Lineage Matters Most at Heavyweight

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By Cliff Rold

Anthony Joshua is the biggest draw in the heavyweight division and the man with the most belts. He might be the best fighter in the heavyweight division.

He’s not the man who beat the man.

Not yet.

For many of the purists, this weekend is for all the marbles. Tyson Fury (27-0, 19 KO) doesn’t have a major sanctioning body title. For them, he doesn’t need one. He’s the man who beat the man.

On November 28, 2015, Fury befuddled long reigning Wladimir Klitschko to win a unanimous decision, three major belts, and the right to call himself history’s champion. He was, on that night, the best fighter in the world.

He wasn’t the prettiest to watch.

He wasn’t the most devastating.

He didn’t have to be.

Fury stepped between the ropes, the bell rang, and he won. That’s all he had to do. Champions stake their claim and defend it until someone else seizes the reigns. Regardless of whether one thinks Klitschko solidified his claim when he won Ring Magazine’s belt against Ruslan Chagaev, or when he defeated the next leading contender in Alexander Povetkin and earned recognition from TBRB, or at some other point in between, there was little doubt Klitschko was the heavyweight king was entering 11/28/15.

It didn’t matter if Klitschko didn’t have every belt. He beat the best available contenders repeatedly over the years and following the second retirement of his brother Vitali had cemented a consensus around his position no heavyweight held since the retirement of Lennox Lewis.

Saturday night, Showtime PPV (9 PM EST) will air a battle between the man who beat the man and WBC titlist Deontay Wilder (40-0, 39 KO). It might be a classic. It might not. What is certain is that if Wilder wins, he will for the purist become the man who beat the man. If he does not, if Wilder loses or only plays even, Fury retains the honor.

There is plenty of room to debate what place the tracking of lineage, or trying to figure out where new lineages emerge, really has in 21stcentury boxing. In a perfect boxing world, every division would have only one champion, that champion would actively defend their title against the best opponents more than once a year, and it wouldn’t matter what networks or promoters or geographic barriers existed.

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On occasions where new, clear champions emerge today its worth acknowledging those moments and asking that their accomplishment be recognized by anyone left in the class who wishes to be called champion. They should have to beat the fighter who most earned that distinction before them. But that doesn’t mean we live in the perfect world.

In the imperfect world we live in, there are multiple belts in almost every class. Sometimes there are multiple belts from the same sanctioning body at the same weight. Since the founding of the WBO, less than a handful of fighters have unified or defended all four titles in a weight class. There haven’t been a ton who held a combination of three titles since the IBF came to be.

Boxing has survived. It is an element that for some makes the sport appear chaotic and acts as a barrier to entry but even the hardest hardcore fan would probably have to admit it doesn’t impact the same everywhere on the scale.

It would be better if there were only one Jr. flyweight champion of the world but, in the grand scheme of things, having more than one probably isn’t much to boxing’s detriment.

That’s because, in part, being the best Jr. flyweight in the world can never truly make someone the best fighter in the world. Neither does being the best lightweight, welterweight, or cruiserweight. In the sport of boxing, heavyweight is where the fiction of pound-for-pound goes to die. No machine existed to make Willie Pep and Joe Louis, or Mike Tyson and Julio Cesar Chavez, or Floyd Mayweather and Wladimir Klitschko the same size.

There is only ever really one best fighter in boxing.

That fighter is the heavyweight champion of the world and it’s why the heavyweight championship lineage is the one that matters the most.

When boxing doesn’t have a man to point to as the heavyweight king, the sport survives but is less than it can be because there is no one to point to as the literal best fighter in the world. Great smaller fighters have emerged to hoist the sport on their shoulders on occasion but it’s not the same thing. There is a ceiling above them. Past 200 lbs. since the adjustment of the cruiserweight limit, the scale is unlimited.

It doesn’t mean the lineage of the heavyweight crown hasn’t been without its zigs and zags. It doesn’t even always mean the best heavyweight is always holding the crown. Odd upsets happens on occasion. Fighters no one thinks are really the best wind up with the crown that says they are. Jim Braddock and Buster Douglas had their cups of champ coffee. Floyd Patterson stayed around until Sonny Liston got his hands on him.

But in all of those cases, it mattered to win the title in the ring. Joe Louis, Liston, and Evander Holyfield had to beat them in the ring. That was the only way to truly enshrine themselves alongside Johnson, Dempsey, Louis, and Ali. It’s a difference between their claims and men like Michael Dokes, Frank Bruno, or Nicolay Valuev.

