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The super middleweight division: 25 years of talent, action and drama

15
Oct

Nigel Benn loses his temper at a press conference before his rematch with rival Chris Eubank, who happily ignores him. The conflicting personalities of the British super middleweights was as much a factor in their popularity as their undeniable talent and heart. Their rematch was one of the first mega-fights in the relatively new 168-pound division. Photo / THE RING

The Super Six Boxing Classic, Showtime’s unique tournament involving six of the world’s top super middleweights, may very well be the pinnacle of the 168-pound division.

Of course, that might not be saying much given that the 25-year-old weight class is the second youngest division in the sport.

To get an idea of how young the division is consider that seven of the eight original weight classes were established in the late 1800s. (Only the light heavyweight division began after the turn of the 20th Century, in 1903.)



Still, during the division’s quarter century of existence it has been home to a pair of all-time greats (albeit briefly) and at least half a dozen future hall of famers who put on some of the most memorable and dramatic fights and performances of the last 20 years.

As the first round of the group stage of the Super Six on Saturday approaches, the boxing world turns it’s eyes to Berlin, Germany, where former middleweight champ Jermain Taylor will take on undefeated former 160-pound standout Arthur Abraham, and to Nottingham, England, where unbeaten titleholder Carl Froch defends his belt against undefeated U.S. Olympian Andre Dirrell.

Twenty five years ago there was no such attention when the International Boxing Federation, the New Jersey-based sanctioning organization that had been recently formed itself, held the first 168-pound title bout between Murray Sutherland and Ernie Singletary.

“When Sutherland fought Singletary for the first super middleweight title there was a collective sneer from the media,” Ring magazine editor Nigel Collins recalled. “Sutherland at his best was a fringe contender. Singletary wasn’t even that, he was a good club fighter.

“At the time there were a lot of guys who had been covering boxing for a long time and they had remembered the sport the way it had been in decades past, with either eight or just 10 divisions. So the super middleweight division was seen the way the alphabet title belts are viewed to today, just as a way for the sanctioning groups to earn money.”

Sutherland-Singletary came and went without fanfare but the bout got the ball rolling in the new division and the other sanctioning organizations followed suit with their own versions of a 168-pound title later in the decade.

Here is a look at the most important bouts that took place in the new division during it’s first decade.

The 1980s

The division began with a whimper and the fact that its most dominant fighter, Chong Pal Park, only once left his native South Korea once during his underrated title reign didn’t help to attract attention or respect. However, the weight class received a huge push in recognition from the sport’s biggest names at the end of the decade.

March 28, 1984: Murray Sutherland UD 15 Ernie Singletary, Atlantic City

(Sutherland won the newly created IBF title.)

July 22, 1984: Chong Pal Park KO 11 Sutherland, South Korea

(Park won the IBF title.)

Dec. 6, 1987: Park KO 2 Jesus Gallardo, South Korea

(Park won the newly created WBA title.)

Nov. 4, 1988: Thomas Hearns MD 12 James Kinchen

(Hearns, who was coming off his shocking knockout loss to Iran Barkley at middleweight, had to survive some rocky moments — including a fourth-round knockdown — to eke out a majority decision over the heavy-handed Kinchen and win the newly created WBO title. Kinchen’s NABF title was also on the line.)

Nov. 7, 1988: Sugar Ray Leonard KO 9 Don Lalonde, Las Vegas

(Leonard got up from a fourth-round knockdown and viciously wore down Lalonde to earn the newly created WBC title. Lalonde’s light heavyweight belt was also on the line, which was odd considering the Canadian had to make 168 pounds while Leonard tipped the scales at 165 pounds wearing shoes and a jumpsuit that had pockets filled with silver dollars.)

June 12, 1989: Leonard Draw 12 Hearns, Las Vegas

(Leonard got up from two knockdowns, one in the third round and the other in the 11th, to badly rock Hearns during a furious final-round rally that enabled him to salvage a controversial split-draw. The fighters’ super middleweight belts were on the line but few cared in part because their legends were bigger than any division but also because Leonard weighed in at 160 pounds while the fight contract limited Hearns to 162¾ pounds.)

