Saturday, January 23, 2016

The Heavyweight Landscape In 2016

The biggest story as the year 2015 came to a close in Boxing’s Heavyweight division was Tyson Fury’s twelve round unanimous decision victory in November over long-reigning unified IBF/WBO/WBA/IBO Heavyweight world champion Wladimir Klitschko. Klitschko, who had reigned over the division since regaining a portion of the World Heavyweight championship in 2006 had not only successfully unified four of five world championships in the division, but also compiled eighteen successful title defenses in his second reign as a Heavyweight world champion.

Fury had not only defeated the most dominant Heavyweight of the last decade, but he also put an end to what seemed to potentially be a historic reign as Klitschko was nearing challenging the feats of former Heavyweight world champions Joe Louis and Larry Holmes. Louis holds the all-time record for successful world championship title defenses for any weight division in the history of Boxing of twenty-five. Holmes meanwhile, had successfully defended his Heavyweight world championship twenty times during his reign atop the division. There is no doubt as one of three of the most dominant champions in Heavyweight history that Wladimir Klitschko had put himself in elite company.

Although Fury and Klitschko will meet in a rematch at some point in 2016, Fury’s victory also created an interesting scenario for the division. Although the International Boxing Federation’s (IBF) Heavyweight world championship was at stake when Fury defeated Klitschko, it will not be at stake in the rematch, despite Klitschko invoking his right for an immediate rematch. This was due to IBF number one contender Vyacheslav Glazkov having previously stepped aside to allow Klitschko and Fury to face each other. This created a scenario where the winner was obligated within ten days following the fight to agree to face Glazkov in their next fight.

Of course, with Klitschko invoking his rematch clause that meant Glazkov would either have to step aside again or the IBF could strip Fury of its world championship and allow Glazkov to fight for the vacant championship against the next available highest rated contender. This is essentially what happened and the IBF world championship was decided on January 16th at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, NY as Glazkov met IBF number three rated contender Charles Martin.

The bout between Glazkov and Martin can be described by one word “Inconclusive.” After two rounds where both fighters engaged in a feeling out process, Glazkov would slip and go down to the canvas in the third round suffering what was later revealed to be a torn ACL during the slip and could not continue giving Martin the victory and becoming the second American to hold a Heavyweight world championship in the division currently.

What makes that noteworthy is the other American, WBC world champion Deontay Wilder also fought on this card in defense of his championship against WBC number six rated contender Artur Szpilka. Wilder, who won the WBC world championship with a twelve round unanimous decision over Bermane Stiverne in January of last year went on to have a successful 2015 by successfully defending the championship twice against contenders Eric Molina and Johann Duhaupas.

Wilder looked to continue that success when he took on Szpilka. What interested me about this fight was to see whether or not Szpilka, a fighter who entered his first world championship fight having won twenty of twenty-one professional fights and scoring fifteen knockouts in those twenty wins could find a way to get to Wilder, who with the exception of his fight against Bermane Stiverne had knocked out every other opponent he had faced as a professional.

Even though there is no doubt that Deontay Wilder has established himself as one of the feared “Knockout Artists” in the sport, this was a fight where an argument should be made that Artur Szpilka was able to provide the champion with a significant test. What impressed me about Szpilka’s performance as I watched this fight was how effective he was in using lateral movement, which not only made Wilder miss frequently with his offense, but also made it difficult for the champion to fight at a distance where he could dictate how the bout was fought. It was clearly one of the most competitive fights of Wilder’s career in the eyes of this observer.

A fight that was fought at a sporadic pace where both fighters looked for opportunities to counter the other. Although many of the rounds in this fight were close, the difference in my eyes centered on how well Szpilka was able to move laterally and establish himself as an elusive target. It should also not be overlooked that despite his consistent lateral movement throughout the bout, Szpilka also succeeded in periodically backing the champion up and landing short spurts of offense without taking much punishment in return.

Deontay Wilder was also able to have his share of moments throughout particularly when he connected with flush right hands on the challenger. For a fighter who has had to deal with his share of criticism regarding the level of opposition he has faced throughout his career, Deontay Wilder showed in this fight, despite the difficulty Szpilka had given him that he is a fighter that can deal with different styles and one who can adjust as a fight progresses. Wilder was also able to catch up with the elusive Szpilka to end the fight in dramatic fashion in the ninth round.

Wilder connected with a sudden, but devastating counter right hand that sent Szpilka down and out cold on the canvas in what should be considered an early knockout of the year candidate. What the card in Brooklyn on January 16th also accomplished was for the first time in over a decade two fights for versions of the World Heavyweight championship took place on the same card.

What should also not be overlooked coming out of that card is the Heavyweight division now has something that has been missing from the division for over a decade. Two Americans Deontay Wilder and Charles Martin officially have a claim as Heavyweight champion of the world.

How this will affect the landscape of the division in the long-term remains to be seen. The landscape for the year ahead however, appears to be quite interesting. In regard to Deontay Wilder, he should have a mandatory title defense against current WBC number one contender Alexander Povetkin at some point in the near future. If Wilder can successfully defend his title for what would be the fourth time when he meets Povetkin, it is not out of the realm of possibility that he could face the winner of the Tyson Fury-Wladimir Klitschko rematch.

In regard to where Charles Martin goes from here, it is difficult to say. One potential option could be a rematch with Vyacheslav Glazkov once Glazkov has recovered from his injury. After all, the fight between the two ended in “Inconclusive” fashion and there might be interest among Boxing fans in seeing a second encounter between two in the hope that a more conclusive outcome is rendered.

Another possibility that may be available for Martin could be making the first defense of his world title against another top contender and perhaps a former world champion such as Bermane Stiverne. Whomever Martin faces next it will be interesting to see whether or not he can emerge as a potential opponent for either the Wilder-Povetkin winner or whomever emerges victorious in the Fury-Klitschko rematch.

One recent development that was announced earlier this week that could have an impact on the landscape of the division in 2016 was the announcement by the World Boxing Association (WBA) that it will hold what it calls a tournament involving unified WBO/WBA/IBO champion Tyson Fury, former champion Wladimir Klitschko, Luis Ortiz, Ruslan Chagaev, Lucas Browne, and Fres Oquendo in what will determine one WBA champion and eliminate the designation of interim/regular champion status in the WBA’s Heavyweight ratings.

It is no secret to those who have regularly read my work over the years that I have been calling for a revamp or an elimination of the concept of “Interim” championships in the sport. As I have said several times over the years although the structure of the WBA ratings not just in the Heavyweight division, but in all of the sport’s seventeen weight classes might be well-intentioned it has created more confusion than it has created solutions. Although it is unclear as of this writing as to whether or not this might be the beginning of the WBA revamping the concept of “Interim” designations in its organization’s ratings in every weight class, this observer hopes that further progress will be made.

As for the would be tournament concept that has been laid out by the WBA, the winner of the Fury-Klitschko rematch will be the unified world champion in the division, which includes the WBA world championship. Whether or not the winner that fight will emerge as the last man standing over the other top WBA contenders who are involved in this concept remains to be seen. If a clear number one contender emerges to take on whomever the unified Heavyweight world champion might be, it should be considered progress.

Regardless of how the WBA’s tournament concept will impact the rest of the division it is clear that the Heavyweights have reemerged as one of the sport’s more interesting weight classes not just among Boxing experts, but more importantly Boxing fans. It is something that I believe has been long overdue.

“And That’s The Boxing Truth.”

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