by Cliff Rold
Cruiserweight, born between the classic Light Heavyweight and Heavyweight classes in 1979, too often was the butt of jokes. That’s if it garnered attention at all.
There was an exception.
His name was Evander Holyfield.
Holyfield’s run to unification of all the major sanctioning title at what was then 190 lbs. (since raised to 200) included one of the great fights of the 1980s in Holyfield-Dwight Muhammad Qawi I. It was the generations first Golden Age.
Many assumed it could end up the division’s only such Age.
Then came the 2000s.
One day historians will look back and, beginning with James Toney’s rousing victory over Vasily Jirov, be able to define the division’s second Golden Age. No one emerged to challenge the rating of Holyfield’s as the division’s all-time face. No two men came together to push Holyfield-Qawi I aside as the division’s greatest fight.
There sure as hell were a lot of new nominees for number two in both categories.
This time, it wasn’t a single man making the show or a single classic to define the moment. In theatrical terms, Cruiserweight gave us an ensemble of character actors to make their stage the bloody thing. It didn’t matter that the three best of the bunch (Toney, David Haye, and Tomasz Adamek) all quickly vacated their titles to chase Heavyweight dollars and dreams.
Their finest hours, and the fights in between, marked a memorable time. Jean Marc Mormeck, Wayne Braithwaite, and O’Neil Bell all won unification contests, Bell and Mormeck combining for a pair of savage affairs. Mormeck and Haye traded knockdowns in a war.
That was among the best of it with more to burn. That the fights took place in multiple nations without feeling regionalized added to the drama. When announcers uttered ‘world championship,’ it felt genuine.
Boxing, with it’s seventeen weight divisions and belts that never seem to leave certain nations or promotional stables, rarely does genuine in that regard anymore.
The question to ask now is if the era has passed, the faces of today’s Cruisers merely a combination of the shadow of what was and the promise of what will come, or if we are still well into a strong run.
This Saturday, the leader of the class was supposed to step to scratch for what appeared a stay busy defense before bigger things later in 2011. IBF titlist Steve Cunningham (23-2, 12 KO) was to begin his second belt run against Enad Licina (19-2, 10 KO).
Reports out of Germany of the card being cancelled due to problems with its Middleweight main event are the latest disappointment in a year already piling them up. Cunningham, who has fought only twice since the classic split decision war that saw Adamek take his first IBF belt and recognition as the new lineal king of the class, remains unfortunately stalled.
It can be hoped the year will play out better for him and, by proxy, the rest of his class.
Cunningham is the fulcrum point of wondering whether we are in a new period at Cruiserweight or merely an extension of the same.
Three of his fellow major titlists are already bested rivals. Cunningham won a ten-round split over one of the WBA’s current titlists (Guillermo Jones) in 2005; split a pair of decisions with current WBC beltholder Krzysztof Wlodarczyk in 2006 and 2007 (and the loss was of the hometown scoring sort); and, also in 2007, stopped now-reigning WBO titlist Marco Huck in the final round of a solid fight.
The heart he showed in coming off the floor more than once against Adamek and still pulling to a split decision is still with him in terms of image. Two of the men he has defeated, Huck (31-1, 23 KO) and Wlodarczyk (44-2-1, 32 KO), have shown growth and the possibility of more solid legs than the 34-year old Cunningham has now. Actual wins, head to head, are hard to overcome for now in the perception.
Those wins came in the thick of what was. The class has hardly died since Adamek moved up.
Good fights have still been a regular occasion, Huck and contender Denis Lebedev giving fans one heck of a brawl just weeks ago. For all the complaints about the sorry mess the Heavyweight division has become beyond a top three of four who all stand out for showing up regularly in top shape, Cruiserweight stands as the opposite.
It’s full of guys willing to mix, full of guys with genuine skill, a stew of familiar veterans and new faces (like Lebedev and the other WBA titlist Steve Herelius), and chock full of 200 lb. men who paid the price in the gym to give an honorable show in the ring.
If it feels, outside of Germany and Eastern Europe, as if the division has faded since David Haye and Adamek each briefly stood at the peak of class, it is more a reflection of the market. The global scale of the action in the 2000s is missing for the moment.
The action itself never really went anywhere.
Throughout 2010 and still in 2011, talk of a Cruiserweight tournament has lingered in the air. Whether it would be four, six or eight men, elimination or Super Six style, the thought is tantalizing. It’s just the right move to remind the fans all over the world of what still remains, and what can be, at Cruiserweight.
Time, and the benefit of hindsight, will determine if the best was already behind us at Cruiserweight in 2011 or whether the class was merely holding steady before the last big bang of an era. Given the track record since 2003, it would be healthy to bet the latter.
Cliff Rold is a member of the Ring Magazine Ratings Advisory Panel, the Yahoo Pound for Pound voting panel, and the Boxing Writers Association of America. He can be reached at [email protected]