Dec. 7, 1989: Leonard UD 12 Roberto Duran, Las Vegas

(Leonard out-pointed his rival in uneventful fashion. His super middleweight title was on the line but both fighters came in at or under the middleweight limit. Duran was coming off an upset middleweight title win over Iran Barkley that was deemed Fight of the Year by THE RING.)

The 1990s

The division blossomed during this decade with the help of up-and-coming stars such as Roy Jones Jr., James Toney, Nigel Benn and Chris Eubank, and the assistance of U.S. subscription cable networks.

HBO had contracts with Jones and Toney and was committed to showcasing both young standouts, beginning with a triple-header (with Iran Barkley) in December of 1992. On that Atlantic City card, Jones dominated Percy Harris to a sensational fourth-round stoppage and Toney systematically broke down veteran Doug DeWitt in super middleweight bouts.

The card set up Toney’s challenge to Barkley, which set the stage for his showdown with Jones almost two years later. Toney-Jones was, and perhaps remains, the most significant super middleweight bout to American fight fans.

However, Jones and Toney were not the only elite fighters in the super middleweight division. Thanks to Showtime’s business relationships with promoters Don King and Frank Warren, the network aired the other standouts of the increasingly competitive weight class, which included Michael Nunn and Nigel Benn in the early-to-middle part of the decade. Showtime also introduced the enigmatic Chris Eubank to American audiences.

Eubank’s rematch with Benn was the biggest super middleweight bout in British history and arguably one of the most high-profile European fights of the decade. The two Brits did as much for the division in Europe as Toney-Jones did in the United States. Together, the foursome helped legitimize the division.

“What happened is that well known fighters started competing at super middleweight and that’s what turned the tide of public opinion,” Collins said. “If it’s a good fight, fans will show up. That’s No. 1, 2 and 3 of promoting. Fans don’t really care about the weight classes. They care about the fighters.

“Leonard started up a little interest at the end of the previous decade, and then you had guys like Iran Barkley, James Toney and Roy Jones rise to super middleweight, but one of the things that really helped the division and set the stage for those American fighters was the rivalry between Nigel Benn and Chris Eubank. They were drawing large crowds in the UK and it was because they were good fighters who were charismatic in their own way.

“Eubank was an over-the-top personality. He started the elaborate ring walks before Naseem Hamed came along. He had this strange accent and played the dandy, while Benn was the complete opposite. He was a down-and-dirty slugger who had no pretension. They were both Brits and they had conflicting personalities, but they could also fight. So when they fought their rematch, they drew more than 40,000 to a stadium. Shortly after their fight Toney and then Jones came along. By the mid-1990s super middleweight was a division to be watched simply because it was home to better fighters.”

Indeed, the 1990s was a great time to be a boxing fan and high-profile super middleweight fights were often on the premium cable networks.

HBO televised Toney’s 168-pound title victory over Barkley and his defenses against Tony Thorton, Tim Littles and Prince Charles Williams. The network showed Toney-Jones on it’s pay-per-view arm, then-called TVKO, and then aired Jones’ title defenses against Antwun Byrd, Thorton, Eric Lucas and Bryant Brannon.

Showtime kicked off its 1990s super middleweight coverage with Hearns’ unanimous decision over Michael Olajide in April of 1990. The network aired a total of 27 super middleweight bouts during the 1990s, including Benn-Eubank II and all of Nunn’s title bouts.

Showtime’s coverage wasn’t all good. Fans had to sit through way too many Frankie Liles title defenses. However, the network’s commitment to the division helped build awareness of the healthy European boxing scene among American fans.

On to the fights:

Jan. 10, 1992: Iran Barkley KO 2 Darin Van Horn, New York

(Barkley, an exciting slugger and former middleweight titleholder who had been in with the best, relieved the Kentucky college student of a super middleweight belt in quick and brutal fashion.)

