challenger.

The WBC champion is Ukrainian Vitali Klitschko. Now 41, he is due to defend against mandatory challenger Bermane Stiverne, a talented Haitian-Canadian. But as Klitschko has announced his intention to run for president of Ukraine, retirement looks likely. Should this happen the WBC will match Stiverne and either the second-ranked Chris Arreola or third-ranked Deontay Wilder for the vacant title.

Younger brother Wladimir holds the other three versions of the title. He has just successfully defended the WBA version against mandatory challenger Alexander Povetkin of Russia. He could possibly be induced to make a voluntary defense.

However, the IBF and the WBO will be after him (so they can get their sanctioning fees) to defend against their number one rated fighters. For the IBF it is the aforementioned Pulev; for the WBO Russian Denis Boytsov—a strange choice as he has never fought a rated fighter. So Wladimir’s schedule is likely to be rather crowded.

Should Tua lose against Ustinov it will be a sad career end for one of the nicest men in boxing. It is impossible to reflect on his career without recalling an iconic line from an iconic film delivered by an iconic actor. The film was On the Waterfront, the star was Marlon Brando, as an ex-pug, and the line was— “I coulda been a contender.”

Well, Tua “coulda been a champion.” In fact he should have been a champion. His story is one of missed opportunities—pugilistic and financial. Title challenges that were there for him were not taken; big-money fights never eventuated.

Since Tua’s challenge to Lewis, and Lewis’ subsequent retirement in2004, the title “heavyweight champion of the world” has become debased because of the plethora of ranking organizations. The WBC, IBF, WBO and WBA have between them recognized no fewer than 13 fighters as “world champion.”

Two of those 13—the Klitschko brothers, Vitali and Wladimir—have dominated the division in the last several years to the extent that they have virtually run out of credible challengers and have had to go looking for them.

But it is instructive—as well as depressing from a Tua, Samoa and New Zealand perspective—to look at the other 11. They are Lamon Brewster, John Ruiz, Evander Holyfield, Shannon Briggs, Chris Byrd, Hasim Rahman, (all United States), Nikolai Valuev and Sultan Ibragimov (Russia), Sergei Liakhovich (Belarus), Oleg Maskaev (Uzbekistan), and Samuel Peter (US via Nigeria).

Four of those fighters Tua has already fought. In March 1996 he sensationally knocked out future WBA champion John Ruiz in under 30 seconds. In April 1997 after a seesaw battle he finally caught up with future WBC champion Oleg Maskaev and stopped him in the 11th round.  And in December 1998 he stopped future WBC champion Hasim Rahman by 10th round technical knockout.

In his second fight after the points loss to Lennox Lewis, he stopped capable Darnell Nicholson, before fighting former WBO and future WBA champion Chris Byrd in what was a WBA title eliminator. Tua lost on points, Byrd being too slick, quick and evasive.

Tua would have to have been given a better than even chance in title bouts against Ruiz, Maskaev and Rahman. Brewster, Briggs and Liakovich were all hittable fighters, so Tua would have had a good puncher’s chance against each of them. Valuev, at seven foot two and more than 300 pounds, might have been too big, and Byrd, Ibragimov and a rapidly ageing Holyfield, too streetwise and clever. But probably only Byrd would have been a certainty against an in-form and in-shape Tua.

It’s been a career of missed opportunities—fistic and financial. The American boxing public was crying out for Tua to fight fellow sluggers Mike Tyson, Chris Arreola and Samuel Peter—all fights which would have guaranteed huge purses. But they all sank in the sands of prolonged periods of inactivity and managerial disputes.

Yet if an abiding memory of Tua’s career is of potential unrealized, there are many good memories, and Tua has much to be proud of. His record of 52 wines (43 by stoppage), two draws and four losses is outstanding, and up with the very best of the heavyweights in the last two decades. And he fought nearly all the top men.

His fight with Ike Ibeabuchi (a very narrow points loss) was one of the greatest ever, and still holds the record for the most punches thrown in any fight between two ranked heavyweights. He knocked out future world champions John Ruiz, Oleg Maskaev and Hasim Rahman, and former world champion Michael Moorer.

His legacy will be that he was the best heavyweight of the last two decades not to win a world title.

Follow us on Twitter@boxing_com to continue the discussion

David Tua v Alexander Ustinov - stare down and interview

Ike Ibeabuchi vs David Tua


David Tua Training For Alexander Ustinov

John Ruiz Vs David Tua Full Fight KO

David Tua welcome - haka performed by hundreds of Hamilton students

David Tua vs Oleg Maskaev 05 04 1997

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  1. Ted 01:19pm, 11/16/2013

    Darrell has the beat

  2. Darrell 05:59pm, 11/15/2013

    Correction-best heavyweight in the last 20 years not to grab a world title strap.

    Fights in Hamilton?  Bugger…...a bit short notice & a bit too far up the line for me.

    I think an in shape, prime Tua could’ve easily beaten either of Brewster, Briggs & most definitely Liakhovitch but yes, the clever quick boxers like Byrd & Ibragimov were always problematic for Tua.  Holyfield was definitely streetwise & durable but also hittable.  I think he would’ve certainly had every chance against him & Ibragimov….just a matter of having enough rounds to catch them flush, which he did with a lot of good fighters.

  3. Darrell 05:45pm, 11/15/2013

    I remember reading your book Graeme, “All Blacks vs Springboks: A Century of Rugby Rivalry”.....a good read & full of interesting insights on the scrum issues & enforced isolation that faced the respective teams during their storied & honourable rivalry.  This years Ellis Park test match just added more lustre to that always particularly bruising matchup.

    As for David, pity I can’t make that fight, I must agree that he is probably the best heavyweight not to have taken a world title strap.  As you seem to infer, and I tend to agree, he will probably lose….but I have heard he is in particularly good shape & his weight is down to where it should have always been around 108kgs.  I think Ustinov will be too big though & Tua, as evidenced against the fringe contender Monte Barrett, is just not the fighter he used to be.

    Good main undercard fight too Robbie Berridge vs Daniel McKinnon…..bad blood there!  Berridge may be heard of on the world scene in the not too distant future, some rough edges but plenty of hitting power for a small light heavy & good speed too.

  4. Clarence George 02:40pm, 11/15/2013

    David Tua?  I thought that was a photo of Joe Louis following his bout with Rocky Marciano.

  5. Eric 02:16pm, 11/15/2013

    Short, swarming, pressure fighters don’t have long shelf lives, especially when they balloon up to over 300lbs and are 40 years old. Tua was a beast in his prime and probably could’ve whipped Tyson during the latter stages of Mike’s career. Tua could’ve very well had the power and strength to even kayo a prime Tyson if they could’ve been matched in a prime vs. prime matchup.  It might border on blasphemy for saying this but Tua and Tyson would have licked fellow swarming greats Dempsey, Marciano, and Frazier. Both fighters were just a little too strong and powerful for the aforementioned trio of great pressure fighters, and in Tyson’s case, he was just much too quick. Tyson might not have had the heart to stand up to Tua after Tua cracked him a time or two with that vaunted left hook.

  6. Ted 11:49am, 11/15/2013

    Welcome aboard Graeme, good buddy

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