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|Virtually unknown before 2012, unbeaten American Bryant Jennings raised his profile significantly.|
Since heavyweight champion Lennox Lewis's retirement a decade ago, brothers Wladimir and Vitali Klitschko have owned the division. They have been utterly dominant champions and have a stranglehold on boxing's four major alphabet belts, Wladimir with three of them and Vitali with one.
All roads to a heavyweight title go through the Klitschkos, which usually means that challengers must fight them in their adopted home country of Germany, or perhaps somewhere else in Europe.
During his current title reign, Vitali has fought just one time in the United States, at the Staples Center in Los Angeles in 2009, when he defended his title against American Chris Arreola.
Wladimir Klitschko has not fought on these shores since his one-sided domination of Russia's Sultan Ibragimov in a title unification fight at Madison Square Garden in New York in 2008. Wladimir has said, however, that he would love to return to the United States to defend his crown, but he makes this understandable point: To do it, he needs a viable American contender who can make it worth his while. The way the brothers see it, why should they leave Europe when they make millions of dollars there, pack 50,000-seat soccer stadiums and do monstrous television ratings on RTL, their German television partner?
And there's the rub. In recent years, the American heavyweight scene has been at its lowest point in decades, with little to offer the Klitschkos in terms of an incentive to return to America.
It wasn't all that long ago when there were numerous American heavyweights populating the rankings, be it big names such as Mike Tyson, Evander Holyfield and Michael Moorer, or the less famous likes of Hasim Rahman, Lamon Brewster and Michael Grant.
Those days are gone, but as poor as the division has been in recent years, it is on at least a bit of an uptick with some veterans making a little noise, some experienced contenders in their prime and a couple of fresh faces who have a chance to make it big.
"The heavyweight division is still held hostage, not in a negative way, by the Klitschkos. They just 'Klitschko' everybody. As long as they are there it will be very difficult for the heavyweight division to really take off here in the United States," said Golden Boy promoter Richard Schaefer, who promotes two of the most promising American heavyweights, Deontay Wilder and Seth Mitchell.
"I think the heavyweight division in Europe -- Germany and to a lesser extent, the U.K. -- is a hotter division than here in the United States, but the sport of boxing is bigger in the United States than it's been in a long time, with pay-per-view numbers up and new platforms interested in showing boxing. So the heavyweight division has become less important in the United States and it will take some exciting guys to capture people's attention. But once the Klitschkos are retired, or lose the titles, I think the heavyweight division will open, including to the talent in the United States."
Mitchell believes there are entertaining fights on the horizon, as long as fighters -- and their managers and promoters -- are willing to take the challenge.
"I think there's a lot of good fights that can be made in the American heavyweight division," Mitchell said. "A lot of fighters get drowned out because the Klitschkos have been dominating for so long. But we have some heavyweights here with power and athleticism. There are some good fighters. We just have to fight each other and the interest will be there."
Here's a look at the landscape of the American heavyweight division. For better or worse, these are the best big men the United States has to offer:
Deontay Wilder (29-0, 29 KOs, 27, of Tuscaloosa, Ala.): Wilder, the last American man to claim an Olympic boxing medal (bronze at the 2008 Beijing Games) has destructive power in his right hand and could be the savior of the American heavyweight division. He's big (6-foot-7, 225 pounds), strong and has charisma. However, despite the awesome power he has displayed -- no opponent has made it into the fifth round with him -- he has faced woeful opposition. His two most recent fights were sensational first-round knockouts against known names but guys who were shot: 2000 British Olympic gold medalist Audley Harrison and former world titleholder Sergei Liakhovich (who was knocked out so hard he was literally convulsing on the canvas). One fight being discussed by his handlers is a match with the winner of the Sept. 7 fight between contenders Chris Arreola and Seth Mitchell. That would be a serious step up for him, particularly if it's the better-chinned Arreola.
Wilder also has the attention of Wladimir Klitschko, who sparred nearly 50 rounds with him in preparation for a title defense last November against Mariusz Wach. Klitschko was extremely impressed with Wilder and spoke very highly of him after that experience.
