The Tyson Effect and the Fall of the Pure Boxer
Can we analyze the heavyweight division in a way that might better educate us on how the division has changed, and why it has declined…
This is the first of a 3-part series on the state of the Heavyweight Division—co-authored by Cheekay Brandon & David Matthew
The metaphorical “death” of the heavyweight division, frequently discussed in the world’s many barbershops and sports bars, could be a reference to either a decline in the overall popularity of heavyweight boxing or a decrease in the quality of heavyweight boxers. Overall popularity is easy to gauge; pay-per-view sale numbers tell us how many people pay to watch heavyweight fights today relative to a decade or two ago. Judging the quality of fighters, however, is a far more difficult task, and one where the arguments are almost always colored with biases.
Can we analyze the heavyweight division in a way that might better educate us on how the division has changed? One could argue that by examining the division through the lens of the fighting styles that have defined this era, we can begin to better grasp what has happened to the heavyweight division.
The public’s obsession with the heavyweight division grew to unprecedented levels during the reign of “Iron” Mike Tyson, who was to forever change the spectacle of professional boxing. Highlight clips of Tyson’s fights tell us that he was a classic puncher, crushing opponents with game-changing power in both hands. A more detailed examination of Tyson’s successes, however, tells a much different story. In his prime Tyson displayed a multiplicity of skills: disruptive head movement; short, powerful, precise punches that were difficult to time and counter; deft footwork that was the secret to his explosive power—even when out of position or off balance Tyson could easily redistribute his weight to position himself for a flash uppercut or hook.
Ironically, it was with the rise of Mike Tyson that the decline of the heavyweight division began. Trainers and promoters saw the revenue that Tyson’s spectacular knockouts were generating and scouted local gyms in search of another, paying little attention to the science behind Tyson’s success. As a consequence, the punching power of young fighters was emphasized at the expense of the purer boxing skills that were being taught at lower weight classes.
This might explain an observation many have made about the heavyweight division over the past decade or so: there have been a series of flash-in-the-pan heavyweight fighters, sold as the next big thing but often lacking the technical skills or discipline to put together a long career in the heavyweight division. This is unfortunate because a stylistic summary of the heavyweight division over the past two decades shows a clear trend: the fighters who have lasted the longest and had the most success have relied on experience, technical skills and high boxing I.Q.
To most boxing purists, Wladimir Klitschko has finally transcended the mediocrity of his era and emerged as a great heavyweight comparable to the elites in any era. While Klitschko’s size, athleticism and natural punching power brought him acclaim early in his career, it is his evolution into a well-rounded boxer that has defined his modern legacy. The more mature Wladimir Klitschko is just as imposing a physical specimen as ever, but can now defeat opponents using an array of skills: a stiff jab, combination punching and evasiveness. Wladimir’s status as the best heavyweight since Lennox Lewis would be debatable if his older brother, Vitali, hadn’t spent much of the last decade taking breaks from boxing to tend to personal and political matters. While Wladimir is understood to possess the more natural physical skills, Vitali has been just as successful in the ring, using a high boxing I.Q., sturdy defense and controlled stalking. His skills were on full display in his 2009 thumping of Chris Arreola where he utilized body punching, a stiff jab and a powerful right hand to defeat the overmatched Arreola.
In exploring how important overall boxing skills are to success in the heavyweight division, we need not focus entirely on the best of fighters from this era; studying the careers of heavyweights widely believed to be mediocre, such as John Ruiz, is just as informative. While much of Ruiz’s success might be attributed to weak competition, his caginess, defensive prowess and sound technical skills kept him relevant and competitive for over a decade. Great fighter or not, Ruiz put together a career that many would be envious of—he was a two-time world champion with an impressive list of victories (Evander Holyfield, Andrew Golota, Hasim Rahman).
Other than his decision loss to Roy Jones Jr. (2003), Ruiz’s biggest claim to fame might be his brutal 1996 knockout loss to David Tua. Tua represents the polar opposite of Ruiz—the wildly overhyped puncher with little substance and skills, who faded into obscurity faster than he rose to stardom. Similar fates befell other big punchers in the division: Lawrence Clay Bey, Davarryl Williamson and Corrie Sanders. All had limited success before descending into mediocrity, their one-dimensionality the culprit.
That fighters like James Toney were able to make legitimate runs at the title during the last decade further highlights how pure boxers, even when past their physical prime, were able to make noise in the heavyweight division. Toney, who began his career as a middleweight, made a fairly easy transition to the heavyweight division using counterpunching, angles and stifling defense, skills that his mostly one-dimensional opponents were unable to deal with. Toney would eventually succumb to younger, more natural heavyweights and poor conditioning, but not before participating competitively in several championship fights.
Current big punchers like Sam Peter and Chris Arreola have attained moderate success. After a TKO loss to Vitali Klitschko and a more recent decision loss to Tomasz Adamek, Arreola seems committed to improving, having recently lost weight and increasing his activity and work rate. Of all the young big punchers, Arreola’s career shows the most promise. It will, however, only go as far as his willingness to improve his conditioning and all-around boxing skills.
Perhaps Arreola can look to Sam Peter’s career as cautionary tale. For several years, Peter appeared the biggest threat to the reign of the Klitschko brothers. In 2005, Peter lost a decision to Wladimir Klitschko, a fight in which he put Klitschko on the canvas three times and appeared like a menacing, devastating puncher who would make serious waves in the division for years to come. This hasn’t quite happened, as Peter has been solved by several opponents (including both Klitschko brothers) and seems to be following the classic downward trend of the big puncher without the defensive skills to stay competitive.
In the face of these findings, what can we conclude? Is the heavyweight boxing in such decline that we’ll never see a collection of well-rounded boxers in the division? There are several reasons for hope. For one, the heavyweight division will continue to be dominated in the foreseeable future by the Klitschko brothers, whose balanced attack should set a positive example for upcoming fighters. Additionally, two of the younger elites in the heavyweight division, David Haye and Eddie Chambers, are smaller than most of their opponents and rely on hand speed, agility and sound technical skills just as much as they do one-punch power. Though both have suffered lopsided losses at the hands of Wladimir Klitschko, their mere presence might be indicative of a trend where faster, more technically sound fighters rise through the ranks ahead of their big-punching, one-dimensional counterparts.
What if the heavyweight division becomes home to more technical fighters who don’t rely on the knockout punch—would fans lose interest? It is here that the heavyweight division might learn from the recent exploits of welterweight tacticians like Floyd “Money” Mayweather. His consistently excellent pay-per-view numbers and large fight purses have taught us that, more than the knockout, fans seem to gravitate to excellence, and it is excellence that has been missing from the heavyweight division in recent years. The hope is that the next generation of heavyweights will be as committed to the “sweet science” as generations of old, which would birth a new era in the division, populated by well-rounded boxers who give the fans exciting fights.