The heavyweight division would seem to be in its usual muddle, with all its bona fide stars languishing in promotional purgatory. Champions Lennox Lewis and Evander Holyfield await their rematch, which is becoming increasingly problematic as HBO and Don King battle over a contract clause. The bout might never happen, and the more you think about the first Lewis-Holyfield fight, you're not sure you care. Mike Tyson, just freed from prison, is trying to sweat off 50 pounds in a Phoenix gym to get back into fighting trim. That might not happen either, and, recalling his last two comebacks, who would be the poorer for it?
Despite all that, the division is neither dead nor even dormant. A crop of young fighters is rising to supplant the older generation, and although these cubs are untested, they're causing a buzz. They're imposing physical specimens, athletic, mostly personable and—bonus points!—at least two of them play musical instruments. Now we're learning if they can fight.
Michael Grant is the biggest of the newcomers, has the sweetest story and is probably the most musically inclined. He has also been the most heavily promoted, having been nursed along for much of his five-year career by a hopeful HBO (which, along with SI, is owned by Time Warner). At 6'7", 250 pounds, the 26-year-old Grant been an anticipated presence ever since he decided to give up basketball—he was a power forward at Gal State-Fullerton—for boxing. It's no wonder that HBO has latched on to him, marketing him as the anti-Tyson. He plays the piano, speaks softly and, as his crusty trainer, Don Turner, says, is a "wonderful, wonderful guy."
As he proved last Saturday night in raising his record to 30-0 (21 knockouts) at Madison Square Garden, he can also fight a little. To the relief of his backers, Grant thoroughly battered a stubborn Lou Savarese to score a 10-round unanimous decision and move to the forefront of this new breed. "I will concede," says HBO vice president Lou DiBella, "to being one of those who ordained Michael as the next guy, but this was the gut check he needed to prove it."
DiBella has been blowing Grant's horn for so long, the pair of them could probably make a living playing Ramada Inns as a two-man band. In case they need another sideman, there's David Tua, 26, who's a paralyzing puncher and plays the ukulele. "A great TV heavyweight," says DiBella of Tua (33-1, 28 knockouts). "He comes forward, throws big punches, can take anyone out."
What especially thrills observers is that Grant and Tua are of such wholesome character that they, two-fistedly, might erase the division's Tyson-spawned gangster mythology. A Tua story: When the teenage daughter of Main Events promoter (and recently widowed) Kathy Duva was awaiting her date, Tua made sure to be at the house to provide a protective presence.
The third prospect of the bunch is not so sweet. Ike Ibeabuchi, 26, tabbed the President of course, served three months in jail last year after pleading guilty to false imprisonment. "He's got a lot of personal baggage," says DiBella. Still, of the three, Ibeabuchi has been the most tested, lie-sides holding a win over Tua from two years ago, Ibeabuchi (20-0, 15 KOs) won converts in March with a fifth round stoppage of a very slick Chris Byrd.
These are three gifted heavyweights, but it's premature to anoint any of them as anything more than exciting prospects. More formidable fighters than Savarese and Byrd must fall for that to happen. Further, even if you subscribe to the increasingly popular theory that both Holyfield and Tyson have suddenly grown old, it's impossible to dismiss Lewis. Still, as Lewis edges closer to 40, there is a growing urgency to the development of these three tigers. If they don't blossom soon, the division is in real trouble. "It's a shambles," says trainer Lou Duva. He adds, though, that, "these fighters are better athletes than the last major group of fighters, like Tony Tubbs and Larry Holmes."
Trouble is, the best fighters rarely fight each other. It was a near miracle mat Lewis and Holyfield finally met. And the rematch—made necessary after they fought to a controversial draw in March—may never happen because HBO wants to force out King as promoter if the government indicts him as a coconspirator in a bribes-for-rankings investigation of the IBF. King, who believes a man is innocent until actually put in jail, refuses to step aside. Insiders say the fight has a 50-50 chance of coming off.
If the rematch doesn't happen, boxing will find out how ready Grant is—and soon. He would likely be matched against Lewis, in place of Holyfield, in what could be a much more significant bout. If it turns out these three comers can really fight, wouldn't that be music to our ears?