- The Washington Times - Monday, June 3, 2002

Memphis, Tenn., will play host to what has been billed as one of the biggest heavyweight fights in history Saturday except that when the hype is peeled away it becomes more like a "Legends of Boxing" match than a super fight.
In one corner Saturday night at the Pyramid will be the reigning International Boxing Federation and World Boxing Council heavyweight champion, Lennox Lewis, a 37-year-old whose skills are diminishing according to court testimony by his own trainer, Emanuel Steward.
In the other corner, will be Mike Tyson, age 36, who has fought a total of 21 rounds in the past five years against little more than sparring partners like Julius Francis and Brian Nielsen, with one disqualification and two no contests during that span.
So how does such a fight a fight that is taking place at least six years too late wind up being a defining one for heavyweight boxing? One reason is because the heavyweight division has been mediocre at best of late. That is why you have fighters like Lewis, Tyson and a 39-year-old Evander Holyfield who defeated a younger opponent, former champion Hasim Rahman, Saturday night in Atlantic City, N.J. still ruling the division. There are no great young heavyweights to take their place.
Instead, today's heavyweight division has the likes of Rahman; Jameel McCline, a former Lewis sparring partner; Oliver McCall, a former Tyson sparring partner who remains ranked among the top 10 heavyweights despite a series of drug problems that has landed him in jail over the past few years; Wladimir and Vitali Klitschko, two giant Russian heavyweights who are virtually unknown in the United States; and David Tua, who looked like a smaller version of Butterbean when he lost to Lewis in their November 2000 bout.
The World Boxing Association heavyweight champion is John Ruiz, who was knocked out in 19 seconds by Tua, and his No. 1 challenger is Kirk Johnson, another anonymous heavyweight with neither the talent nor the resume to get anyone's attention.
"The heavyweight division is on the verge of being called off because of lack of interest," boxing author and historian Bert Sugar said.
We may never again see the glory days of the 1970s, when the division was at its peak, filled with talented heavyweights like Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier, George Foreman, Ken Norton, Ron Lyle, Jerry Quarry, Earnie Shavers and Jimmy Young.
Why? Because all of the great heavyweight fighters of this and future generations are playing in the NFL and NBA. In another time, New Jersey Nets forward Kenyon Martin might have become a heavyweight fighter.
"A big kid with athletic ability now can make more money playing pro ball than fighting," Sugar said. "If you go into pro sports, you want to make money. At the entry level of boxing, the money is just not there. Boxing does not give out signing bonuses like other sports do."
In the 1960s, a big, strong young athlete still had the potential to make more money in boxing than in the NFL or NBA. That began to change in the 1970s, and now, unless you are an elite heavyweight and can command a big payday through pay-per-view, the money does not equal the risks. After all, boxing is a tough way to make a living.
"All of the potential heavyweights are in other sports today," boxing promoter Dan Goossen said. "If you are a big kid and you can play football or basketball and you have a choice between those sports and boxing, it's not hard to figure out which one they will chose. The real good big men are taking the money they can get in other sports, and there is no changing that. That's the way it is."
Veteran boxing trainer Angelo Dundee, though, believes the heavyweight division simply is going through a down time.
"The division has highs and lows, and it's just going through a low cycle now," he said. "It was that way sometimes before, even when Joe Louis and Rocky Marciano were heavyweight champions."
Dundee believes that, like the NBA and NHL, boxing is about to get an infusion of talent from Eastern Europe, including the Klitschko brothers. Wladimir Klitschko, the World Boxing Organization heavyweight champion, will defend his title against Ray Mercer, another aging heavyweight who has been able to hang around the weak division, on June 29 in Atlantic City. Dundee himself is training a young Russian heavyweight who is 6-0.
"Fighters come from different areas during different times," he said. "I think you're going to see the next great generation of heavyweights coming from Europe."
Which poses the question: Without a strong American presence in the division, will anyone care about heavyweight boxing once Lewis, Tyson and Holyfield disappear from the scene if they ever do? After all, it is that lack of talent that allows fighters like 44-year-old Tim Witherspoon to remain heavyweight contenders, and it is why so much attention is being paid to Saturday night's fight between two boxers well past their primes.

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