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For a good chunk of the 20th century, the world heavyweight title in boxing was considered to be the most prestigious achievement in all of sports. Other activities were really just metaphors for combat; boxing was combat, pure and undiluted. It makes sense that the toughest guy in the toughest sport was king.
But as far back as the 1940s, boxing had begun to cannibalize its own status with a series of organizations that sent fighters on a chase to "unify" titles. There was the WBA, the WBC, the NYSAC, the Universal -- men like Ali collected them like passport stamps. In spite of this and at least through Tyson's streak in the 1980s, it was easy enough to communicate who was whom.
Then more acronyms added more confusion, and fighters (or management) became less and less interested in defining true champions: Tyson fought both Evander Holyfield and Lennox Lewis years past the point of it mattering. At present, there are three "heavyweight champions" in boxing, two of them brothers who will never fight one another. Brothers Wladimir and Vitali Klitschko, immensely popular in Germany, barely register as celebrities in the States. No heavyweight title bout has appeared on American pay-per-view television in years. Even HBO, the sport's biggest caregiver for over three decades, recently announced it was ceasing coverage of heavyweight bouts.
"We're out of the heavyweight division," HBO President Ross Greenburg told the Telegraph. "There isn't any interest in the U.S. and no one besides David Haye to challenge the Klitschkos." Pretty brutal testimony for a class of men that were once cultural touchstones.
While part of it is the near-complete lack of compelling personalities -- Tyson continues to cast a long shadow in that department -- it's clear that the heavyweight division is not particularly interested in catering to U.S. fans. The Klitschkos fight here only sporadically, which makes press access and subsequent fan interest difficult. Haye, a British prospect who has a huge following in Doctor Who-ville, doesn't register here. Heavyweight boxing isn't dead, no, but it's too well-traveled to matter to Americans anymore.
Saturday's UFC 121 title fight between Cain Velasquez and Brock Lesnar is what boxing used to offer: a concise, logical determination of who can eat whose lunch under civil prizefighting rules on domestic soil. For fight fans, there's no quarrel that Velasquez is on top. The question is whether -- or when -- the general public agrees.
For all the UFC's momentum over the past five years, there's still a nagging question of perspective. Boxing is sanitized, polished and clinical in its brutality; MMA lets it all hang out, bloody faces and all. It doesn't have the benefit of being born outside of our lifetimes, which seems to soften activities that would otherwise appear bizarre or ill-advised. And so there's a segment of the population that will not regard Velasquez as the toughest man in the world -- just the craziest.
That it's Velasquez who holds the title is another wrinkle: Fans, especially casual ones, enjoy consistency. Ali held belts for years, as did Tyson and Lennox Lewis. Brock Lesnar, who was quickly reaching mythical status, could defend his UFC belt only twice before running into the limits of his skill set. Velasquez might fare better, or he might get the business end of Junior dos Santos; Santos, in turn, could be smothered by Lesnar. It's enough to give you whiplash.
I do not get the sense Velasquez has "baddest man on the planet" status in the eyes of sports fans, primarily because the UFC is still largely misunderstood and because he was a virtual unknown prior to the Lesnar fight. But conquering Lesnar -- a guy no action figure could do justice -- will go a long way toward making his story easily digested.
The legacy of boxing's heavyweight champion is cross-cultural and universal. There were mothers, preachers and doctors who understood and were entertained by the idea of recognizing someone with such attrition and determination. If the UFC title has replaced it, it's for a good and simple reason: There's only one of them.