Sept. 12, 1992: Michael Nunn SD 12 Victor Cordoba, Las Vegas

(Nunn, a talented former middleweight titleholder who never realized his vast potential, won a 168-pound title by narrowly out-pointing the capable South American contender.)

Oct. 3, 1992: Nigel Benn KO 4 Mauro Galvano, Italy

(The popular British bomber and former middleweight titleholder stopped the gutsy Italian titleholder on cuts to win a 168-pound belt.)

Feb. 13, 1993: James Toney RTD 9 Barkley, Las Vegas

(Toney outclassed and chopped up Barkley en route to one-sided stoppage to take the veteran’s title. Barkley’s trainer, former light heavyweight titleholder Eddie Mustafa Muhammad, did the right thing by keeping the proud warrior on his stool after the ninth round.)

Oct. 9, 1993: Benn Draw 12 Chris Eubank, Manchester

(The hotly contested rematch of a middleweight bout that Eubank won three years earlier didn’t just draw a live crowd of 41,000 to the Old Trafford soccer stadium in Manchester, 16.4 million people watched the bout on ITV, a terrestrial British network. A slight majority of the ringside press believed that Benn, who was knocked out in their first fight, deserved the decision in the rematch.)

March 5, 1994: Toney TKO 4 Tim Littles, Los Angles

(Toney rallied hard to stop his undefeated challenger in the fourth after a severe cut over his left eye, suffered in the previous round, threatened to end the contest. The bout was the main event of the card that hosted Oscar De La Hoya’s first title bout.)

July 29, 1994: Toney KO 12 Charles Williams, Las Vegas

(Toney was masterful in weathering and countering Williams’ relentless attack before breaking down the light heavyweight titleholder to a dramatic final-round knockout.)

Nov. 18, 1994: Roy Jones UD 12 Toney, Las Vegas

(Toney, who was unbeaten in 44 professional bouts and had faced the far better competition, was a slight betting favorite going into this high-profile event. However, most fans and boxing writers viewed it as an even fight due to Jones’ otherworldly talent and athletic ability. Those who picked Jones to win were on the money as the 1988 Olympian out-boxed, out-maneuvered and thoroughly embarrassed a sluggish Toney to a one-sided points win. Toney, who claimed that he was sick from having to drop more than 40 pounds, would not regain his pre-Jones form until the early part of this decade. With this significant victory, Jones launched his legend in earnest.)

February 25, 1995: Benn KO 10 Gerald McClellan, London

(Benn overcame the fearsome American middleweight titleholder in a fight that was breathtakingly savage, dramatic, inspirational and ultimately tragic. In the opening round, Benn was knocked clear out of the ring by McClellan, who was engaging in his first super middleweight bout after making three consecutive first-round KO defenses of the 160-pound title he wrested from Julian Jackson. Somehow Benn made it back into the ring, where the two bombers attacked each other like pit bulls to the near ecstasy of the passionate British crowd. McClellan dropped Benn again in the eighth round but the Brit refused to stay down. The American challenger began noticeably blinking down the stretch of the battle of attrition. He took a knee mid-way through the 10th round and was counted out before collapsing in his corner. McClellan spent weeks in a coma and though he eventually came out of it, he suffered permanent brain damage that severely impaired his memory, eye sight, hearing and ability to walk.)

March 18, 1995: Steve Collins UD 12 Chris Eubank, Ireland

(The perennial middleweight contender won a super middleweight title by handing Eubank his first loss in 44 pro bouts. Eubank was dropped in the eighth round. Collins was floored in the 10th. Like many of Eubank’s title bouts, it was a closely contested bout that could have gone either way.)

Sept. 9, 1995: Collins SD 12 Eubank, Ireland

(“The Celtic Warrior” repeated his narrow points win over Eubank, this time without knockdowns. Eubank briefly retired shortly after this bout.)

