A Look At Today’s Heavyweight Championship

By Francis Walker
Updated: June 24, 2007

Boxing Gloves NEW YORK — The heavyweight division has changed a lot through the years. Joe Louis, Muhammad Ali, and Larry Holmes, three of the greatest heavyweight champions of all-time, fought often and frequently against the best available contenders. During their respective eras, only one recognizable champion existed and everyone had to fight one another to receive a title shot.

Today, there are four recognized heavyweight championships — the WBA, WBC, IBF, and more recently the WBO. Although Wladimir Klitschko is recognized as the consensus world’s best heavyweight, contenders do not have to fight for his IBF title to receive a title shot.

In April 2005, James Toney’s WBA heavyweight title win against John Ruiz was changed to a no-contest after testing positive for steroids. The WBA ruled Toney was ineligible to fight for that organizations title for two years. Toney had one fight before challenging Hasim Rahman for the WBC title the following year.

When Klitschko lost a WBO title fight to Lamon Brewster, he jumped ship from that sanctioning body’s championship to another. Klitschko beat Sam Peter in an IBF title eliminator in September 2005 for the right to challenge then champion Chris Byrd for the championship. Klitschko knocked Byrd out in the seventh round and has made two successful title defenses since April 2006.

Byrd, who beat Evander Holyfield for the vacant IBF title in December 2002, was world champion for nearly three and a half years. Byrd didn’t fight more than twice per year. No one wanted to fight him — Hasim Rahman, James Toney, Dominick Guinn, Joe Mesi, Sam Peter, John Ruiz, and even Lennox Lewis or Mike Tyson. These guys had options to fight for championships other than the IBF’s.

Before Nikolai Valuev lost the WBA heavyweight title to Ruslan Chagev in April, the 7-foot-3, 325-pound giant beat Monte Barrett, Jameel McCline, and an undeserving Owen Beck in title defenses.

Valuev’s selection of opposition was safe voluntary defenses, as thoughts of unifying the world heavyweight championship didn’t enter his mind. The one meaningful opponent that was mandated by the World Boxing Association, Valuev lost.

When Shannon Briggs knocked out twelve straight opponents (2002-06), no heavyweight champion considered giving him a title shot. Briggs was supposed to have fought Klitschko last year.

Briggs was turned down because “Dr. Steel Hammer,” who has a doctorate degree in sports medicine and is a very hard puncher himself, didn’t want to fight another dangerous puncher. Klitschko instead chose to fight a tap-dancing boxer in Calvin Brock.

Instead of meeting Klitschko, Briggs faced Sergui Liakhovich in November for the WBO title. Briggs knocked Liakhovich out at 2:59 seconds of the final round to win a heavyweight championship.

Unifying the World Heavyweight Championship

When Mike Tyson unified the WBC, WBA, and IBF heavyweight titles, all of the championships remained intact for several years before he was KO’d in the 10th round by Buster Douglas in one of the biggest upsets in boxing history on February 11, 1990. Every top heavyweight contender at the time had to go through Tyson to fight for a heavyweight title.

There are plenty of good heavyweights in boxing today doing good things. As far as great heavyweights are concerned — there are too many titles and too many ways for heavyweights to find reasons not to face each other. It’s very difficult to unify the world heavyweight championship.

However, the longer a heavyweight champion can turn away challengers approved by their respective sanctioning bodies, the better they can persuade the public that they are the heavyweight champion.

In the last 18 months, Briggs, Valuev, Rahman, Liakhovich, Brewster, and John Ruiz have all lost a piece of the heavyweight championship. Klitschko is currently boxing’s longest reigning heavyweight champion at nearly 15 months.

The Immediate Future

The action in the heavyweight division is slowly picking up once again. A few old faces have remerged onto the heavyweight contender scene.

Evander Holyfield and Lou Savarese, both 3-0 in recent comebacks, will take center stage against each other next week. “Holyfield vs. Savarese: The Road to the Heavyweight Championship” will be broadcast on pay-per-view at a suggested retail of $29.95 on June 30.

At age 42, the 6-feet-2 and 217 pounds, Holyfield continues to train hard and remains in tremendous shape. Savarese will be Holyfield’s fourth opponent in less than 11 months.

Holyfield has knocked out two of his last three opponents including journeyman Jeremy Bates (TKO 2) and Vinny Maddalone (TKO 3). Holyfield went twelve solid rounds against heavyweight contender Fres Oquendo last November.

The combined record of Holyfield’s quality of opposition in his last three fights is 74-17-1, 53 KOs . Savarese, who has lost key fights to Mike Tyson, George Foreman, Michael Grant, David Izon, and Kirk Johnson, has feasted on opponents whose records combined for 55-45-2 in his last three bouts.

July 7th is approaching. That’s a big night for boxing, as IBF heavyweight champion Wladimir Klitschko will attempt to avenge one of his three professional losses. Klitschko will battle Lamon Brewster in Cologne, Germany.

Three years ago, Klitschko was easily beating Brewster, before he was stopped in the fifth round. With the help of famed trainer Emmanuel Steward, Klitschko has improved his balance, range, punching power, and accuracy.

Klitschko has knocked out four of his last six opponents including: Chris Byrd, Ray Austin, and handed Calvin Brock and Eliseo Castillo their first professional losses.

Since beating Klitschko for a vacant WBO title, Brewster successfully defending the title three times before losing it in March 2006 to Sergui Liakhovich. Brewster suffered a detached retina and hasn’t fought in nearly 16 months.

Should Klitschko beat Brewster, there is talk of Klitschko fighting again in the fall.

Wladimir’s older brother Vitali Klitschko returns after a two-year retirement to meet Jameel McCline in September. Vitali, the WBC’s “Champion Emeritus” guaranteed a heavyweight title fight against the long-overdue match-up between current champion Maskaev and top-ranked Sam Peter in September.

Oliver McCall, at age 42, is on the verge of challenging for a heavyweight championship. On June 16, McCall won a 12-round decision against Sinan Samil Sam in a WBC title eliminator.

McCall has 23 victories in his last 26 bouts having lost only once with two no-contests. In September 1994, McCall won the WBC title with a second-round, one-punch knockout of Lennox Lewis. McCall lost the title to Frank Bruno in September the following year and lost to Lewis in a February 1997 rematch.

McCall, who also has a first-round KO of current WBC champion Oleg Maskaev, hasn’t fought anyone significant in recent years, but he’s been very busy. McCall has already fought twice in 2007, four times in 2006, and five times in 2005.

Hasim Rahman, now 34, recently fought for the first time since losing the WBC title last year, won a 10-round decision against Taurus Skyes on June 14. Rahman weighed a career-high 261 pounds and wasn’t too impressive. Rahman said he needs to come down in weight in needs two of three more tune-ups before challenging for a heavyweight title.