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Boxing historian Jimmy Jacobs just couldn't believe it, couldn't believe that the heavyweight division had fallen to the pathetic state manifest last September in Las Vegas, where Larry Holmes was defending his WBC championship against the ultimate mega-banger and lump merchant, Earnie Shavers.
The quality of heavyweight fighters, like the length of skirts and the price of cabbage, is given to periodic fluctuations, but this was something else. Jacobs owns the U.S.'s most extensive collection of fight films, a library whose contents he studies regularly, but of all the heavyweight championship fights he'd ever seen, from the early part of the century to the present, he'd never witnessed a performance to compare with this—never watched a heavyweight championship bout so laughably inept and amateurish. Jacobs has to go back almost 50 years to find anything remotely like the state the division is in today.
In the doldrums of the early 1930s, before Joe Louis won the title, there were five champions in five years—Max Schmeling, Jack Sharkey, Primo Camera, Max Baer and James J. Braddock. "But this is worse," Jacobs says. "By far. It is only temporary. But right now it is dreadful." And most dreadful of all was that fight last fall that underscored in Jacobs' mind the extent to which the heavyweight division—normally the most exciting in boxing—had sunk since Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali suddenly grew old together in Manila and Jimmy Young gave religion to George Foreman in San Juan and then slipped away himself into the twilight.
Here's how it went in Vegas: Shavers' thunderous right hand decks the champ in the seventh round. Holmes is out. But wait! Holmes staggers to his feet and, swinging into an old survival tactic, begins dancing in place and shaking his head to clear the fog away. And here comes Shavers again. He swings, a roundhouse right, but misses, and nearly catapults himself into the seats. Thus Holmes gets away. And the remainder of the fight is reduced to slapstick—Shavers too limp to defend himself, Holmes too spent to drop him. "I'd never seen a heavyweight championship fight in which, after it was half over, neither man could throw an effective punch," Jacobs says. "By round eight, if someone didn't know it was for the championship of the world, if he'd just tuned in, he'd have thought it was a comedy. Holmes and Shavers could barely lift their arms. They were throwing punches at phantom heads. Here were two men fighting for a cherished title. It was inept. That is a perfect illustration of the plight of the heavyweight division today."
Much like that of Rome, the fall of the division was long antedated by a gradual decline, which became startlingly visible in February 1978 when Leon Spinks, virtually an amateur, easily outpointed an undertrained and overconfident Ali to win the title. In short order, Ali won the championship back and then retired; South Africa's Gerrie Coetzee knocked out Spinks; John Tate beat Coetzee handily to win the WBA title vacated by Ali; Holmes, who had become WBC champ in 1978 after winning a very close decision over Ken Norton, barely survived Mike Weaver, a complete unknown; Shavers knocked out Kenny Norton; Holmes barely outlasted Shavers; Alfredo Evangelista almost knocked out Spinks; Holmes defeated a feeble Lorenzo Zanon; Ali revealed—astonishingly—that if the money is right, he'll come back.
With Holmes giving off signals that he is spent and with no one knowing whether Tate is of true championship caliber, with the division no longer consolidated around the dominating presence of one man, the heavyweight class is boxing's most spacious neutral corner. Fighters are standing by waiting to be waved in. There's plenty of room. The established boxers, from Tate to Weaver, are being joined in the battle to become the next undisputed champ by a bunch of prospects. Most of the good ones are a year or so from a title shot. Most are in their early 20s, all are largely unchallenged and relatively unknown. There are more hooks and jabs than right hands here, more boxers than bangers. There is among them a dancer out of Ali's hometown, Louisville; like the young Cassius Clay, he's sure there is no heavyweight who can beat him. One prospect used to make his own clothes, and today he throws roses to his mother at ringside. There is a former heroin addict who says he kicked the habit with a New Year's resolution, and, of course, there's a former convict who fought his way out of prison. There is a Great White Hope with a chilling left hook, a real Crunchola bar, and there is an orthopedic technician from a Baltimore hospital who wants to be known as "the master boxer" of all time more than he wants to be champion of the world. With Ali and Frazier gone, the stream is filling up with trout, but can any of them swim?
In the order of prowess and promise, here is the 1980 unofficial SPORTS ILLUSTRATED ranking of promising young heavyweights. The assessments are based upon interviews with trainers, managers and fighters, upon ringside observations in gyms and arenas and the reading of palms and tea leaves.
1) Greg Page, 21, of Louisville. Weight: 225 to 242 pounds. Height: 6'2". Pro record: 8-0. None of the young heavies is as skilled and naturally gifted as Page. In fact, there is probably no heavyweight anywhere, young or old, who has so many tools. Nonetheless there are serious questions about him—about the way he has been nursed along on tomato cans since he turned pro in February of 1979, about his tendency to gain weight, about his penchant for showboating in the ring, � la Ali, and about the depth of his desire, the strength of his self-discipline. Page was an excellent amateur, a national heavyweight champion in both the AAUs and Golden Gloves, but he lost to Tate twice in the amateurs and once to another prospect, Michael Dokes. Page was an accomplished high school basketball player who has said he would rather play ball than be a boxer. He is marvelously agile, lithe and fluid, and in and out of the ring he moves with the quick rhythms of a basketball player, as if forever looking for a board to crash. He hits hard with both hands, throwing effective hooks and jabs. "A monster with tremendous skills," says Angelo Dundee, Ali's former trainer. Longtime New York Manager Al Braverman goes even further. "He has more ability than everybody put together," he says. "Best-looking fighter in the whole group of prospects. But a bad image as far as picking opponents. He looks for guys from Woodlawn Cemetery."
That is a standard knock against many young fighters and their handlers, but with Page it seems especially relevant. Since becoming a professional following his distinguished amateur career—he was 90-11 with 55 KOs—not one of the eight men he has fought has come even remotely close to testing him. He knocked out all eight before the end of the fourth round, and six of them didn't make it through the second.
And then there's the matter of weight. As a pro Page has fought at as much as 242 pounds. At one point he shot up to 250 between bouts. "Pizza, potato chips, candy bars, popsicles, hamburgers, peanuts," Page says. That's a list that leaves the experts shaking their heads; if Page hasn't the will to lay off the junk food, can he possibly have the determination to become a heavyweight champ? Page's father, Albert, a bus driver and one of his son's handlers, figures that Greg should fight at between 220 and 225. If he's already having trouble making that weight as a 21-year-old, how much is he likely to weigh at 25?