Those were all good fighters. They all won belts that let them claim to be champions. They never beat the guy who earned it in the ring. They never really proved to be number one.

Since John L. Sullivan ushered in the gloved era at heavyweight, the lineage has broken completely three times with the retirements of Gene Tunney, Rocky Marciano, and Lennox Lewis. The time it took to set new lines varied. Two years passed before Tunney was followed by Max Schmeling; a few months between Marciano and Floyd Patterson; and several years between Lewis and Wladimir Klitschko (again, depending on your preferred start point and how strong you think Ring Magazine’s brief recognition of Vitali Klitschko was before his first retirement).

While those aren’t the only heavyweight champions to retire with the crown, they stand out as the men who stayed gone. Others returned from retirement, ultimately sacrificing their bodies to new champions who had emerged in their stead and helping to cement their claims by linking them directly to the past.

The first famous incidence of this was in 1910. Jim Jeffries retired the undefeated heavyweight champion after a defense over Jack Munroe in 1904. Marvin Hart and Tommy Burns were poor substitutes in the wake of his exit but in 1908 Jack Johnson felled Burns and things changed. Amidst great racial hostility, Jeffries was pulled out of retirement to play the part of ‘great white hope.’ Jeffries after all was the man who never lost the title in the ring.

Johnson knocked him out. There was no doubt left as to where the crown resided.

In 1948, Joe Louis avenged a controversial win over Jersey Joe Walcott and hung up his gloves. It was the end of what has been the standard for title reigns in all of boxing ever since. 25 title defenses over eleven plus-years set the standard for what a championship reign can be. The gloves didn’t stay hung up for long. Walcott faced Ezzard Charles for the vacant title. Charles won but Louis had never lost it in the ring and made his return against Charles in 1950.

Charles earned a wide decision win and validated his place as the new man to beat.

Ali had two moments in his career where defeat preserved the historical line. Ring Magazine continued to recognize him during his exile from the sport in the 1960s and only fully recognized Joe Frazier when Ali briefly retired in 1970. Ali didn’t stay retired long and for many he was still the real champion when he and Frazier squared off in the Fight of the Century in 1971.

Frazier removed all doubt after fifteen classic rounds.

Ali would regain the title in 1974, and then lose and regain it again in 1978. The latter moment is also where split titles became a more permanent fixture at heavyweight.     

Given how many belts there are floating around since, it has proven hard to consistently have one guy hold all of them for long since Leon Spinks chose to rematch Muhammad Ali instead of facing WBC mandatory Ken Norton in 1978. That was back when there were only two major titles. Larry Holmes beat Norton for the vacant WBC belt and Ali retired after the winning the Spinks rematch.

Ali didn’t stay away. Larry Holmes would never go on to be the undisputed heavyweight champion. He even traded in the WBC belt for the fledgling IBF belt in 1983. It didn’t matter. He beat Ali in 1980. He was the man who beat the man from that point forward.

It’s part of why it meant something more than just big money when Mike Tyson walked through Michael Spinks in 1988. Tyson already had all the belts but he didn’t win any of them from Larry Holmes. Spinks was man who ended that reign. Only 91 seconds after the opening bell could Mike Tyson eliminate all doubt about the king of the sweet science.

And that’s part of why it matters this weekend. Fury didn’t just beat a Douglas or Braddock to win the title. He beat one of the most dominant champions of any era and a champion who took on the most deserving contenders outside his family for a decade.

Fury’s claim to the title can be seen as complicated because he retired for a period of time and had well documented problems outside the ring. But in the ring is where he earned the mantle of champion and, still only 30 years old, Fury has a chance to put teeth back into that claim with a win on Saturday.

Wilder has a chance to look across the pond at Anthony Joshua, the bigger ticket seller with the other three major title belts around his waist, and say to him with meaning that he can never truly be the champion without seeing him first.

Whether the destination after Saturday is Fury-Joshua or Wilder-Joshua won’t matter years from now. Fans will debate with fire about who wins in either match. That’s part of the fun. This is the process, the ritual, of clearing up the issue of the one. It’s an issue that goes beyond how many belts a fighter has. It’s about who they beat and when.

It’s about being and beating the very best. 

That only gets solved in one place. For the sport of boxing, it’s a question that only genuinely can be answered in one division.

Cliff Rold is the Managing Editor of BoxingScene, a founding member of the Transnational Boxing Rankings Board, and a member of the Boxing Writers Association of America.  He can be reached at [email protected]

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