Sports Illustrated will announce its choice for Sportsman of the Year on Dec. 4. Below are some personal choices for that honor by SI writers.
11/16/2006 05:32:00 PM
My Sportsmen: The Russian Heavyweights
Seven-foot Nikolay Valuev is one of three heavyweights from former Soviet republics currently holding titles.
Clay Patrick McBride/SI
By Richard Hoffer
Remember when baseball was America's Pastime, and then the game was gradually populated with players from Latin America, and then Japan? Remember when professional basketball was America's driveway sport, and then the Eastern European sharpshooters arrived?
Do you remember when there wasn't anything quite as American as the heavyweight champion of the world? It was such a given over the years that, on those rare occasions when some other country was represented, it was cause for geopolitical concern. Max Schmeling? Good Lord! Get Joe Louis back into shape!
But this past year, not only was the division (for a while, anyway) entirely globalized, it was entirely Russian. Until Sergei Liakhovich lost a stunner to Shannon Briggs, yielding his WBC title, all four champions were from the former Soviet Union. These include Wladimir Klitschko (IBF champion), 7-foot Nikolay Valuev (WBA) and Oleg Maskaev (WBC). And, not to sound un-American, we have to declare these inter-continental gladiators our Sportsmen of the Year.
Purists might grump that this sounds more like a Soviet-bloc taxi fleet than a boxing elite. Or, more fairly, might lament the state of heavyweight boxing in general. Of the four, only Klitschko is thought to have staying power, and even he's proven unpredictable in crunch time. What it really amounts to is the gradual disinclination of American youth to get into a ring and hit another one in the mouth.
Anybody who follows boxing could have predicted this. The lower divisions, which tend to draw less attention from mainstream sports fans, have been Spanish-speaking for some time now. More than that, the past three Olympics have been predicting this for some time. Since the breakup of the Soviet Union -- essentially flooding its talent into several teams, instead of hiding them on one -- Eastern European boxers have been dominating U.S. competition. It hasn't even been close.
It's a pedestrian observation by now, but American youth would prefer more highlight-ready sports like basketball. And that big lug who might have seized upon as the next heavyweight champion of the world is now playing left tackle for USC. There are a lot of better-paying opportunities -- and safer, too -- than boxing.
Which is to say, you ain't seen nothing yet. This particular crop of heavyweights may be undistinguished, but there's more, and better, coming up behind them. Which is to say, there's a lot more Max Schmelings out there than there are Joe Louises.
The Russian Heavyweights are remarkable. They should get their due. But when you compare them to the person/athlete that Buck O'Neill was, well, they are contenders but not champions. Let them have their day when their careers demand it. Buck's career--indeed life--demands that he be the Sportsman of the Year for 2006.
Why does it have to be un-american to nominate an international athlete/s as sportsman of the year? Boxing is an international sport yet many of our favourite sports will never be played against other nations. International Gridiron? Look at soccer, cricket and rugby overseas and you'll see true sportmen ready to play just to represent their country for the sport they love.
The Pac-man is the most exciting and best pound for pound fighter in boxing right now and you choose 4 russian heavyweights; three of which we will never hear about in 5 years and the other is an olympic boxer with no chin... The heavyweight division has been overwith since the Bowe-Holyfield fights and four Russians who's talent does not equal those two, aren't going to fix a very defunct weight class. It's just not going to happen. Talk to Atlas, Merchant, and Steward and they will say the same thing.
Pacquiao is the biggest story in boxing right now and has been since the Barrera fight.