Sunday, April 02, 2023  |


Cruiserweight: boxing’s most disrespected division

Fighters Network

Pretend for a moment that time travel is possible and we can go back through the years, pluck up various fighters in their primes and bring them to 2010 – sort of a pugilistic Bill & Ted. Say we collect Jack Dempsey, Joe Louis and Rocky Marciano, all at the peak of their powers, and insert them into today’s fight game. They’d instantly be the three most sought-after commodities in boxing, right?

Sadly, no. Three of the greatest heavyweight champions in history wouldn’t have much hope in 2010 of attracting the interest of boxing’s deepest-pocketed television executives.

Dempsey weighed 187 pounds the day he knocked out Jess Willard for the heavyweight title. Louis weighed 197¼ when he ended the Cinderella reign of Jim Braddock. And Marciano tipped the scales at 184¾ the day he flattened Jersey Joe Walcott for the championship. These legendary heavyweight champs were all cruiserweights, according to today’s weight divisions. And there’s a big difference, in the mind of the TV programmer, between cruiserweights and heavyweights.

The cruiserweight division turned 30 years old this past March, which means we’re celebrating 30 years of 190- or 200-pound fighters being disrespected because they represent a “bastard” division directly below the most glamorous (historically, anyway) weight class in boxing.

That disrespect was mostly warranted for the first 20 years or so of the cruiserweight division’s existence. Evander Holyfield was the only truly great cruiserweight and also the only cruiserweight champ who succeeded as a heavyweight.

But the disrespect should have disappeared over the last 10 years. The cruiserweights have consistently delivered more-entertaining fights than their oversized brethren to the divisional north. Several cruisers have proven themselves capable of beating top heavyweights.

And yet the disinterested attitude continues. Steve Cunningham vs. Troy Ross took place in Neubrandenberg, Germany over the weekend with no means for American fans to see it other than obscure international internet streams. It was an excellent matchup on paper between the top-rated fighter in the class and a Top-5 contender. Both create entertaining action, both are from North America.

Such fighters shouldn’t have to fly across the Atlantic to get paid, but the fact is, HBO and Showtime, which together control all but a few percentage points of the TV boxing budget in the U.S., aren’t throwing money behind the cruiserweights. HBO almost never has. Showtime has dabbled in the division but more or less removed its toe from the water five years ago. That’s why Cunningham – an articulate, impressively built, versatile boxer from Philadelphia – signed with German-based Sauerland Event as his new promoter a month ago.

“I am very excited about beginning the next chapter in my boxing career by signing with Sauerland Event,” Cunningham stated at the time. “I believe this is a bold but smart move, especially because of my weight class.”

That weight class just can’t seem to shake the stigma of being called “cruiserweights.” That term translates as “less than heavyweights” in many people’s minds. Or “heavyweight lite.” Or “the division that called Marvin Camel, S.T. Gordon and Taoufik Belbouli champions.”

What they’re ignoring is that those days are long gone. Sure, there are still some mediocre cruiserweight titlists, but that’s because there are 256 belts per weight class these days and every division has an undistinguished schlub or two parading around with a belt.

In the last decade, the cruiserweight division has given us James Toney, David Haye and Tomasz Adamek, all first-rate fighters who went on to beat up world-class heavyweights. It has also given us Cunningham, Jean-Marc Mormeck, Wayne Braithwaite, O’Neil Bell, Vassiliy Jirov and Marco Huck, all legitimate talents who delivered action.

The division has provided no shortage of outstanding fights. Toney-Jirov and Adamek-Cunningham were both serious Fight of the Year contenders. Mormeck-Braithwaite, the two Bell-Mormeck fights and Ola Afolabi-Enzo Maccarinelli delivered memorable two-way action.

But a great fight like Adamek-Cunningham was relegated to the Versus network, and even after seeing the modern classic that ensued, HBO and Showtime chose not to put money behind a rematch.

“The only interest HBO showed in a rematch was based on the theory that they fight each other at heavyweight,” said Main Events President Kathy Duva, who promotes Adamek. “There were conversations with HBO about the rematch, and I understand, they have a limited budget, a limited number of dates, so the conversations never turned serious. Then suddenly, when Tomasz moved up to fight Andrew Golota, the conversation turned to, ‘Wow, if he fights at heavyweight, we’re a lot more interested.’ And they even mentioned the idea that Cunningham would be a good opponent for him at heavyweight.

“There’s definitely a stigma attached to the word ‘cruiserweight.’ They get so little respect. Two of the best fights we ever promoted were the first Holyfield-(Dwight) Qawi fight and the Adamek-Cunningham fight. And they did not get the respect they would have gotten if the guys had weighed one pound more.”

