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Friday, February 8, 2013
Heavyweight horde on the horizon?

By Dan Rafael
ESPN.com

For the past decade, brothers Wladimir and Vitali Klitschko have dominated the heavyweight scene, clearly establishing themselves as the rulers of the division with one lopsided win after another against all comers.

Between them, they hold all four of the most recognized alphabet titles. Wladimir has unified three major belts and gained recognition as the lineal champion, while Vitali has one belt. Any heavyweight who wants to be called a real champion -- not a junior varsity trinket holder like Alexander Povetkin -- must go through a Klitschko.

Wladimir has reigned since 2006 and made 13 title defenses (third-most in boxing history for a heavyweight champion, behind only Joe Louis' 25 and Larry Holmes' 20) and won 10 by knockout.

Vitali, who came out of retirement in 2008 after a nearly four-year absence from the ring, immediately regained his old belt and has racked up nine defenses, winning six by knockout.

Between them, the brothers have wiped out most of the top contenders willing to fight them: David Haye, Tony Thompson, Mariusz Wach, Samuel Peter, Eddie Chambers, Ruslan Chagaev, Sultan Ibragimov, Calvin Brock, Cristobal Arreola, Juan Carlos Gomez, Kevin Johnson, Odlanier Solis, Tomasz Adamek and Dereck Chisora.

But Vitali is now 41, heavily involved in Ukrainian politics and might fight only a couple more times, if at all. Wladimir, although still going strong, turns 37 next month and won't rule forever, even if he probably has a few more good years left.

So who comes after the Klitschkos? Who will emerge at the top of a division that has seen interest in the United States wane because the crop of contenders has been so poor and the Klitschkos so dominant (while fighting primarily in Europe)?

Before famed boxing writer Bert Sugar died 11 months ago, one of his go-to lines was "the heavyweight division is on the cusp of being called off for lack of interest."

Not any more. After years of Klitschko dominance in a weak era of contenders, there is hope for the division A.K. -- After Klitschkos.

There are talented fighters beginning to emerge who should soon be ready to face other top contenders and challenge for titles. Even without title shots, they could make a series of fights with each other if they and their handlers are willing to match them up, and not just wait for a Klitschko fight or for the brothers to simply fade away.

"There seems like there is a crop of heavyweights that are coming up who are making names for themselves," said Tom Loeffler, managing director of the Klitschkos' K2 Promotions.

Here's a look at the eight heavyweights (listed alphabetically, with record, age and origin) who could make a lot of noise in the coming years:

Johnathon Banks
Johnathon Banks recently was set back by a broken thumb, but his upset of prospect Seth Mitchell put him in the conversation of top heavyweight contenders.

Johnathon Banks (29-1-1, 19 KOs), 30, Detroit: The 6-foot-3, 220-pound Banks is the one guy who almost certainly won't get a fight with a Klitschko -- but not because he isn't a good fighter. He is promoted by K2 and has been an integral part of Wladimir's camp for years. The fighters have sparred hundreds of rounds, they are friends and Banks now serves as Wladimir's trainer in the wake of last fall's death of Emanuel Steward, who was Klitschko's longtime trainer and a father figure to Banks. But Banks, whose only loss came in a 2009 cruiserweight title fight, made a name for himself at heavyweight in November by blitzing heavily favored Seth Mitchell for a second-round knockout. They were slated for a rematch Feb. 16, but it was postponed this week after Banks broke his right thumb.

Tyson Fury (20-0, 14 KOs), 24, England: The youngest of the fresh faces, Fury is a massive man (6-9, 250 pounds) with a growing fan base. He already has beaten Chisora and Johnson (both with ease) and probably will make his next fight in New York in his American debut. Plans are in the works for him to headline an NBC card at the Madison Square Garden Theater against former cruiserweight titlist Steve Cunningham, who is now fighting at heavyweight. That's a fight bound to draw interest from fans on both sides of the pond.

Vyacheslav Glazkov
We'll know better whether Vyacheslav Glazkov is a legitimate heavyweight contender after he meets Malik Scott in perhaps his sternest challenge yet.

Vyacheslav Glazkov (14-0, 10 KOs), 28, Ukraine: The 6-3, 225-pound Glazkov won an Olympic bronze medal in 2008. He recently signed with Main Events and is now based in the United States. He gained wide exposure thanks to his appearance in December in the opening bout of boxing's return to NBC, when he made Tor Hamer quit after the fourth round. Glazkov faces what likely will be the toughest fight of his career on Feb. 23, when he headlines an NBC Sports Net card against Malik Scott (35-0, 12 KOs).

