Chambers going against the grain

Former heavyweight contender looks for success in smaller division

Updated: July 31, 2013, 2:54 PM ET
By Nigel Collins | ESPN.com

Eddie Chambers peered through the small gap between his raised gloves as he retreated, his back brushing the ropes as he sidestepped, first to the left and then to his right. He'd already abandoned any thought of winning, but there were less than three minutes until the final bell, and "Fast Eddie" looked determined to finish on his feet.

But there was no escape. The looming figure of Wladimir Klitschko pursued him in zombie-like fashion, advancing slowly but irrevocably, confident his victim was just one final swat away from oblivion. When the end came, it arrived in the form of a sweeping left hook that knocked Chambers into the turnbuckle pad, where he slid down and toppled to his left, coming to rest facedown, his upper body draped over the bottom rope and protruding onto the ring apron.

The ref immediately waved the fight off, and Chambers was slowly helped to his hands and knees, before finally being lifted and gingerly placed on his stool. When the doctor shone a light into his eyes to see if Eddie's pupils were dilated, it illuminated the sad, resigned face of a man who knew the road he'd traveled for so long had hit a dead end.

Still, boxers are nothing if not stubborn, and it took two more bouts -- a win over Derrick Rossy and a loss to Thomasz Adamek -- to convince Chambers that it was time to readjust his sights. The 6-foot-1 Philadelphian, whose weight had fluctuated from 223 pounds (a win over Samuel Peters) to 209½ for Klitschko, decided to drop down a division and start over as a cruiserweight.

"I've been thinking about it for a long time," Chambers said. "I always thought that if I could fight guys my own size, I'd have the opportunities and the upper hand. At cruiserweight, I feel as comfortable as I did at heavyweight. My last fight with Tomasz Adamek, I was at 202. So the transition should be seamless."

To that end, Chambers, 36-3 (18 KOs), is scheduled to make his cruiser debut this Saturday on NBC Sports. He'll be fighting South African southpaw Thabiso Mchunu, 13-1 (10 KOs), who is having his first fight outside his homeland. It doesn't seem to be an especially daunting task for Chambers, but you never know.

When the WBC created the cruiserweight division in 1980, it was widely derided as superfluous, a bogus weight class invented as yet another way for the alphabet cartels to charge sanctioning fees. While supporters claimed the gap between light heavy and heavyweight was too wide for mere mortals to bridge, cynics sneered that the division would be a refuge for overweight light heavyweights and other shiftless mediocrities.

Looking back more than three decades later, it appears there was something to be said for both points of view.

[+] EnlargeEvander Holyfield (L) and Mike Tyson
Getty ImagesEvander Holyfield, left, enjoyed success after going from cruiserweight to heavyweight.

The public gave the new division scant attention at first, but that changed in 1986 when Evander Holyfield edged Dwight Muhammad Qawi in an awe-inspiring orgy of violence and won the WBA title. The splendid affair gave the cruiserweight class a measure of credibility and a popular new star in Holyfield.

But when Holyfield invaded the heavyweight division and won the world title with a second-round knockout of Buster Douglas, it set a hazardous precedent. Apparently, residing a few pounds south of the sport's glamour division proved too powerful a temptation, and the cruiserweight division soon became a launching pad for fighters of a certain size who harbored heavyweight ambitions. They were hungry for the big money and eager to risk their necks to get it. None who followed in Holyfield's footsteps has come close to equaling his accomplishments, though two, Chris Byrd and David Haye, have done well -- up to a point. Haye, like Byrd, was found woefully lacking when he faced Wladimir Klitschko.

Other recent examples of successful cruisers who faltered among the big boys include Jean Marc Mormeck, Steve Cunningham and Tomasz Adamek. Vitali Klitschko crushed Adamek, Wladimir did likewise to Mormeck and Cunningham crumbled at the hands of Tyson Fury.

Perhaps the most confounding case in the short history of the division was Al Cole, who won the IBF cruiserweight belt in 1992 and made five successful defenses before relinquishing the title and casting his lot among the heavyweights. By the time he retired, Cole had suffered 16 defeats, 15 of them as a heavyweight. Even so, he earned more money as a heavyweight journeyman than a cruiserweight titleholder, a telling commentary on the relative worth of the new division.

So why have so many strivers failed where Holyfield succeeded? It certainly has little to do with his size; he stayed in the 208- to 215-pound range throughout his heavyweight prime. And considering the fact Holyfield seldom held a weight advantage over any heavyweight he beat, the size of his opposition didn't have much to do with it, either. Neither did hand speed. Byrd, Chambers and Haye all had or have hand speed roughly equal to Holyfield.

The answer is so painfully obvious, you wonder why so many aspirants fail to recognize the truth: The combination of Holyfield's potent punching, concrete chin, zealot-like determination and incredible guts made him a very special fighter, which cannot be said for any of those who trailed in his wake.

Can you imagine Holyfield pussyfooting around on the perimeter like the vast majority of the Klitschko brothers' challengers? A fighter who wasn't afraid to take the fight to Mike Tyson wouldn't have hesitated to step inside either Klitschko's wheelhouse and go for the gusto, come what may.

Klitschko
Johannes Eisele/AFP/Getty ImagesFormer cruiserweight champ David Haye, left, didn't do too well when he faced Wladimir Klitschko in the heavyweight division.

Had Haye -- who has approximately the same punching power, hand speed and size as Holyfield -- been brave enough to attack Klitschko the way "The Real Deal" went after a 257-pound George Foreman, the Englishman could very well be world champion today.

Conversely, Byrd had more courage than was good for him, but without sufficient punching power to back it up, he was doomed to fail. There are no Willie Peps in the heavyweight division. If you can't bang, you can't win at the top level.

Even a bad idea can gain enough traction to outlast its critics, but that doesn't necessarily mean it turned out to be a good idea. I was among the Luddites who scorned the arrival of the tweener weight class, and was delighted when, five years later, Michael Spinks beat Larry Holmes to become the first light heavyweight champion to win the heavyweight title. It blew the raison d'etre for the cruiserweight division clean out of the water.

True, the cruiserweight class has given fighters work and produced some exciting matches, and those are good things. But the same fights could have been made anyway. Boxing doesn't need artificial weight classes to make it relevant.

The cruiserweight division is still little more than a transit stop on the way to somewhere else. In more than 30 years it has produced just one legendary fighter, and Holyfield would have been just as good and accomplished just as much if the cruiserweight division never existed.

As far as Chambers is concerned, we'll have to wait and see how far his hand speed and boxing skills will take him against smaller men. Of course, the more success he has, the more likely it becomes that he'll be lured back to the heavyweights. After all, that's still where the money is.

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