June 15, 1996: Jones RTD 11 Eric Lucas, Florida

(Jones played a semi-pro basketball game the afternoon of his title defense against the underrated Canadian challenger, who would go on to win a title of his own five years later.)

July 6, 1996: Collins TKO 4 Benn, Manchester

(Collins gained hero status in Ireland with his successful title defense over the respected former two-division titleholder, who twisted his ankle during the fight and could not continue.)

Nov. 9, 1996: Collins RTD 6 Benn, Manchester

(Collins crowded Benn with his signature pressure and body punching, keeping the fading warrior on his stool in their rematch. It was the last fight for Benn, who never regained his “Dark Destroyer” form after the McClellan tragedy.)

Oct. 11, 1997: Joe Calzaghe UD 12 Eubank, Sheffield

(The skilled and athletic up-and-comer from Wales dropped Eubank in first round and proceeded to dominate the vet to win a vacant title. It was viewed as a passing of the torch in the UK but Calzaghe wouldn’t prove it to U.S. fans for another nine years.)

Oct. 24, 1998: Sven Ottke SD 12 Charles Brewer, Germany

(The former amateur star from Germany out-pointed the tough Philly veteran to earn a title he went on to defend a record 21 times before retiring with a perfect record.)

The 2000s

With Jones and Toney rising in weight and Benn and Eubank fading out by the mid-1990s, the start of the decade was littered with lesser beltholders who traded titles like baseball cards. However, the division was ultimately ruled by a worthy champion, Calzaghe, who made his American network debut on Showtime (against David Starie) in January of 2000.

Showtime aired seven of Calzaghe’s title defenses, including his impressive showings against Americans Omar Sheika, Charles Brewer and Byron Mitchell, before the Welsh Wizard switched to HBO, where he finished his hall-of-fame career.

However, Showtime is mainly responsible for the emergence of Calzaghe in the eyes of American fans because the network helped build 2000 U.S. Olympian Jeff Lacy into a future challenger (and perceived threat) for the long-reigning titleholder.

Showtime closely followed Lacy’s development from hot prospect to contender to titleholder and aired 10 of his bouts prior to his title-winning fight (including two ShoBox appearances and highlights of a first-round blowout).

Showtime aired Lacy’s title defenses against Sheika, Rubin Williams and Scott Pemberton, but the hard-punching Floridian wasn’t the only U.S. Olympian in the super middleweight division the network took an interest in.

Showtime also showcased the first step-up bouts in the careers of 2004 Olympic medalists Andrew Ward and Andrew Dirrell on it’s ShoBox series.

On to the fights:

April 28, 2001: Antwun Echols TKO 3 Brewer, Connecticut

(The two sluggers engaged in a memorable barnburner for the NABF 168-pound title. After a heated opening stanza, Brewer floored Echols three times in the second round. However, the wild two-time middleweight title challenger raged back in the third, rocking the former super middleweight beltholder so badly that referee Mike Ortega halted the bout without Brewer being off his feet.)

March 15, 2003: Ottke SD Byron Mitchell, Germany

(The long-reigning German titleholder unified belts with a razor-thin decision over the rugged American titleholder. It was one of many close and/or controversial decisions won by Ottke, who never fought outside of Germany.)

June 28, 2003: Calzaghe TKO 2 Mitchell, Wales

(Calzaghe was dropped hard at the start of the second round but got up and attacked Mitchell like a man possessed until the reeling American was saved by the referee. Calzaghe exhibited heart and ruthlessness that many fans thought he lacked in his up-from-the-deck victory.)

Oct. 2, 2004: Lacy TKO 8 Syd Vanderpool, Las Vegas

(Lacy realized a degree of his amateur promise by stopping the dangerous Canadian veteran with a series of uppercuts in the eighth round. Vanderpool, who had gone the distance with Bernard Hopkins in a middleweight title bout in 2000, was by far the toughest opponent of Lacy’s 3¾-year career.)