Bryant Jennings (17-0, 9 KOs, 28, of Philadelphia): Jennings was virtually unknown at the start of 2012, but a series of strong performances on national television put him on the map; a streak he kicked off with a decision against then-unbeaten Maurice Byarm followed by a ninth-round knockout of Liakhovich. Jennings was active, winning all five of his fights in 2012, and then stopped Andrey Fedosov in the sixth round in June. There has been talk of Jennings facing top contender Tomasz Adamek of Poland later this year, but it's more likely Jennings will face somebody else, with an Adamek fight perhaps being put off until early next year. Whatever direction Jennings goes in, the Klitschkos know his name as he was a candidate to face Wladimir this past spring.
Cristobal Arreola (35-3, 30 KOs, 32, of Riverside, Calif.): Arreola, one of the most exciting heavyweights in the business, got a title shot against Vitali Klitschko in 2009 and was stopped in the 10th round when his corner threw in the towel. A seven-fight winning streak set him up for a title eliminator against Bermane Stiverne in April, but it turned out to be a nightmare. Stiverne dropped the usually durable Arreola in the third round and badly broke his nose, leaving Arreola with difficulty breathing for the remainder of the fight, which he lost by unanimous decision. Now Arreola faces a make-or-break showdown with Seth Mitchell on Sept. 7 that will go a long way to moving the winner toward an even bigger fight, possibly against the up-and-coming Wilder.
Seth Mitchell (26-1-1, 19 KOs, 31, of Brandywine, Md.): Mitchell is a former Michigan State linebacker who turned to boxing in his early 20s after a knee injury scuttled a potential NFL career. He got a lot of hype, made fun fights and scored a lot of knockouts against lesser opponents while also showing a questionable chin. When he was matched with former cruiserweight Johnathon Banks in November 2012, Mitchell was a massive favorite but was dropped three times and knocked out in the second round. They met in a June rematch and Mitchell, fighting much more cautiously, got hurt multiple times but dropped Banks in the second round and cruised to a unanimous decision. Mitchell next faces his toughest challenge on Sept. 7 when he takes on Arreola, a fellow contender who also has a lot of question marks. A victory will put Mitchell back on Wladimir Klitschko's radar and could be an opponent to bring the champ back to America to defend his title.
Malik Scott (35-1-1, 12 KOs, 32, of Philadelphia): Scott began his career 35-0, but faced very weak opposition and earned the reputation as an unwatchable fighter unwilling to try for a knockout while being involved in one terrible fight after another. But boring or not, he has talent and is a skilled technician. In his first fight against a serious opponent, Scott faced 2008 Ukrainian Olympic bronze medalist Vyacheslav Glazkov on national television in February and fought well, but he was held to a highly controversial draw in a fight almost everybody thought Scott had clearly won. Controversy followed him to his next fight in July, when he went to England to face former title challenger Dereck Chisora and lost by sixth-round knockout. It was a highly controversial stoppage that elicited a protest from the Scott camp. Scott had been knocked down but was unhurt. He was on a knee closely watching the referee's count, which he beat only to have the referee call off the fight in a terrible and unjust ruling.
Tony Thompson (38-4, 26 KOs, 41, of Washington, D.C.): Thompson has had two shots at Wladimir Klitschko and has been knocked out twice, in 2008 and 2012. But Thompson rejuvenated his career earlier this year with back-to-back upset knockouts of 2008 British Olympic bronze medalist and heralded prospect David Price. The wins against Price landed Thompson a title eliminator against Bulgarian contender Kubrat Pulev on Aug. 24, and although Thompson lost a unanimous decision, he is still a solid contender who is capable of beating most anyone not named Klitschko.
Steve Cunningham (25-6, 12 KOs, 37, of Philadelphia): Cunningham is a former cruiserweight titleholder who moved up to heavyweight last year, and although he has lost two fights in a row to Tomasz Adamek and Tyson Fury, he put on good performances and makes good fights. He lost to Adamek by split decision in a fight many people thought Cunningham won. In April, Cunningham was stopped in the seventh round by the much bigger Fury, of England, but Cunningham had the big man hurt badly and dropped him in the second round.
"I think there is going to be some excitement in the division in the United States, but you have to make the fights, which is why I want to make the winner of Mitchell-Arreola against Wilder," Schaefer said. "We made Mitchell-Arreola and if we can make the winner with Wilder, from a U.S. point of view, it will help breathe some life back into the heavyweight division. I can see a guy like Jennings someday in a showdown with Deontay Wilder. It's exciting. These fights have to happen and we would like to try to make them and we are willing to work with their promoters to get them done."