As far as sports go, few have managed out-point boxing in the realm of self-promotion and hyperbole. This week has seen British heavyweight David Haye become the latest fighter to proclaim upon himself the status of ‘the saviour of boxing’.
Haye has finally agreed a contract to fight Wladimir Klitschko, the 6ft 6in Ukrainian who currently holds the IBF, WBO and IBO versions of the heavyweight world title. Klitschko’s older brother, Vitali, holds the WBC version of the title and is regarded by the influential Ring Magazine as the top heavyweight in the world. Many commentators and fans have pointed to the two giant Ukrainians as the problem with boxing; they are effective fighters, but they rarely excite a crowd.
Haye, by contrast, is the brash, fast talking, big punching Londoner who has recently stepped up from cruiserweight and says he can re-ignite the heavyweight division and bring some much needed life back to the sport of boxing.
In a press conference this week Haye took his confidence to a new level, claiming that “I’m taking this fight to save boxing. I’m doing this for Jack Dempsey, Rocky Marciano, Joe Louis, Mohammed Ali, Joe Frazier and all the other great smaller heavyweights of the past”.
Boxers are, by their very nature, no strangers to outlandish claims. Mike Tyson once went as far as saying he planned to eat Lennox Lewis’ children, before promptly losing badly and adopting a much more respectful tone in the post-fight press conference.
Boxing has traditionally looked to the heavyweight division as its premier selling point. During the 1980s and early 1990s, whilst Mike Tyson was the most feared heavyweight for generations, the sport enjoyed great success. During the mid to late 90s, Lennox Lewis and Evander Holyfield were amongst the most recognisable and bankable sportsmen in the world. Since the retirement of these great fighters, there has been no single heavyweight fighter who has captured the imagination of the viewing public, as much as the promoters try to convince us they have ‘the next big thing’ on their hands.
But fight fans across the world are still watching some amazing contests. Aside from the heavyweight division, the sport has rarely been in better shape. Ironically, it is the demise of boxing’s premier tier which has allowed the fighters in other weight categories to flourish and reach new worldwide audiences. Pay-per-view records have been smashed in recent years, not by heavyweight contests, but by match-ups at lower divisions.
Fighters like Oscar de la Hoya, Manny Pacquiao, Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Britian’s Ricky Hatton and Joe Calzaghe have all made a huge impact on the world stage and have become much more recognisable than any current heavyweight. De la Hoya’s fights have made over $600m and his defeat to Floyd Mayweather Jr in 2007 set the record as the highest grossing pay-per-view fight in history, making a staggering $120m worldwide.
Indeed, with de la Hoya and Mayweather both retired, Hatton and Pacquiao have the two biggest followings in the sport. Their much awaited match up takes place on the 2nd of May in Las Vegas.
As for David Haye’s claim to greatness, we will have to wait until the 20th of June to find out if he can live up to the hype against Wladimir Klitschko and thus revive interest in the heavyweight division. For now though, it appears the boxing viewing public have enough great fights to watch. It is just possible they have not even missed the heavyweights at all.