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Lennox's Throne is Still Empty
By Brent Hedtke (May 1, 2004) 
Lennox Lewis Photo © HoganPhotos
Well, it's official. Last weekend 86% of the premium-cable subscribing public ran to their computers to elevate Vitali Klitschko’s status from “Contender” to “The Real Heavyweight Champion of the World.” Vitali’s eighth round TKO of Corrie Sanders was impressive, but I think we may be a little hasty in calling him, or anybody, the real heavyweight champion just yet.

Are we that impatient? Do we need to immediately crown a new champ to fill the void left by Lennox Lewis? It’s only been a few months (84 days exactly, but who’s counting) since the champ retired and already the demand to find his successor has reached a feverish pitch. This is hardly the time to go into a rant about the sheer idiocy of the majority of the alphabet groups, but I couldn’t imagine a time when their services were needed less. Out of the four claimants of a heavyweight title, none of them have the credentials to deem themselves the real champ. Not yet anyway.

Vitali is arguably the most talented of the current heavyweight “champions” but there are a few things he needs to take care of before his coronation as the new King, namely the whole Chris Byrd debacle. As we all know, back in April of 2000, Vitali was up on all the judges’ scorecards against Byrd when he suddenly quit after the ninth round complaining of a sore shoulder. The injury turned out to be a torn rotator cuff, but the damage to Klitschko’s image was far greater. He was seen as a heartless giant who was merely living in his younger brother’s shadow. Oh how the times have changed.

Last June 21st however, the world saw a different Vitali. In his now epic showdown with former WBC Heavyweight Champion Lennox Lewis, Klitschko got the better of Lewis for six rounds until the ringside physician stopped the fight due to a cut over Vitali’s left eye. 𠇌ut” actually isn’t the right word to use. It was more like a gash that looked like it was opened by a head on collision with a Buick. Regardless, Klitschko went down fighting to the last second with his heart on his tree-trunk sized sleeve. It was a gutsy performance that redeemed him of the Byrd fight and everyone who called him heartless now seemed to be officially appeased. Everyone that is, except for Chris Byrd.

HBO’s on-air commentary team of Jim Lampley and Larry Merchant seemed to be of the opinion that the winner of a Vitali vs. Chris Byrd rematch would be the new undisputed champion. Is that really all it would take? A competitive loss to Lewis, TKO’s of a grotesquely out of shape Kirk Johnson and Corrie Sanders, who for the last few years has fought at a Mike Tyson-esque frequency. That and victory over Byrd who is coming off of a disputed draw against Andrew Golota and a gift that was wrapped by the Mohegan Sun judges and delivered in the form of a unanimous decision over Fres Oquendo would be enough? Call me a party pooper, but I’m not on board.

I’m really not trying to crash Vitali’s party here, it’s just that Lennox Lewis had to go through “Razor” Ruddock, Frank Bruno, Tony Tucker, Tommy Morrison, Ray Mercer, Andrew Golota, Evander Holyfield, David Tua, Hasim Rahman and Mike Tyson before people started referring to him as “The Champ” and some people still refuse to call him that.

Klitschko’s defining moment was his blood and guts battle with Lewis and that fight is arguably the reason he is being touted as the new champion. Is that the logic we are working off of? Let me see if I have this straight. Vitali lost to Chris Byrd who in turn, lost to Wladimir Klitschko, who was KO’d by Lamon Brewster, who was defeated by Clifford Etienne, who was knocked out by Mike Tyson, who was destroyed by Lennox Lewis, who was KO’d by Hasim Rahman, who lost to Evander Holyfield, who was outpointed by John Ruiz, who was defeated by Danell Nicholson, who lost to Andrew Golota, who was beat up by Michael Grant, who was torn apart by Dominick Guinn, who was outpointed by Monte Barrett, who lost to Lance Whitaker, who was defeated by Lou Savarese, who was knocked out by Kirk Johnson, who last December was blasted out by Vitali. Is that right? Did I miss anything?

The point being that boxing is as unpredictable as Dennis Rodman’s hair color and on any given night anyone can beat anyone. But one good performance (or bad performance) doesn’t define a fighter. If the heavyweight championship truly is the most coveted title in all of sports, then it is a truly exceptional individual who will lay claim to that title, not a bunch of individuals to whom we take exception.

Last September, HBO broadcast a fight card billed as “Night of the Young Heavyweights” featuring the most promising of the current heavyweight prospects, including Joe Mesi and Dominick Guinn. The only problem was that the average age of the combatants was 30 years old, still relatively young men, but not for guys who get punched in the head for a living. So let’s not forget that Vitali will turn 33 this July. I fear that by the time Vitali has done enough to become deserving of Lewis’ throne it might already be time to start this whole search over again.

Now that Monte Barrett has, for the time being anyway, derailed the Dominick Guinn express and Vassily Jirov may have critically injured Joe Mesi in their March 13th battle, it might not be a bad time to start that search. What happened to young fireplugs like Mike Tyson, Floyd Patterson and Muhammad Ali who were 20, 21 and 22 respectively when they became heavyweight champs?

You wouldn’t know it by what you read in boxing magazines and internet chat rooms, but there is a promising group of young heavyweights out there that are more than capable of keeping the division alive and well for years to come. Guys like Samuel “The Nigerian Nightmare” Peter (18-0 17 KO’s) and 2000 Olympian Calvin Brock (20-0 18 KO’s) head the group of young talent. But fighters like Tauras “The Bull” Sykes (21-1-1 5 KO’s) and Roman Greenberg (15-0 12 KO’s) are a telling sign of the skill and potential star quality of the pups of the division. They will be able to hone their skills while the big dogs sort out the upper echelon of heavyweight boxing. But how on earth are they going to do that?

Generally the vacant championship is decided by a unification tournament wherein all the current title holders and top ranked fighters engage in a series of fights to determine who the best heavyweight in the world is. The only problem with that is no one really wants to see some of the potential fights that could come out of that plan. Honestly, if you want to see John Ruiz fight Chris Byrd, there is a 100 percent chance that you are legally blind. I do think that the champions need to fight each other though; it’s really the only way.
If that happens, I believe that Vitali comes out on top.

Please don’t think I am being critical of Vitali Klitschko in any way. He has proven that he has all the skills and star quality to be a great champion. I am personally a big supporter of his and I think he is great for the sport of boxing. If and when he redeems himself against Chris Byrd, James Toney would likely be his next opponent. If he gets by Toney, it will severely help his claim to throne. Let’s hope that Roy Jones, JR. graces the big boys with his presence again because most boxing insiders, me included, see Roy as Vitali’s biggest threat. If Vitali were to be the first man to defeat the pound for pound king (assuming Antonio Tarver doesn’t beat him to it in a few weeks) he would undoubtedly secure his place as the rightful and undisputed champion. Until then, I will continue to refer to him as Vitali or Mr. Klitschko but not “The Champ.” Not yet.
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