Thursday October 9th, 2008

In the five years I have spent covering boxing, I have had a few of what I like to call "cringe moments." I cringed when greedy promoters paraded a battered and broken Mike Tyson into the ring for fight after fight, even though he was little more than a shell of his former self. And he had a history of biting people.

I cringed through 12 rounds of Winky Wright-Bernard Hopkins in 2007, possibly the first fight I have seen in which neither fighter actually wanted to throw the first punch.

And I cringed when, during an HBO telecast, Lennox Lewis said Oleg Maskaev looked like a "big Siberian guy...from Siberia."

But never have I ever cringed as badly as I did yesterday, when the news broke that soon to be 46-year old Evander Holyfield was getting another title shot.

On Dec. 20, a decomposing Holyfield (42-9-2) will challenge seven-foot monster Nicolay Valuev (49-1) for his WBA heavyweight title. The fight that will take place in Germany or Switzerland, either because Valuev is popular in Europe or because when Holyfield's name is brought up at New York, New Jersey and Las Vegas commission hearings, those entities think someone is making a funny.

It will be the first fight for Holyfield since being dismantled by former WBO champion Sultan Ibragimov last October, a fight many thought would close the curtain on Holyfield's career.

It probably should have.

But in their infinite wisdom, Valuev's promoter, Sauerland Event, and the WBA have decided Holyfield, who is ranked just a notch above Tyson these days, warrants a shot at the heavyweight crown. They have decided that a man who hasn't beaten a legitimate opponent in six years (and I'm generously referring to Hasim Rahman, who Holyfield knocked out in 2002, as legitimate) is worthy of competing for a piece of what was once the most coveted title in the world.

And just like that, boxing -- and the heavyweight division in particular -- has once again become a laughingstock.

If you're privy to the conversations that go on in boxing's inner circle, you know why this fight is being made. Sauerland Event wants Valuev, who inherited the title after Ruslan Chagaev tore his Achilles tendon before a scheduled fight with Valuev, to hang onto the belt for as long as possible. The novelty of Valuev has all but worn off: he lost his undefeated record after Chagaev out-pointed him in 2007, and watching non-punchers like John Ruiz having little trouble getting inside on him has made Valuev as feared as a circus elephant.

Curious to hear if others were as irate as I was, I placed a transcontinental call to Bernd Boente, the respected manager for Wladimir and Vitali Klitschko. To be fair, Boente's opinion is biased: he, like many others in the boxing world, would have preferred Valuev negotiate to fight the winner of the Dec. 13 Wladimir Klitschko-Alexander Povetkin tilt, setting up a rare heavyweight unification fight next year. But his opinions echoed those of other boxing insiders I spoke to.

"It is completely ridiculous," said Boente. "How can [Sauerland] pick such a weak opponent? It's terrible for the sport of boxing. They picked a guy who hasn't fought in over a year and the last time he did fight, he fought like a mummy. It's a disgrace that Holyfield is getting a title fight."

Some of you may be looking at a calendar and wondering why Klitschko and Valuev, should they win their respective fights in December, couldn't meet a few months later. The answer to that is twofold: first, despite abdicating the title, Chagaev was named a "champion in recess" and is therefore guaranteed a title shot no later than June 2009. Valuev is unlikely to want to take a tune-up fight, much less a showdown with Klitschko, before then.

Second, even if Valuev wanted the fight, there is no possibility that Sauerland and Klitschko's promoter, K2, could agree to terms in time for a February or March fight. The two promoters have a volatile relationship and are unlikely to agree on a lunch order, much less the parameters for a multimillion-dollar event.

That means the dwindling number of heavyweight fans will end the year with Klitschko-Povetkin and Valuev-Holyfield and probably open the year with Klitschko-David Haye. The only hope for a heavyweight super fight will come if WBC champion Samuel Peter can defeat Vitali Klitschko on Saturday, setting up a Wladimir-Peter rematch next year. It's a possibility the Klitschko camp is loathe to consider, but one that might very well be best for boxing.

But then, how often do good things happen for boxing?

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