Just one month into the New Year, and boxing has a bonafide worldwide superstar in the form of heavy hitting Manny Pacquiao, by way of the Philippines (where he is already worshipped beyond superstar status). And almost as significant as Pacquiao’s pounding of ring legend Erik Morales, is O’Neil Bell’s knockout victory over the French military, which appeared in the form of Jean-Mark Mormeck, who looked like a one-man army in his previous performance. Bell’s upset gave boxing another indisputable world champion, this time at cruiserweight. Then there was Carlos Baldomir’s upset of Zab Judah and Arturo Gatti’s return to the winner’s circle, with typical Gatti drama. Considering it’s only January, boxing sure has big shoes to fill if the sport wants to continue it’s success for the rest of the 2006 year.
We were supposed to be getting ready for the third showdown between Diego Corrales and Jose Luis Castillo, but because of an injury to Corrales, that bout was scrapped until a later date, sometime this summer. No matter, in classic ‘don’t look now’ fashion, undefeated super middleweight titlist Jeff Lacy is going to get it on with fellow undefeated super middleweight belt holder Joe Calzaghe on March 4. The great thing about that upcoming bout, aside from the atmosphere surrounding the fight, which guarantees to be electric, is that boxing will have another superstar born from the fight’s winner, no matter if it’s the Welshman or the American.
And just when fans began to forget there’s still a heavyweight division in boxing, James Toney is going to be back (hopefully in better shape and with a higher cup protector, so as not to repeat his best plumber imitation), and in a ring with his most formidable and dangerous opponent since turning heavyweight, WBC title holder Hasim Rahman. So as things stand, by the end of March, boxing will have gained two brand new superstars as well as two true world champions from fractured divisions (besides cruiserweight Bell, the winner of the Lacy-Calzaghe fight will rightfully be considered the division’s best) in the first three months of the year, not bad.
April may turn out to be interesting too, as Chris MIMA (Missing In Meaningful Action) Byrd could engage in a rematch against major underachiever Wladimir Klitschko for a different heavyweight trinket (the IBF belt). Also, boxing’s best pound for pound fighter Floyd Mayweather, Jr. is going to throw down with the disappointingly inconsistent Zab Judah. I refuse to acknowledge Mayweather-Judah as a title fight, no matter what the IBF decided in its backroom, since everybody knows the real welterweight champion of the world now is Carlos “Tata” Baldomir, whose upset of Judah in Madison Square Garden was a bolt of lightning in what was supposed to be a low-drama title defense. And if Zab’s bogus IBF title is on the line in April, does that mean the great Mayweather has to enter the ring as the challenger?
Looking even farther down the road, the months of June and July now hold some intriguing possibilities, as human highlight reel Arturo Gatti fought through a severely injured right hand to stop the game Thomas Damgaard this past Saturday night on the boardwalk of Atlantic City. In typical Gatti form (courage and a high tolerance for pain), he stopped Damgaard with the same injured right hand (off a brilliantly placed right cross). As a result, Gatti, one of boxing’s biggest box office draws, now has a great chance of securing a fight against the newly crowned welterweight champion, Baldomir, sometime this summer.
Baldomir, a longtime journeyman within the sport, and at 37 has made no secret about his desire to cash in on his unexpected victory over Judah, by taking on a big named fighter who can bring big time box office dollars, two characteristics that both end with the spelling G-A-T-T-I. Furthermore, Baldomir and his camp have got to realize that among all the most lucrative options available, not only is Gatti capable of securing the biggest purse for either fighter, Baldomir has a better chance of leaving the ring with as the champion, than against Antonio Margarito or Floyd Mayweather Jr. The fact that ‘anything Gatti’ sells to the public, is not something lost on media outlets such as Home Box Office, or any other major promoters within the sport.
And though bouts have not been scheduled, Castillo-Corrales is still likely to take place this year, and light welterweight champion Ricky Hatton is set to make his United States debut, after selling out arenas in Manchester. And fans shouldn’t forget the return of boxing’s golden boy, who brings with him the golden paychecks, Oscar de la Hoya, against typical crazy man and perfect antagonist, Ricardo Mayorga. As great a start as 2006 seems to be off to, perhaps the most significant development will be the further shake up of the heavyweight division, which has been dormant in the minds of fight fans for nearly two years.
As the heavyweight division goes, so goes the rest of boxing, and comprehending this, it’s easy to understand why many fans felt that in spite of Corrales-Castillo fighting on two different occasions, 2005 was a big letdown after a fast start. The good news is that after last year’s nonexistent performance by nearly all of the heavyweight division’s best fighters (Vitali Klitschko, James Toney, Chris Byrd), 2006 has virtually no shoes to fill, and thus has got to be an early lock for most improved division of the year.
Besides WBC title holder Rahman’s first defense against the division’s number one contender, Toney, there is a good chance that fellow heavyweight belt holder Byrd will be in a high risk, high reward fight against the next best current contender, Klitschko. Belt holder number three, Nicolay Valuev of Russia will be doing his best imitation of heavyweight title holders of 2005 by taking on the undeserving Owen Beck. Finally, there is the division’s hottest fighter, Lamon Brewster, who based on his last several performances, is primed to take on a challenger who poses a serious threat, provided his promoter Don King recognizes what everybody does and gets him on American television.
So what does all this mean for boxing in 2006? Good things. The sport’s lower weight divisions, which have carried the manly art of defense to the sporting public for the past half decade, may finally be getting the long overdue assistance from the sport’s most important division this year. No matter who wins the Toney-Rahman scrap this March, or the yet to be officially announced Byrd-Klitschko rematch later in April, the heavyweight division will have it’s three best fighters all holding title belts which, as sad as it may sound, is a huge improvement over the condition the division was in following the retirement of Lennox Lewis. The next step for both the heavyweight division and boxing is to get these heavyweight belt holders in the same ring. It’s still very early, but there is no question that 2006 is following a pleasantly surprising script for fight fans everywhere (this column is dedicated to Alex, Emily, Caitlin, and Liz).
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