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The Man Who Beat The Man
by Lucius Shepard
The idea of the lineal heavyweight champion has long been an article of faith for boxing purists. It's Biblical when you think about it, this notion of almost holy succession, reminiscent of passages that read "...and Boaz begat Shadrach, who begat Meshach, who begat Ebeneezer..." Only in boxing we would have "...and Marciano begat Patterson (who did not really beat the man, but rather an enervated Archie Moore), who begat Liston, who begat Ali. However, the purity attaching to the lineal championship takes a major hit when one factors in bad decisions and ducked opponents and fixes, and especially if one gives credence to the story that Primo Carnera, as spurious a lineal champ who ever ruled, lost a fight with a kangaroo.
If we are to be considered true boxing fans, must we accept that Shannon Briggs was really "The Man Who Beat the Man" as a result of his gift win over Big George Foreman, or that the accolade was not at least spiritually passed to Jimmy Young, when he appeared to earn a clearcut decision over a greatly diminished Ali? And now a new challenge has arisen to this fun-to-speculate-upon but ultmately irrelevant and specious title.
Boxing, like every facet of the business world, has undergone massive changes as we begin the Third Millenium. No longer, as was the case half a century ago, do fighters earn title shots by fighting all comers; now many prospects are shielded from real competition and carefully guided to contend for one third or an even smaller fraction of an acronymic title held by some journeyman grateful for his one big payday, and then are prevented from unifying the title thanks to boxing politics. Just this fact alone is sufficent to further debase the concept of the linear champ. It is promoters, and only marginally the fighters, who now determine champions.
Hasim Rahman, currently holder of the lineal "belt," is soon due to fight the all-powerful Brian Neilsen, who himself doubtless holds some quasi-prestigious, semi-imaginary title. All-Caucasian. perhaps. Or maybe the hallowed European Championship. Most likely, Rachman will survive this stern test. But the possibility exists that Neilsen will prevail and go on to defend the lineal title against a parade of stalwarts named Uzo and Luigi and Gunnar, continuing on this path until his promoter can arrange to have him pass the title to a more profitable yet equally controllable fighter. Should Rachman win, he will defend against the winner of Holyfield-Ruiz (And don't you know, the idea of any combination of these three men meeting in the ring causes my heart to beat just a little faster), while more legitimate claimants are stranded on the outside looking in. There is a reasonable chance that this turn of events may actually bring about the most interesting of all potential heavyweight bouts, i.e., Tyson-Lewis. But the lineal champ? He will be toiling in farflung precincts, fighting polar bears in Siberia or hulking Chinese giants in high Tibet or maybe--if things get real slow and greater novelty is required to boost the gate--a giant squid, one of whom may, in process of stumbling haplessly about, land a lucky shot or (in the case of the squid) a sucker punch.
Though I'm no great admirer of Lennox Lewis and it galls me to say this, I remain convinced that he is the best heavyweight in the world and would handle Rahman in a rematch that, it seems, may never occur. But despite this, despite all the foregoing, I feel that the lineal championship has lost no luster. For the man who truly owns the belt is a formidable figure, capable of drawing any heavyweight champ past or present into his dark world, of contriving a game plan to defeat even The Greatest, of sending any contender wobbling off to Palookaville. A man of charisma and guile and power who has withstood the challenges of time, who--like Ali--has endured both persecutions and prosecutions. A man who bestrides the boxing world like a colossus. Ladies and Gentleman, may I present the real Heavyweight Champion of the World, the Man Who Not Only Beat the Man, but will someday liklely rob him blind and beat all the men who beat him, the Once and Future... Don King..