Robert Helenius (18-0, 11 KOs), 29, Finland: In 2010 and 2011, Helenius (6-6, 240 pounds) looked like the next big thing thanks to knockout wins against former titleholders Lamon Brewster, Samuel Peter and Sergei Liakhovich -- who, granted, were past their primes. But Helenius, who has had a lot of exposure in the U.S., had been so impressive that Wladimir was already talking about him as a future opponent. Helenius' past two fights, however, have been anything but impressive -- a highly controversial split decision win in Finland against Chisora and a lopsided but desultory decision against journeyman Sherman Williams in November. Helenius, who was sidelined for 11 months between those victories because of a shoulder injury, still has a chance to go places, but he needs to seriously pick up his intensity.

Bryant Jennings (16-0, 8 KOs), 28, Philadelphia: One of the rare American heavyweight prospects, Jennings (6-2, 225) went from unknown in 2011 to one of the hottest names in 2012. He kicked off last year with a strong win against previously unbeaten Maurice Byarm, knocked out former titlist Sergei Liakhovich along the way and closed it out by scoring a highlight-reel knockout of Bowie Tupou in December. Jennings' name came up as a possible Wladimir opponent this spring. He's not ready for that yet, but besides calling out Klitschko, he was willing to step in on a week's notice to face Mitchell after Banks got injured. Jennings is hungry, and that's a good thing for an aspiring heavyweight contender.

David Price, Osbourne Machimana
David Price remains untested, but he has the size (6-foot-8, 245 pounds) to match up with the Klitschkos and is set to step up against Tony Thompson.

David Price (15-0, 13 KOs), 29, England: Price, the British and Commonwealth champion, who packs a murderous right hand, was the 2012 ESPN.com prospect of the year. He has looked quite impressive in recent fights, destroying some of Britain's best -- including Audley Harrison and Matt Skelton -- inside two rounds. But the 6-8, 245-pound Price, a 2008 Olympic bronze medalist, has yet to be tested. He is taking a major step up in competition Feb. 23 by facing American Tony Thompson (36-3, 24 KOs), a longtime contender who has been stopped twice by Wladimir in world title fights.

Kubrat Pulev (17-0, 9 KOs), 31, Bulgaria: The 6-4, 245-pounder is the reigning European champion and nearing a world title shot. His next fight is supposed to be an elimination bout against longtime contender Adamek, although the camps still need to negotiate a deal. But Pulev, who has a deep amateur background, could be the sleeper in this group. He's quick on his feet and with his hands, seems to take a good shot and has scored some solid wins already even though he turned pro only in 2009. In just his fifth pro fight, he took out former world title challenger Skelton in the fourth round. In his two most recent fights, he notched 11th-round knockouts against borderline top-10 contender Alexander Dimitrenko and Alexander Ustinov, who was undefeated and much bigger than Pulev.

Deontay Wilder
Deontay Wilder has padded his undefeated record against cream-puff competition thus far, but a powder keg right hand is part of his enormous upside.

Deontay Wilder (27-0, 27 KOs), 27, Tuscaloosa, Ala.: Wilder is the least-tested, rawest fighter in this group, but he also has the most upside. He was a 2008 Olympic bronze medalist, which culminated a brief amateur career. Golden Boy Promotions has brought the 6-7, 225-pound "Bronze Bomber" along very slowly against a lot of low-grade opposition. But Wilder is getting better. His calling card is a right hand that could probably knock down a building. At some point, he will have to step up and we'll find out if he can take a shot as good as he can give one. If he can, he can be a star.

Like Loeffler, Main Events promoter Kathy Duva -- who promotes Glazkov and works closely with Jennings promoter Russell Peltz -- is bullish on the next generation of heavyweights. She envisions big fights down the road in the post-Klitschko era.

"There are a lot of young guys with good records and ability, and we see them coming together and bubbling up at once," she said. "What makes for a lively division is when you have five or six or seven guys maturing at the same time and becoming the top contenders in the division at the same time. That is what is happening now, and that's the pattern.

"When [Sugar Ray] Leonard and [Thomas] Hearns were fighting and Larry Holmes had come along as heavyweight champion after Muhammad Ali [in the late 1970s and 1980s], nobody gave a crap about the heavyweights anymore. It was a weak division. Then came a great era of heavyweights: You had Mike Tyson, Evander Holyfield, Lennox Lewis and Riddick Bowe come along, and there was this critical mass of heavyweights at the same time.

"Now I see, in the next two or three years, the same thing happening with the heavyweights -- maybe even sooner -- which will be around the time that the Klitschkos will be either beaten or retired. People will want to see these guys fight each other. We have the makings of a lively division again. That day will come."