It feels like eons since the heavyweight division mattered in boxing. Even after the retirement of Muhammad Ali in 1981, the division remained vibrant with champions the likes of Larry Holmes to Mike Tyson to Riddick Bowe and Evander Holyfield and then Lennox Lewis.
But since Lewis retired in 2003, it feels as if the heavyweight division has been in hibernation. The reason for that is inescapable. Lewis said it’s nothing personal against the Klitschko brothers — Vitali and Wladimir — who dominated after he abdicated, but the Ukrainian giants lost touch with the American audience.
Lewis was in Brooklyn Saturday night to see American WBC heavyweight champion Deontay Wilder defend against Polish challenger Artur Szpilka on a card that also included American Charles Martin fighting Ukrainian Vyacheslav Glazkov for the vacant IBF title at the Barclays Center. That title became available after Wladimir Klitschko’s upset loss to England’s Tyson Fury in November, and like so many others in boxing, Lewis is hoping the division is on the verge of a renaissance.
“I don’t want to say anything bad about the Klitschkos, but when you have two brothers that don’t want to fight each other and both of them hold one part of the heavyweight title, it becomes . . . part of the problem,” Lewis said. “When I was there, I held it by myself. So, it was kind of devalued [during the Klitschkos’ joint reign].
“Then, you have the Klitschko brothers boxing in Europe because they haven’t really captured the minds of the American fans. American fans want knockouts, coming from the Tyson era, Holyfield, the Lewis era. Even if you don’t knock the person out, they at least want to see you trying. They didn’t really get that.”
The numbers say the Klitschkos delivered a high percentage of knockouts, but the point Lewis was making goes more to a matter of style. He and Bowe followed George Foreman as forerunners of the supersized heavyweights, but they had an element of athleticism and skill lacked by the plodding Klitschkos.
“The boxing aspect of European fighting is gone,” Lewis said. “They’re being more technical, not taking chances, the movement is gone. It’s really down to just throwing a punch, holding your hands up and going body to body with the other guy and punching inside. The sweet science of the sport is kind of lacking.”
Part of the reason for the decline of heavyweight boxing was beyond the control of the Klitschkos, who encountered a landscape largely devoid of worthy contenders. Lewis said it’s becoming harder to find highly skilled, athletic big men like himself and Bowe.
“The problem is a lot of the guys are coming in late as heavyweights,” Lewis said. “They don’t have the extensive amateur career, which I had, going to two Olympics.”
Although the 30-year-old Wilder became an Olympic bronze medalist in 2008, he didn’t start boxing until he was 19. But Lewis sees in him and American contender Bryant Jennings some of the necessary qualities to energize the heavyweight division.
“I see boxing coming back, using that jab and good movement,” Lewis said of Wilder’s style. “He has a good right hand, which a lot of heavyweights lack, but he throws it long and powerful and he tries to get it there, which is important. He started a bit late and still has a lot to learn, but he’s definitely on the right road.”
Although Jennings lost a unanimous decision to Wladimir Klitschko last April at Madison Square Garden, Lewis was impressed. “I actually thought Jennings did well,” Lewis said. “Wladimir stayed out of America for such a long while before coming back to New York. American fans want to see knockouts. He should have been out there trying to knock out Jennings, but he wasn’t able to do it.”
As for England’s Fury, Lewis admitted he was surprised by his upset and believes Klitschko can regain his titles. “In that particular fight, he did look a bit old,” Lewis said of Klitschko. “Whether he still has the energy for it or not is really up to him.”
In Lewis’ view, the time is now for new blood to return the heavyweight division to prominence.