By Cliff Rold
He didn’t fight Roy Jones Jr.
Over four years have passed since the last time he stepped in the ring and for many of those on this side of the Atlantic who still debate the standing of the Polish Tiger, Dariusz Michalczewski, they are the words which can’t be avoided. If they one day adorned his tombstone, it would be less than surprising. It was the defining fight which never found definition.
And yet, in fifty fights, there were other things for Michalczewski to hang his hat on. In this retrospective look back at one of the more interesting careers of recent note, and with Hall of Fame eligibility growing closer, the question is asked:
How good was Dariusz Michalczewski, measured against all-time?
In answering the question, five categories will be examined:
2. Competition Faced
3. Competition Not Faced
4. Reaction to Adversity
5. What’s Left to Prove
With that in mind, let’s head to…
The Tale of the Tape
Hailed From: Gdansk, Poland
Turned Professional: September 16, 1991 (TKO2 Frederic Porter)
Record: 48-2, 38 KO
Record in Title Fights: 25-2, 20 KO
Lineal World Titles: World Light Heavyweight (1997-2003, 15 Defenses)
Other Major Titles: WBO Light Heavyweight (1994-2003, 23 Defenses); WBO Cruiserweight (1994, 0 Defenses); WBA/IBF Light Heavyweight (1997, 0 Defenses)
Current/Former Lineal World Champions Defeated: 1 (Virgil Hill)
Current/Former Lineal World Champions Faced in Defeat: 1 (Julio Gonzalez)
Current/Former Alphabet Titlists Defeated: 4 (Leeonzer Barber, Nestor Giovanni, Graciano Rocchigiani, Montell Griffin)
Current/Former Alphabelt Titlists Faced in Defeat: 1 (Fabrice Tiozzo)
Before he entered the paid ranks, Michalczewski cultivated an admirable European amateur career. While never an Olympian, Michalczewski was able to win the German national crown at Light Heavyweight in 1990 and the European title in 1991. Already into his 20s, rather than wait for a chance to travel to Barcelona, Michalczewski entered the paid ranks and built steadily through his first 23 fights towards his first major title shot. In September 10, 1994, just shy of three years into his pro tenure, he would capture the WBO Light Heavyweight crown.
It would be the first of four major belts which would make their way into his collection.
In his very next fight on December 17, 1994, he would move up a class to what was then a 190 lb. limit (as opposed to the current 200 lbs.) and add the WBO Cruiserweight title. It would be his only championship appearance in the division before dropping back down the scale to begin a statistically unmatched run at 175 lbs.
Through 1995 and 1996, he would make eight WBO title defenses, five by knockout. June 13, 1997 would bring him another level of glory. Then an outstanding 43-1 with twenty title defense over two reigns, Virgil Hill traveled to Germany with his long held WBA belt and newly won IBF title in tow. The latter belt, won in a career best performance against Henry Maske in his previous fight when the men were ranked first and second by Ring Magazine prior to their reinstatement of title recognitions, coupled with a prior win over then-reigning WBC titlist Fabrice Tiozzo, also meant he’d earned the right to be considered the first lineal champion at 175 since Michael Spinks had vacated the crown over a decade prior.
After twelve rounds, Michalczewski would be the second since Spinks. Winning 10, 9, and 8 rounds on the three scorecards, Michalczewski legitimized himself in the ring standings even if most of the world outside Europe may not have noticed. Politics of the time wouldn’t hold the WBA and IBF belts long. The WBA asked for a choice to be made between their belt and the WBO’s and lost. The IBF offered an inordinately short timetable to face then mandatory William Guthrie and had their belt eschewed as well. Michalczewski continued on as the lineal and WBO champion from there.
From 1997-2003, he would break the great Bob Foster’s record of 14 consecutive lineal Light Heavyweight title defenses by one and Virgil Hill’s overall defense record of 20 by 3. Pushing all the way to 48 wins without a loss, he fell short of matching former Heavyweight champion Rocky Marciano’s magic 49 as well as Joe Louis’s 25 consecutive title defenses in a single class, dropping a decision for the crown on October 13, 2003. An attempt to win a second WBA title in his following fight ended in his lone knockout loss and the end of his career.
He didn’t fight Jones and of course the point will be returned to…
…but Michalczewski faced his fair share of tough outs nonetheless. On his way up the ranks, he faced your standard foot wetting foes like former Jr. Middleweight title challenger Sean Mannion and regular trial horse David Vedder. It wasn’t the sort of opposition which screamed future wrecking ball but the first WBO title win against a 19-1 Leeonzer Barber did. Barber, a product of the legendary Kronk Gym in Detroit, was considered one of the brightest young Light Heavyweight lights at the time and Michalczewski ran him over for a unanimous decision in twelve.