Nov. 4, 2005: Allan Green KO 1 Jaidon Codrington, Oklahoma

(Scoring one of the most brutal knockouts in recent memory, Green separated Codrington from his senses with a series of vicious hooks that sent the hyped New York City prospect helplessly through the ropes to the horror and delight of the live and TV audiences.)

March 4, 2006: Calzaghe UD Lacy, Wales

(In a title unification bout that earned Calzaghe the vacant THE RING title and opened the eyes of American fans and the U.S. press as to just how good he was, the Welshman dominated the Lacy in every conceivable manner for 12 painfully one-sided rounds that seemingly destroyed the confidence of the once-formidable titleholder.)

Oct. 14, 2006: Mikkel Kessler KO 3 Marcus Beyer, Denmark

(The talented Danish star unified two titles by easily dispatching the German veteran. Highlights of this bout were shown on HBO in hopes of building an eventual showdown between Kessler and Calzaghe, who defended THE RING title in an HBO-televised bout against Sakio Bika on the same night in Manchester.)

March 24, 2007: Kessler UD 12 Andrade, Denmark

(The undefeated unified beltholder expertly outclassed the ultra-rugged Mexican challenger in a one-sided bout that was televised on HBO and convinced many fans that Kessler was the man to beat Calzaghe.)

April 7, 2007: Calzaghe TKO 3 Peter Manfredo Jr., Wales

(The champ easily overwhelmed the undeserving challenger and graduate of The Contender TV reality series in front of 30,000 fans at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff.)

Nov. 3, 2007: Calzaghe UD 12 Kessler, Wales

(In his record-tying 21st title defense, Calzaghe erased any doubt that he’s the man of the 168-pound division by out-maneuvering and out-working Kessler with a busy in-and-out attack that stifled “The Viking Warrior” down the stretch. A little over 50,000 packed the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff to witness the clash of undefeated 168 pounders.)

Feb. 16, 2008: Kelly Pavlik UD 12 Jermain Taylor, Las Vegas

(Both fighters weighed in at 164 pounds for their non-title rematch of their rousing middleweight title bout. Taylor surprised his critics by lasting the distance and troubling the heavily favored 160-pound champ with his speed and movement. Pavlik rallied in the final two rounds to solidify his points win.)

May 2, 2008: Andre Dirrell TKO 5 Anthony Hanshaw

(In only his 15th pro bout, Dirrell dominated the once-beaten fringe contender with a breathtaking combination of speed, power and accurate sharp-shooting. Hanshaw had gone the 12-round distance with Roy Jones in his previous bout. Dirrell’s performance erased the bad taste he left in fans’ mouths by playing it safe against Curtis Stevens in his last televised appearance and served notice to the elite fighters of the 168-pound division.)

June 21, 2008: Arthur Abraham TKO 4 Edison Miranda, Florida

(The tough and talented middleweight beltholder traveled to Miranda’s adopted hometown and easily took the Colombian slugger's measure in the first three rounds before leveling him with a series of hooks in the fourth round. The Showtime-televised bout was a rematch of their dramatic and controversial first fight, which Abraham won despite suffering a broken jaw early in the bout.)

April 25, 2009: Carl Froch TKO 12 Jermain Taylor, Connecticut

(In a rousing fight-of-the-year candidate, Froch successfully defended his title against the favored American challenger “Terminator style,” walking through the best shots Taylor could deliver for 11 rounds until the former middleweight champ folded from exhaustion and the undefeated British underdog’s relentless pressure.)

May 16, 2009: Andre Ward UD 12 Edison Miranda, Oakland

(In the sternest test of the 2000 Olympic champ’s 5-year career, Ward out-boxed the hard-punching Colombian veteran over 12 rounds in front of an appreciative hometown crowd.)

So there you have it, 25 years of super middleweight action that involved some of the most compelling and celebrated boxers of the past three decades.

Who knows what will happen over the next ten? But the division should be off to a very good start thanks to the Super Six tournament.

Doug Fischer can be reached at [email protected]

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