Flash back to any ‘golden era’ of boxing and you’ll find the heavyweight division thriving.
Jack Dempsey savagely punched his way to the world heavyweight championship to become a cultural icon and prize-fighting pioneer during the height of The Roaring Twenties – a time still regarded as the sport’s most prominent in history.
Mike Tyson rose to unprecedented levels of superstardom as the youngest heavyweight ruler of all time in the 1980s and helped usher in another talent-laden decade for the division across the 1990s.
The transcendence of ‘Iron Mike’, like Dempsey before him, boosted the sport overall during his rampaging best, with the likes of Roy Jones Jr, Pernell Whitaker, Julio Cesar Chavez Sr and James Toney starring during a galvanised decade.
When heavyweight boxing is on a high, it trickles down across the lower weight classes to shine a successful spotlight on the full landscape.
Typically, then, the sport has endured more underwhelming periods when the heavyweights of that time are stuttering at the top level.
Until now, as boxing continues to hit the throwback heights of popularity and prestige with the best regularly fighting the best and an abundance of all-time greats cementing their legacies in the ring, without any guiding heavyweight input.
While there are great heavyweights around in the current era, the division as a whole has failed to live up to grand expectations of the past.
Though that hasn’t stopped the rest of the divisions below constantly producing the biggest and most desirable fights for fans worldwide.
Tank vs Garcia A Driving Force For Change
As a modestly entertaining 2022 ended and a more hopeful 2023 began, fans were quietly optimistic that the match-ups they craved most were on the horizon.
It didn’t take long into the New Year before their hopes were rewarded, as Gervonta ‘Tank’ Davis dominantly dealt with Hector Luis Garcia in January to set up a showdown against Ryan Garcia just three months later.
The confirmation of this long-awaited super-fight was perhaps a decisive shift for the business aspect of the sport, as the usually frustrating boxing hurdles were overcome swiftly.
The typical politics involving contrasting networks, competing promotions and protected records of undefeated fighters were cast aside, as both parties welcomingly forced the issue.
Rather than too many cooks spoiling boxing’s broth once again, Tank and Garcia willingly provided all the ingredients to cook up a dish that finally satisfied a long-standing appetite.
But Davis' eventual knockout victory proved to just be the starter for an appealing menu in the following months.
Boxing Enjoying 2023 Surge
After those foundations were laid by simply agreeing to their mega-fight, there has been a conveyor belt of top encounters since.
David Benavidez outfought a game Caleb Plant, Devin Haney stayed undisputed by taming Vasyl Lomachenko, Josh Taylor was dethroned by Teofimo Lopez and Naoya Inoue proved too much for Stephen Fulton Jr.
But the major attraction was undoubtedly Terence Crawford’s knockout triumph over Errol Spence Jr, cementing his legacy as an all-time great welterweight by becoming undisputed champion (again) against his long-time rival.
That monumental meeting was years in the making and its completion has been another turning point for boxing’s current climate, seemingly helping nudge other all-star bouts to be pushed through.
Meanwhile, the women have been busy too, as Alycia Baumgardner maintained her rampant ascension with undisputed success, Amanda Serrano continued to shine on the big stage and Chantelle Cameron stunned Katie Taylor in Dublin.
Heavyweights Lagging Behind Boxing Boom
More than any other year in recent history, boxing has been consistently gifting fans with the most high-profile clashes between the top names in the divisions. Except at heavyweight.
It’s now been two years since Tyson Fury ended his trilogy with Deontay Wilder by stopping him in an epic 11 rounds.
Since then, ‘The Gypsy King’ has made two heavyweight world title defences against Dillian Whyte and Derek Chisora on home soil (both last year).
The next time he enters the ring he won’t face Oleksandr Usyk for the undisputed crown as everyone had hoped and expected. Instead, he will take on former UFC heavyweight champion, Francis Ngannou, in a likely one-sided crossover clash.
Usyk, meanwhile, makes his mandatory defence against Daniel Dubois and the man he twice bested, Anthony Joshua, builds up to a long-mooted battle with Wilder (likely to take place early in 2024).
That upcoming scenario would mean that only one world heavyweight title fight will have taken place across 2023.
So, while the majority of the weight classes capture the headlines for the right reasons, the supposed glamour division endures a period of decline.
A ‘dark age’ for the heavyweights previously hindered the sport upon the retirement of champion Gene Tunney back in 1928, up until the emergence of a new division king, Joe Louis, in the mid-thirties. One example of the domino effect that can diminish boxing from the top down.
But, as boxing has tended to suffer the consequences of the heavyweight division’s failings throughout past eras, the current generation has managed to prosper without any heavyweight help.
Header image: Ryan Hafey/PBC