The Cruiserweight title win which followed came against rugged Nestor Giovanni, a good but not special fighter at 36-7-3 who’d found WBO gold after falling short previously against WBC Light Heavyweight stalwart Jeff Harding. The title challengers between Giovanni and Hill sported nice records but most were largely anonymous until the last two of seven foes.
Graciano Rocchigiani was a tough hombre, a former titlist at Super Middleweight who’d defeated Thulani Malinga, fought a pair of classics in losing to Maske, and would later defeat Michael Nunn in a bout which almost folded the WBC (look it up). The two men would actually fight twice, in 1996 and 2000, and for good reason. Their first bout could well have been ruled a TKO loss for Michalczewski but was eventually ruled a disqualification in seven because the referee ruled Rocchigiani had hit on the break. Rocchigiani was stopped in ten rounds of the rematch. Sandwiched around the first Rocchigiani bout were a decision and then knockout win of Christophe Girard, a quality Frenchman.
Hill has been mentioned already and deserves a further look as it would be the lone likely Hall of Famer Michalczewski posted a win over. The 1984 Olympian’s only loss prior was to the great Tommy Hearns and by all signs Hill was still close to the top of his game. It was a decidedly quality win.
After Hill there would be a 1998 win over tough Drake Thadzi, a former title challenger entering off of the two best wins of his career over John Scully and the great James Toney. Thadzi was stopped in nine and retired afterwards.
In 1999, he would add his name to the elite list of Light Heavyweights in his generation who managed to get by former WBC titlist Montell Griffin. Griffin had memorably split two fights with Jones, the first a still debated disqualification win and the second a still held in awe first round knockout loss. Griffin jumped out to an early lead on Michalczewski before a big right hand set up a stoppage in the fourth.
Following Griffin and the Rocchigiani rematch, Michalczewski began to show signs of wear and his opposition spoke to a protected fighter. The opponents still had fine records for the most part but he struggled mightily with journeyman contender and former Jones victim Richard Hall in 2001 and 2002 to hint the end was near. His final win would come against another failed Jones foe, Derrick Harmon, whom he stopped in nine.
In his final two bouts, Michalczewski would turn again to a former Jones victim, the tough but limited Julio Gonzalez, and lose his title in an upset. A shot at the WBA belt against former amateur foe Tiozzo was a good scrap until a powerful shot sent Michalczewski the floor en route to a sixth round TKO loss.
A comeback looked imminent in 2008 against another debated European notable with big numbers, former Super Middleweight titlist Sven Ottke, but the bout fell apart and Michalczewski has remained on the shelf.
Competition Not Faced
Now does the analysis get to Jones? Not quite.
As noted in previous editions of “Measured Against All-Time,” this section is not concerned with why fights didn’t get made. It simply embraces their lack of existence.
Besides Jones, there were other quality Light Heavyweights who could have bolstered Michalczewski’s historical standing considerably. He and Maske occupied space in the division together as titlists for almost two years but Hill got the unification shot. Guthrie, while largely forgotten, was considered a rising star when Michalczewski chose another direction. Other men like Nunn and Toney lurked around 175 and would have been solid resume enhancements. The men who ended up with the WBA and IBF belts he cast off, Reggie Johnson and Lou Del Valle, might have been as well.
In the latter part of his reign, Eric Harding, Antonio Tarver, and Glen Johnson all emerged as viable threats but never became vibrant opponents. A briefly discussed bout with Middleweight kingpin Bernard Hopkins got stuck at the rhetoric phase.
And, yes, there was Jones. While Michalczewski can be looked back upon as the lineal champion, Jones was widely perceived as the man at Light Heavyweight and, more, in all of Boxing for the bulk of their time together at 175. They were, for the better part of five years, the two best Light Heavyweights in the world but, to quote the 1980s greatness of Highlander, there can be only one. Jones was a huge one. By 1999, Jones had collected both belts Michalczewski had taken away from him and the WBC belt as well. The storyline was there.
The fight never was.
It was a stain on both men’s ledgers, and a stain on the sport, that the fight never happened.