Simply put, over the last decade cruiserweight has become the most underappreciated weight class in boxing. And it’s not just the television executives who have failed to get on board. Most fans are guilty of it also.

We as humans get stuck in a certain mindset, and the cruiserweight division was a punch line for so long that it isn’t easy for people to think of it as anything else. But it’s high time they tried. The public eventually stopped thinking of Justin Timberlake as the annoying kid from the boy band with the Harpo Marx hair and accepted him as a grown-up singing/dancing/acting superstar. Why can’t the boxing world update its image of the cruiserweights to fit what the division has actually become?

While there may not be a Marciano-Louis-Dempsey type talent competing at cruiserweight right now, the division currently is what heavyweight used to be: a home to the most athletic big men in boxing.

It’s quite possible that Wladimir and Vitali Klitschko would destroy any current cruiserweights, and it might also be that they would defeat the great 200-pound heavyweights of yesteryear. But they lack the grace, the mobility, the speed and the punching volume that an athletic 200-pounder can possess.

“The heavyweight division has lost a lot of its luster, and the reason is that the move toward these super-sized human beings has made the sport a lot more dull,” Duva said. “There’s an inconsistency in the way people think these days. Mike Tyson fought at his very best at 216 pounds. Tomasz Adamek is 216 pounds and people are saying he’s too small to be a heavyweight. Those same people who say he’s too small will tell you Tyson was one of the greatest heavyweights of all-time. Well, he was way shorter than Tomasz, and frankly, I could argue that I think Tomasz handles it a lot better when he gets clocked by a heavyweight punch than Tyson did.”

Poll 100 serious boxing fans and ask them what the most exciting fight is that can be made in the current heavyweight division, and the runaway winner would be Adamek vs. Haye. It’s not a coincidence that the most action-packed heavyweight fight would match two former RING cruiserweight champs.

Adamek and Haye could both get paid well for that fight now, but that wouldn’t necessarily have been the case two or three years ago. And the only thing that has changed is that they’ve stopped training down to a specific number of pounds.

On Saturday night in Germany, Cunningham got off the canvas in the fourth round to TKO Ross as the result of a dangerous cut in the fifth – an inconclusive ending to a compelling cruiserweight fight. That sure sounds like a recipe for a rematch.

And wouldn’t it be something if the folks in Cunningham and Ross’ hometowns could actually watch it on TV next time.


ÔÇó Please don’t misinterpret my line above regarding the Klitschkos, “it might also be that they would defeat the great 200-pound heavyweights of yesteryear.” I’m not saying I’d pick the Klitschko brothers to beat Louis, Marciano or Dempsey. I’m just saying it would be foolish to possess 100 percent confidence either way.

ÔÇó I realize I’m suggesting this way after the fact, but wouldn’t “Mazel Tough” have been a better tag line for the Miguel Cotto-Yuri Foreman fight than the generic “Stadium Slugfest”?

ÔÇó I don’t believe that God actually cares who wins boxing matches. But if he does, Cotto’s win proves that you can earn his favor with a small tattoo of the Kosher symbol on your shoulder rather than actually having to keep Kosher.

ÔÇó Roy Jones Jr. has always been a quality broadcaster, and his downfall in the past was a tendency sometimes to talk too much about himself. I thought he was excellent throughout Saturday’s HBO card – better than I remembered him being a decade ago – for two main reasons: First, he’s not relevant enough as a fighter anymore to justify talking about himself; and second, he had Max Kellerman there to reference the greatness of Roy Jones for him.

ÔÇó One point many observers have made about Showtime’s Fight Camp 360, specifically as compared to HBO’s 24/7, is that the former doesn’t appear to stage any shots. If that’s true, then it felt awfully coincidental that Mikkel Kessler was an enjoying an episode of Showtime’s Dexter a few hours before his fight with Carl Froch. (That aside, it was another excellent episode of Fight Camp 360. A little promoters’ roundtable bickering, an ultrasound photo of Froch’s unborn baby, a trip to the orthodontist with Andre Ward and multiple tattooed Kessler siblings; what more can you ask for?)

ÔÇó If you missed last week’s episode of Ring Theory, you can still access it here. Only on Ring Theory can you hear boxing writers compare a boxing commentator’s head to a Spackle bucket.

ÔÇó I don’t really care one way or the other about Brian Nielsen un-retiring. But I will voice my opposition if anyone tries to make a fight between Nielsen and Chris Arreola. There’s only so much man-boob a boxing writer can take.

Eric Raskin can be reached at [email protected] You can read his articles each month in THE RING magazine and follow him on Twitter @EricRaskin.