A Clean Slate: Picking up the Pieces of Boxing’s Shattered Heavyweight Division — See Shocking Details

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When Wladimir Klitschko fell to Tyson Fury, there was a shout of freedom heard throughout the heavyweight division. The barbarians at the gate had kicked down that retaining wall—well, at least the large and lumbering Fury had—and contenders of various stripes, reputations and pedigrees were scrambling through the breach to stake their claims to pieces of the splintered championship. Klitschko’s decade-long Rule of One seemingly had become a Chance for Many. A new world order appeared even more assured when Fury disavowed one of his newly acquired titles, the IBF version, which promptly was vacated by that sanctioning body, making what already had been shaping up as a free-for-all even more chaotic.

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History of some sort undoubtedly will be made this weekend at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, N.Y., when two slices of the pie will be served up in a doubleheader to be televised via Showtime Championship Boxing. Long, lean knockout artist Deontay “The Bronze Bomber” Wilder (35-0, 34 KOs), the WBC ruler who had held the only fragment of the title not previously possessed by Klitschko, makes his third defense against semi-anonymous Polish challenger Artur Szpilka (20-1, 15 KOs) in the nightcap, while America’s Charles Martin (22-0-1, 20 KOs) squares off against Ukraine’s Vyascheslav Glazkov (21-0-1, 13 KOs) for that vacant IBF belt in the lead-in.

Much will be made of the fact that the night will mark the first heavyweight championship bout(s) to be staged in New York City’s most populous borough since May 11, 1900, when James J. Jeffries knocked out James J. Corbett in 23 rounds. The only difference between what happened in Brooklyn nearly 116 years ago and now is that Jeffries, even more so than the multi-titled Klitschko, was the one and only king sitting upon a throne whose occupant for so long had been said to reign over the most regal realm in all of sport. The heavyweight champion of the world once was hailed, and justifiably so, as the biggest of the big, the baddest of the bad, a man who, as one such claimant, John L. Sullivan, had boasted, could lick any sonofabitch in the room—any room, anywhere.

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But as sanctioning bodies and weight classes proliferated like procreating rabbits in a pet-shop hutch, the concept of a single world champion in any of the eight “traditional” divisions became as archaic as the Pony Express as a means of rapid communication. If more really is better, than the dawning of this new age of heavyweights is shaping up as a time of inflated plenty, where all are welcome to take their seats at the head table. To paraphrase the inscription at the base of the Statue of Liberty, not far from the Barclays Center, it’s time for the division to give us its huddled masses, yearning to snatch any piece of the prize that comes free.

Which is not to say that Wilder-Szpilka or Martin-Glazkov won’t be entertaining matches, from a purely boxing sense. They very well might be. But for those who prefer an uncluttered sense of order, the feeling persists that when too many individuals hold themselves up as champions of the world, then no one actually is. What if the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences subdivided into four more or less equal groups? What if the Oscars suddenly were joined by variously shaped golden statuettes known as the Toms, Dicks and Harrys? What if there were four annual designees for Best Actor, or Best Picture? Wouldn’t the average moviegoer find that a bit confusing, as has long been the case with fight fans?

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To hear some who have suddenly advanced to the front of the line—or to the front of one of the lines, anyway—a bit of uncertainty can be liberating. Who needs a membership card or secret handshake to be welcomed into a now-not-so-exclusive club? If I’ve got mine, who cares if you’ve got yours?

Even Wilder, who has insisted that his WBC belt (“the one that everyone else wants”) trumped the WBA “super,” IBF, WBO, IBO, The Ring and lineal titles Klitschko had collected, is suggesting that the shakeup at the top was a good thing.

“Klitschko had a very good run,” Wilder said of the man who for so long had been widely considered to be the one true heavyweight champion. “His whole career was outstanding. But it’s our time now. There are new fighters on the map. We all had big plans to knock him out. Everybody had that dream.”

Martin, whose reputation as a legitimate heavyweight threat is still evolving, had been slated to take a December fight against 2012 U.S. super-heavyweight Olympian Dominic Brezeale, against whom a likely victory would have only marginally enhanced his credentials for elite status. Now he’s fighting for the vacant IBF title, which has him as giddy as if he had just found out a winning lottery ticket under a sofa cushion.

“It’s here now, man,” he said of his unexpected shot at the kind-of big prize. “I get to fight for the IBF world title. I can’t believe it. Every day I wake up thinking I’m freakin’ blessed. This is crazy. Sometimes it doesn’t even sound right, but it’s real. So I’m going to savor the moment. I’m ready to be that superstar.”

Szpilka and Glazkov have expressed similar sentiments. Get yours now, because part of something is better than all of nothing. Right?

Uh, maybe. Except that no one can or should be content to rule over just a portion of a wider whole. What looks appealing at first glance becomes less so when you step back and view things from a panoramic perspective. Put it this way: every alphabet champion wants to be the undisputed monarch. If they didn’t, they probably don’t deserve to be called a champion in the first place.

“My ultimate goal in boxing is to be the undisputed champion,” Wilder said. “The last undisputed champion was Lennox Lewis. That was in 1999. I am on a mission and nobody’s going to stop me.”

Wilder’s heart might be pure and his intentions noble, as could be the case with Fury, who at this point is more reminiscent of, say, Nikolay Valuev than Lewis, Evander Holyfield or his namesake, Mike Tyson. But the reality is that the sanctioning bodies are quick to vacate titles if their champions don’t fulfill their sometimes-illogical mandatories, which almost mandates that there may never again be a heavyweight – or boxer in any weight class – to round up all the belts.

The concept of an undisputed champion appears to have gone the way of the T-Rex, which once ruled the earth until it became extinct and was replaced as the dominant species by human beings who always find a way to complicate matters that should be simple.

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