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Heavyweight Boxing History

Top Heavyweight Boxing's Dark Years: The 2000's

The most pivotal moment wasn't in the year 2000 itself but rather in 2004 with the retirement of lineal heavyweight champion Lennox Lewis.


New York, NY, USA (January 2, 2024) - Top Heavyweight Boxing enthusiasts have been justified in their complaints about the recent state of the division. While the much-awaited showdown between Tyson Fury and Oleksandr Usyk for the undisputed heavyweight championship is finally set for early this year, this bout has been years in the making. The glaringly apparent clash between Fury and Anthony Joshua is yet to materialize despite both reigning at the sport's pinnacle for almost a decade.

Silver Lining

But there's a silver lining as the pieces are slowly falling into place. Fury versus Usyk is happening on February 17th in Saudi Arabia. Joshua’s involvement in the recent Day Of Reckoning event in Saudi seems to be setting the stage for massive showdowns over the coming months. However, there was a period when the most anticipated fights never materialized in the heavyweight division. The 2000s were an aimless time for the big men, marked by fading names, unfulfilled potentials, and only a few shining stars.

Lennox Lewis' defence against Vitali Klitschko left questions and signalled the end of an era.

Lost Generation

The 1980s, between Muhammad Ali's retirement and the rise of Mike Tyson, has been labeled as “the Lost Generation” in heavyweight boxing. For this batch of forgotten 2000s fighters, we can refer to them as victims of the “Millennium Malaise” The turn of the century didn't crash our computers or transform our microwaves into sentient monsters, but it did most certainly disrupt top heavyweight boxing.

The most pivotal moment wasn't in the year 2000 itself but rather in 2004. The retirement of lineal heavyweight champion Lennox Lewis created a void at the division's summit—a void that no one was quite prepared to fill.

Pieces of the puzzle had been falling into place. Lewis, the undisputed champion, had seen his other belts dispersed due to sanctioning body confusion. John Ruiz, an unpopular brawler from Massachusetts, had brawled his way to a heavyweight belt. The IBF title was held by the smooth but undersized Chris Byrd, an Olympic silver medalist in the middleweight division. The WBO title was claimed by the big-punching yet limited Lamon Brewster.

Heavyweight Legends Fading

The heavyweight legends of the past were still around but rapidly fading. Evander Holyfield had exchanged a belt with John Ruiz in a trilogy that paled in comparison to his three fights with Riddick Bowe. Holyfield's defeat to Byrd in an IBF challenge after the Ruiz bouts seemingly marked the end of his dominance. Painful losses to James Toney and Larry Donald confirmed his decline, although the decade hadn’t seen the last of ‘The Real Deal.’

Mike Tyson's final professional win was a convincing knockout of Clifford Etienne in 2003.

Tyson’s shadow lingered, but by this point, it was just a shadow. Lewis had pounded out the last remnants of credibility from the ‘Iron’ Mike in a one-sided stoppage win in 2002. Tyson showed glimpses of his former self by demolishing a weakened Clifford Etienne in 2003. However, British underdog Danny Williams shattered the illusion in 2004, knocking out Mike in four rounds. A year later, journeyman Kevin McBride forced Tyson to quit on his stool, marking a sad end to a thrilling and unforgettable career.

With Lewis retired and his peers Tyson and Holyfield struggling, the burden fell on the next wave of heavyweights. Wladimir Klitschko, heralded for his size and skills, stumbled during this era, suffering two knockouts. Corrie Sanders halted him for the WBO title in 2003 before Lamon Brewster repeated the feat to claim the vacant belt the following year.

Vitali Klitschko

Vitali Klitschko fared better. ‘Dr Ironfist’ had pummeled Lewis in the latter’s final fight, but the Brit rallied and won on cuts, creating gruesome gashes on his challenger. However, Vitali swiftly grabbed a vacant belt left behind by Lewis. He embarked on a spree, halting Kirk Johnson, avenging his brother against Sanders, and swiftly dispatching Williams, who briefly basked in the limelight post-Tyson. But an injury struck; Klitschko tore his anterior cruciate ligament while training for a bout with former champion Hasim Rahman. He would stay out of the ring for four years.

Rahman had rocked the boxing world in 2001 by upsetting Lewis to claim the heavyweight championship. His second title win didn’t cause the same commotion. After picking up an interim title by beating average contender Monte Barrett, Rahman was elevated to the full status when Klitschko withdrew.