Reaction to Adversity
Moving past competition, Michalczewski could usually walk away saying he’d given a good show. Fans come to see the knockout and he delivered on the threat of such violence 38 times in all. He didn’t face a ton of adversity in his career. Only twice did he fight without the solid home field advantage he built in Germany and never once did he venture out of Europe. Too much of his competition was overmatched and of those that were not, men like Hill and Barber, Michalczewski used a solid, fundamental base to control the bouts. He had one hell of a left jab, stiff and accurate, a big straight right hand to go with it. His calculated body shots complimented a steady, methodical pressure style which was tough to deal with.
On the nights where he was tested, he showed good internal stuff. The frustrating style of Griffin didn’t knock him off track; he remained poised and solved the riddle (even if the bout may have been hooked just a wee bit early). Perhaps the most telling character tests came against Hall. Both bouts were savage. Michalczewski had clearly slowed, reports of camp injuries and a body breaking down becoming more regular. Hall may have been limited but he had a big heart and punch and Michalczewski gutted past him in both affairs. Even in defeat, he forced Gonzalez to be his very best and struggled to rise against Tiozzo.
In the ring, there could be little doubt Michalczewski had the fire of a champion and he gave the fans their money’s worth because of it.
What’s Left to Prove
At 41, barring a comeback, Michalczewski has proven what he is going to. For him, the question is whether he’ll prove a strong candidate if and when he makes it onto the ballot for Canastota.
Measured Against History
It’s unavoidable. He didn’t fight Jones and because of it Michalczewski will always be a question mark. In his best years, say from 1997-2000, he needed that fight to complete an assessment of him and without it the picture is incomplete. Tarver, Johnson, or Maske could have helped but they were not the standard of their times the way Jones often was.
In total, it can’t be ignored the men he didn’t fight of his era is a more impressive and deeper overall list than the list of men he did.
Having an incomplete picture could also be said of Jones but it’s not as vital. Jones is a first-ballot lock for the Hall of Fame without Michalczewski. Where the lack of a showdown will hurt Jones most is in comparisons to great Light Heavyweights but his overall career transcends the questions of one division. Michalczewski’s does not.
Could he have beaten Jones? More than likely he would not have, but at the peak of the debate it would have been competitive and his right hand would have made the fight worth watching. Michalczewski may hold records for lineal and overall title defenses, but did he really earn the right to pass Foster without a Jones fight? Had he beaten Jones, the answer would have been clear. Had he lost the question would be mute but he could have lost in such a way as to elevate his stature. Like the readers of this piece, Michalczewski will never be able to do more than wonder.
None of this means Michalczewski wasn’t still a quality piece of prizefighting.
In many ways, Michalczewski’s career parallels the recently ended career of Super Middleweight Joe Calzaghe. Like Calzaghe against Chris Eubank, Michalczewski made himself a serious name against one of his division’s longest established elites in Hill. As Calzaghe added solid pros like Robin Reid, Byron Mitchell, and Charles Brewer, Michalczewski picked off Rocchigiani and Griffin.
The separation, the difference between greatness and just really goodness, comes at the finish. Michalczewski wound it down by finding men like Joey DeGrandis and Ka-Dy King, extending his time at the top in the safest fashion available. Calzaghe went after the youngest, hungriest tigers in his class in Jeff Lacy and Mikkel Kessler before traveling abroad for bouts with older versions of Jones and Hopkins.
Still, the numbers are not an accident. Michalczewski was an elite Light Heavyweight for almost his entire career and accomplished things any fighter could be proud of at retirement regardless of the big name(s) missed. It would be hard arguing he earned a place with the top-ten all time at Light Heavyweight but a case can be made for somewhere near the lower end of the top 25. Yes, it’s a shame we didn’t, that he didn’t, find out if he could have been more but there are fighters who did less and found their way to Canastota. He deserves an informed look from the Hall of Fame voters when he becomes eligible for induction in 2010.
Democracy can work it out from there.
Verdict on Dariusz Michalczewski: Not an All-Time Great but Merits a Hall of Fame Vote
Author’s Note: This is an occasional series which will examine the most accomplished of modern fighters in seeking to establish how their careers stack up with history’s finest.
Joe Calzaghe – https://www.boxingscene.com/?m=show&id=16920
Oscar De La Hoya – https://www.boxingscene.com/?m=show&id=17277
James Toney – https://www.boxingscene.com/?m=show&id=17450
Evander Holyfield – https://www.boxingscene.com/?m=show&id=17642
Shane Mosley – https://www.boxingscene.com/?m=show&id=18011
Next up: Roy Jones Jr.
Cliff Rold is a member of the Ring Magazine Ratings Advisory Panel and the Boxing Writers Association of America. He can be reached at email@example.com