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Wednesday, December 3, 2003
Updated: December 12, 8:12 PM ET
Heavyweight tourney would solve things

By Max Kellerman
Special to ESPN.com

I was stopped in the street this week and asked: "If Lennox Lewis retires, how are they going to crown the next heavyweight champ?" I did not have an immediate answer. I said something like "we might not have a champ for a while."

Upon reflection, this guy's question is a happy one. Try as they might, all the corrupt sanctioning bodies, short-sighted promoters and television networks in the world have not been able to confuse the issue for this man, a casual boxing fan. He knew that Lennox Lewis and only Lennox Lewis is the heavyweight champion of the world. Lewis won universal recognition as champ in the ring (against Evander Holyfield and Shannon Briggs) and is now recognized as champ by The Ring Magazine.

One possible answer to the "how is the next heavyweight champ going to be crowned?" question also offers reason for hopefulness. HBO, with its near nine-figure budget for fighter's purses, is the de facto major league of boxing. Should Lewis officially retire, then The Ring Magazine heavyweight championship will be vacant, and HBO will have a real opportunity to officially embrace The Ring's championship policy, thereby further undermining whatever shred of credibility any of those scurrilous sanctioning bodies have left.

Whether or not HBO officially recognizes The Ring belt as the legit title (as we do on Friday Night Fights and as is the editorial policy on ESPNEWS), in the near future, it is likely that the industry leader will hold if not an official heavyweight tournament, then at least enough fights between top heavyweights, that by the time the dust settles, there will be a consensus top heavyweight, if not an official Ring heavyweight champ.

Who will that fighter be? The winner of this upcoming Saturday night's showdown at Madison Square Garden between Vitali Klitschko and Kirk Johnson will be a top contender for the vacant title, especially if the winner of that fight actually takes on Corrie Sanders. The winner of the upcoming James Toney-Jameel McCline fight will also be a top contender. Should Roy Jones Jr. return to heavyweight and beat say, Mike Tyson, he will be not only solidify his position among the top heavys, but he will also become the focal point of the division.

Wladimir Klitschko will likely rebound from his knockout loss to Sanders with some quality wins (eventually) and re-enter the picture. Hassim Rahman will likely beat John Ruiz in a couple of weeks and throw his hat into the mix. Dominick Guinn is undefeated and on a roll, and Chris Byrd escaped his fight against Fres Oquendo with a win.

The best possible scenario of course, is that in the wake of a Lewis retirement HBO actually stages an official tournament - like the one that crowned Mike Tyson king in the late 1980's when he eventually knocked out Michael Spinks. So, let's name 'em (un)officially: the winner of Toney-McCline, the winner of V. Klitschko-K. Johnson, the winner of Roy Jones-Mike Tyson, the winner of Rahman-Ruiz, the winner of a Sanders-W. Klitschko rematch, the winner of a Tua-Oquendo rematch, Chris Byrd and say, Dominick Guinn. A three-step, eight-fighter tourney to determine the next heavyweight champion of the world. And by the time a new king is crowned, Joe Mesi might still be undefeated and the perfect foil for the champ's first title defense.

Wishful thinking maybe, but not totally out of the realm of possibility. The boxing industry is in bad shape and HBO, with its position as the industry leader stands to lose the most from a further collapse, and gain the most from a revival. The Ring Magazine policy states that a vacant title can automatically be filled if the top ranked fighter in a division fights the No. 2 ranked guy. So if a big tournament is too unwieldy, Chris Byrd can face Corrie Sanders and the winner is the brand new champ. Simple as that.

Max Kellerman is a studio analyst for ESPN2's "Friday Night Fights" and the host of the show "Around The Horn."