Heavyweight title magic, its holders often very human


Heavyweight champion of the world.

Those words have a certain resonance that eludes even the most sought-after sports crowns. Olympic gold medalist. Super Bowl champ. World Series winner. They just don't strike the same chord as heavyweight champion of the world.

"The heavyweight champion is considered the strongest man in the world," said Bert Sugar, a boxing historian. "He always has, going back 100 years to John L. Sullivan. He's alone, not one of a team. And he stands almost naked in the ring, in the spotlight. It's a very basic thing."

But after years in which it was held by the star-crossed Leon Spinks, the overweight Buster Douglas and now the convicted rapist Mike Tyson -- actually Tyson doesn't hold the title, Evander Holyfield does, but some proclaim Tyson "the people's champion" -- you have to wonder if the heavyweight title has lost some of its luster.

"Even if the heavyweight champion himself is an insufferable pig, the title itself still means something to people in this country,"said John Schulian, a one-time Evening Sun reporter who wrote a book on boxing, "Writers' Fighters and Other Sweet Scientists," while a sports columnist in Chicago.

"I still consider it as the most prestigious single title in all of sports," Schulian, now a television writer, said. "Think of what people want to be in their respective businesses -- they want to be heavyweights. And everybody wants to be a champion. So, the title really does mean something, we just have to recognize that we have no control over who holds it at any particular time."

Tyson's difficulties are particularly troubling to those whose image of the heavyweight champion are dominated by memories of Joe Louis and Muhammad Ali.

"He was my idol," Angelo Dundee, who trained Ali, said of Louis. "All the communities, black and white, came to a standstill when he fought. He was the most-loved heavyweight boxer ever. There was not a phony bone in his body."

"I loved the old guy," Mack Lewis, the Baltimore trainer and promoter, said of Louis. "He was so warm. He was one of the greatest fighters, but he was a humble person. When he would win a fight, he would just say, 'Another lucky night.' Nothing else."

According to Allan Guttmann, a professor at Amherst College, Louis' success was due in part to careful planning by his $H managers and to an accident of history.

"The people who managed him made it abundantly clear that he was to be, as they put it, 'a credit to his race.' He followed the rules and won over a lot of people," Guttmann said.

His image was designed to contrast to that of Jack Johnson, the black heavyweight champion in the early part of this century. But Louis was also aided immeasurably by being pitted against the German fighter Max Schmeling as the Nazis were rising to power.

That contest against a fighter emerging from a despised political system helped Louis be accepted by white America, much as Jesse Owens' showdown with the Germans in the 1936 Olympics did.

Similarly, Ali came along with his outspoken personality just as the civil rights movement was attracting the nation's attention. His refusal of induction into the Army and opposition to the Vietnam War probably eventually helped his image because, as Guttmann pointed out, "a lot of Americans changed their mind about the war."

"And don't forget that he beat Sonny Liston, the man everybody loved to hate," he said.

"Boxing survived Liston," Sugar said of the champion who had once killed a man and eventually died of a heroin overdose. "It will survive Tyson. You can't even say Tyson gave boxing a black eye. The sport ran out of eyes to blacken years ago."

But Ali also caused difficulties for those who would groom and control fighters as Louis' handlers did. Just as few fighters had Ali's skill to drop their gloves and lean away from punches, few had the talent to handle their public persona as Ali did.

"Before Ali, I would do all the talking," Dundee said. "The fighter would sit next to me and stay quiet. When Ali came along, I couldn't get a wordin."

Dundee and Lewis said that they work on their fighters' ability to handle their personal lives, Dundee emphasizing to his fighters that they live in the spotlight and that their actions might be judged in the harshest possible way because they are boxers.

"You have to understand that fighters are different," Lewis said, explaining the difficulties of keeping them under control.

"They have more animal instinct. A lot of people don't realize that. You have to be the type of person who, if you get hit, you want to hit back harder. A lot of these kids out on the street are cowards. They might have a knife or a gun, but without it, one on one, they just run away. They don't make good fighters."

Lewis, 73, said he has seen the appeal of sports ebb and flow over the years -- baseball, football, basketball and boxing each taking their turn at the top.

But Charles Woolston, who teaches Sports in the American Culture at the University of Maryland Baltimore County, said he's not as certain boxing will regain its former status.

"I'm about 50 years old, and one of my earliest sports memories was listening to Joe Louis fight Billy Conn with the whole family gathered around the radio," Woolston said. "I don't find that I pass along an appreciation of the fight game to my children in the same way. They don't talk about fighters the way they do Michael Jordan or Magic Johnson or Cal Ripken."

And there's the fact that the big title fights, unlike the World Series or Super Bowl or NBA playoffs, are no longer available even on radio, but only to those who pay hefty pay-per-view or closed-circuit fees, limiting their impact on the culture beyond dedicated fight fans.

But Lewis had an age-old solution to the troubles that plague his sport. "If a good white heavyweight would come along, then people would start paying attention again," he said.

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