Hot Potato

Klitschko's departure set off a game of hot potato for the still credible green belt. Following a draw with James Toney in his only successful defence, Rahman lost the title to Oleg Maskaev. The durable Kazakhstani relinquished the belt to Samuel Peter, who then surrendered it to a returning Vitali in 2008.

America's 'last line of defense' fell as Maskaev relieved Rahman of his title belt.

Similar chaos gripped the other belts. The absence of a dominant force contributed to a disjointed era without a definitive elite heavyweight at the helm.

Ruiz lost his belt to Roy Jones Jr, who became the first former middleweight champion in a century to win a heavyweight crown. However, ‘Superman’ returned to a lower weight class, leaving Ruiz to regain the vacant belt. He lost it to another former middleweight champion, James Toney, only to have the title reinstated when ‘Lights Out’ failed a drug test. Ruiz would lose his title for the final time to the 7’2 Russian giant, Nikolai Valuev.

Valuev would be bested by Uzbekistan’s Ruslan Chagaev, but the new champion vacated his title due to injury. Valuev recaptured the belt in an interesting series of events. He subsequently surrendered it to Britain’s David Haye.

Byrd, Golota, Brewster

Meanwhile, despite his skills, ‘Rapid Fire’ Byrd wasn't destined for longevity among the top heavyweights. The Olympic middleweight runner-up had performed admirably as IBF champion, securing wins against DaVarryl Williamson, Jameel McCline, and Fres Oquendo. However, he faced a tough challenge against the most formidable opponent during his reign, Andrew Golota. ‘The Foul Pole’ held Byrd to a draw, and some believed the champion had been fortunate to retain his title.

Golota, in essence, embodied the lack of depth during this era. He was more famous for his failures—two disqualification losses to Riddick Bowe when he was ahead on points, a collapse against Lewis, and quitting against Tyson (later changed to a No Contest when marijuana was found in Tyson’s system). Yet, during the this time the Polish puncher secured three consecutive world title shots. Following the draw with Byrd, he suffered a WBA title defeat to Ruiz and was then knocked out by Brewster in a round.

Brewster's swift win captured the attention of a public yearning for a new Tyson. Coupled with his earlier victory over Klitschko, fans were ready to embrace an exciting knockout artist as heavyweight champion. However, in an era that struggled with continuity, Brewster lost his belt to the unheard-of Siarhei Liakhovich in his next fight.

Liakhovich then lost the title to Shannon ‘The Cannon’ Briggs—a relic of a bygone age. Known in recent times as a walking meme, constantly chanting “Let’s go champ!” he gained fame in the '90s by defeating George Foreman for the lineal heavyweight title. His last-minute stoppage of Liakhovich captured the public imagination. But once again, the “Malaise” struck, and he was handled by Sultan Ibragimov in his next bout.

Sultan Ibragimov

Ibragimov expanded his collection by defeating Evander Holyfield by decision. The veteran had accumulated wins against journeymen to reclaim a form of relevance. Although Ibragimov dominated, Holyfield pushed Valuev close in a WBA challenge many believed he should have won. The fact that a man approaching 50 could give a reigning belt-holder such a close run spoke volumes about the era.

Vladimir Klitschko and Sultan Ibragimov put New York to sleep in 2008.

Klitschko Brothers

The cleansing came in the form of the Klitschko brothers. One returned while the other finally fulfilled the potential he had shown. Vitali knocked out Sam Peter for the WBC belt in 2008 and never looked back, defending it nine times before retiring in 2012.

Wladimir’s transformation was the most astonishing. From being defeated by Brewster, Sanders, and Ross Purrity, he emerged as the defining heavyweight of the 2010s. In 2006, he claimed Byrd's IBF title. He defeated Ibragimov in 2008, securing the WBO belt. The Ring title followed with a victory over Chagaev before Haye lost his WBA belt in 2011. Along the way, Klitschko overcame the shadows of a fading decade—Brewster, Peter, and Rahman were among his many victims.

The “Millennium Malaise” era had finally been rectified. While the sport couldn’t boast an undisputed heavyweight champion, there was at least a dominant family at the top. Belts found somewhat permanent homes rather than being passed around erratically to unworthy contenders.

Tyson Fury and the New Era

The transition from there was smoother, with Fury toppling Klitschko and, during his brief retirement, Joshua achieving the same feat. The current custodians—Fury, Joshua, Usyk, and Zhang—might not have consistently delivered the fights we yearned for. However, their stewardship carries more credibility than Ruiz vs. Valuev II, Holyfield clinging on past his prime, or Golota's unmerited ascendancy.

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