The last year has been a bad one for boxing. Not just a regular, run of the mill bad year. A really bad year. An El Niño year, if you will.
One of boxing's many cliches reads "As goes the heavyweight division, so goes the sport." And like all cliches, beyond the catch-phrase lies the cold hard truth. Boxing's current winter began in the heavyweight division one year ago when Hurricane Tyson took a bite out of the coastline of Evander Holyfield's ear. Since that disgrace the sport has limped into 1997 with a host of challenge-evading champions, questionable decisions, and more than the usual political bickering. Big megafights have been replaced by ludicrous matchups involving undeserving challengers and champions both. As usual, hovering somewhere near the eye of this unrelenting storm is the superfantabulous grandmaster of pompositiousness, Don King.
Those of us seeking a forecast for clearer skies had better not put away our mittens yet. The Ice Storm of bad boxing cards is heading to your horizon on June 6. On that night, for $39.95 you can watch four boxing matchups that one by one exemplify boxing's biggest problems: worthless mandatory challengers, aging fighters endangering their health for one more payday, and champions uninterested in testing themselves or fighting the best available opposition.
At the top of the heap is the main-event. Boxing's one ray of sunlight, the honorable warrior Evander Holyfield, is lacing up the gloves and heading into the one-time mecca of boxing, Madison Square Garden. His challenger is 6'7" Henry Akinwande. Yes, that's right, Henry Akinwande. The same man who disgraced himself and his sport by being disqualified last year for hugging Lennox Lewis like a long lost relative at a family reunion.
For reasons too convoluted to rehash in this space, the WBA named Akinwande the #1 contender after a bout with blown up cruiserweight Orlin Norris. By mandating that Holyfield face Akinwande or be stripped of his belt, the WBA thrust upon the boxing public a bout which no one really wants to see. Not even Holyfield, who has repeatedly told reporters that if he had his choice, he wouldn't be fighting Akinwande at all.
Indeed Holyfield should have little trouble with his taller opponent. Although Akinwande holds 5" inch height and 9" reach advantages, he's ill suited for the type of attack Holyfield brings into the ring. Akinwande, a former WBO heavyweight champion who's 33-1-1 record can safely be described as "padded", does sport a sharp jab. However he has shown only occasional power in his career and will have a hard time slowing down a man who's taken the best from Tyson, Foreman, and Bowe.
Akinwande's biggest asset has been the guidance he's received from veteran trainer Don Turner, who unlike Eddie Futch, chose not to sit out the heavyweight fight between two of his charges. Turner will be in Holyfield's corner June 6. Kronk-founder Emanuel Steward is Henry's hired gun for the night. Those that think Steward will be any more effective in preventing Akinwande from hugging should think again. After being disqualified against Lewis for excessive holding, Henry wasted no time in hugging Orlin Norris so much that he again was penalized, albeit only a point. Akinwande may be determined to reestablish the reputation he has tarnished, but when Holyfield's body attack begins to land on Henry's particularly narrow torso, look for the holding and hugging to resurface.
Holyfield may have lucked out with Akinwande as an opponent. He'll pocket a quick $10 million for his efforts while simultaneously fighting a perfect tuneup for the towering Lennox Lewis. Only problem is that we have to watch it.
Also on the Don King card is newly recrowned WBA middleweight champion William Joppy. Rather than unify against one of the other 160 pound champions King has under contract, his opponent is non other than the 47 year old Manos de Piedras, Roberto Duran. Another matchup that makes boxing fans shake their heads in disbelief.
Roberto Duran, more than 15 years removed from his prime, is coming back into the ring for the same reason that most every aged champion continues to battle: money. The millions Duran made in the 1980's have been squandered and the greatest lightweight of all time reportedly owes millions more to the most powerful alphabet organization around: the I.R.S. The $250,000 he'll make this night will be seized by the feds before he can even see it.
Joppy has promised to show no mercy on Duran, and well he shouldn't. They will be fighting in the exact same ring in which Duran surprised pundits by defeating the heavily favored junior middleweight champion Davey Moore. But that fight was 15 years ago. Just making weight will be no small task for Duran, whose between-fight weight gains are legendary. After struggling to make 168 in his last fight, one can only wonder what type of physical condition Duran will be in at 160. William Joppy can box or bang and he may get an opportunity to do both if Duran cannot summon the strength to keep Joppy off of him.
Robert Duran was added to the pay-per-view card to sell tickets. It's estimated that an additional 2,000-6,000 seats in Madison Square Garden may be sold to Latin fans of Duran's who will come just to see the once great superstar. It's unfortunate that they'll have to see him take a beating...and not get paid.
Two fighters who are getting paid are Johnny Tapia and Christy Martin. No, they're not fighting each other (although it might be a good pairing). They are both fighting relative unknowns in bouts that can at best be called "tune-ups". Johnny Tapia's two world titles will not be on the line when he takes on his former (and possibly future) sparring partner Carlos Hernandez. The 10 round fight is another in the big money set-ups Don King has provided for Tapia. After making $200,000 against his toughest opponent in Danny Romero, King has paid Tapia more than that in each of three subsequent bouts against less than world class competition. With big matchups against Pensalosa, Too Sharp Johnson and Romero on the horizon, Tapia and King seem content to coast.
Also coasting is Christy Martin. As the novelty of women's boxing wears off, Christy Martin remains a novelty nonetheless. Despite being offered between $500,000 and $1,000,000 to fight Lucia Rijker, Martin refuses to acknowledge the one challenger with any name recognition whatsoever. Preferring to fight the unknowns King keeps coming up with (this time it's Belgium's Daniella Somers) instead of Rijker, Martin may be holding back the sport she brought to the forefront. The Showtime announcing team never wastes an opportunity to remind us that the WBC issued belt she wears is only considered an "honorary" title. The sanctioning bodies that do recognize female champions, including the enigmatic duo of the WIBF and the IWBF, have been unable to secure fights between their champions and Martin. And so Martin continues to appear on King's pay per views as a sideshow attraction rather than a champion who takes on the biggest fights and the best opponents. But who can blame her? All of her male counterparts on this card seem to be in the same sinking ship.
And so it goes in boxing's El Niño year. The biggest and most expensive pay-per-view boxing event of the year is full of matchups that not only fail the boxing fan, but the sport itself. Boxing limps forward. The week after Don King's New York debacle, boxing's other marquee name, Oscar DelaHoya, faces a mandatory challenger so lightly regarded that Vegas sports books have labelled the fight an exhibition. At press time, the doubleheader of Hamed/McKinney and Gatti/Kelley is being scrapped due to injury, Larry Holmes and George Foreman are signed to fight for the senior title, and Mike Tyson is headed back into the ring.
Button your coats. It's going to be a long winter.
© 2001 Chris Bushnell. All rights reserved.