| Foreman and Holmes, were the kings of those big-daddy days
According to a new book entitled Fat Land: How Americans became the Fattest People in the World, more than 60 per cent of the population here are clinically overweight. In the land of the XL portion, it shouldn’t be hard to find new giants to extend the legacy of Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier, George Foreman and Larry Holmes. But get this: Lennox Lewis’ trainer, Emanuel Steward, thinks heavyweight boxing in the US is “finished”.
Five minutes of channel zapping through American sport is sufficient to lend Steward’s theory weight. The teenage street leviathans of Detroit, Chicago, New York and Miami are no longer filing into boxing gyms in search of the mythical route out of the ghetto. They are slam-dunking their way to wealth in basketball, smashing home runs out of baseball grounds and trying to decapitate quarterbacks in American football.
This week USA Today published the salary of every gridiron player (imagine such transparency in the English Premiership). Linebackers and defensive ends — the enforcers and muscle men of the NFL — are now earning up to $ 20 million per campaign.
The modern basketball multi-millionaire, meanwhile, is built like Foreman or Ali but can join the Beverly Hills set without having to reassemble his face after a hard day's work.
The paucity of top Americans is now such that Foreman is threatening another comeback when he is 55.
Legends are climbing down off the walls of the hall of fame to search for their gumshields and gloves. Foreman was 45 when he first regained a title — 20 years after the ‘Rumble in the Jungle’ with Ali. The arrival of a licence application from Frank Bruno at the English Southern Area Council’s offices this week imparts an even sadder tale. Foreman can smell easy money. Around Bruno there is the more pungent scent of desperation.
This week I challenged Steward, proprietor of Detroit’s famous Kronk gym, to name two American heavyweight prospects below the age of 25. “I can’t,” he lamented. “I don’t see nothing coming up in America. I go round the USA with the Olympic team and travel internationally — and what I see is that big American kids who are 6ft-plus and maybe 190lb want to get rich playing football and basketball. That’s where they look for the money these days. Amateur boxing is not seen on TV much any more.
“So we’re losing all those kids to other sports. The next wave of good heavyweights will come from countries outside America. The Klitschko brothers reflect the new generation. In future we’ll see heavyweight champions come from African and European countries.”
This requiem is not being heard across all the weight divisions; it’s the potential monsters of the fight trade who are turning away.
Take Lewis. Not Lennox, but Ray. The Baltimore Ravens have an especially belligerent linebacker called Ray Lewis, who earns a basic $ 10.25 million a season. Thirty years ago he might have trained instead to fight Ali.
Prize fighting, which lacks the cultural glamour of modern basketball, with its rap and fashion associations, is no longer the only lucrative outlet for legalised violence. An invoice left on a hotel desk this week showed one of Lewis’ sparring partners to be earning $ 125 per round. His pre-tax take home pay for what was said to have been a particularly torrid session with the champion was $ 500.
Only the top five or 10 per cent make serious money.
The last gifted college-type athlete to choose boxing was Michael Grant, who was destroyed by Lewis before having his ring career rendered untenable by Dominick Guinn — one of the few young heavyweights who is talked about with any enthusiasm.
Ironically, Audley Harrison, Britain's Olympic champion, has just announced his intention to join the American circuit in search of wisdom and credible opponents.
In this context it seemed reasonable to ask Lewis whether he considers himself the last of his distinguished breed. Though the Stars and Stripes have materialised on his kit bag, they share a space with the flags of Britain, Jamaica and Canada. Lewis, who has been involved in 17 world title fights and is on his “farewell tour”, according to Steward, has chopped down every credible opponent in his path.
Eighties retro is the heavyweight division’s permanent mode. Names still doing the rounds first emerged in the early days of Thatcherism: Lewis, Tyson, Evander Holyfield. The other American belt holder aside from Jones (who is on a kind of sabbatical from his proper echelon) is Chris Byrd, who remains stubbornly and deservedly obscure.
“Yes I am the last great heavyweight,” Lewis agrees. “I don’t see anyone who’s going to accomplish what I have with my career.” But then he contradicts himself, out of loyalty to his trade. “When you see these huge men competing — the size, the power — it’s always exciting.
“There's always another baseball player coming along, always another footballer. Boxing’s the same.”