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BOXING : Heavyweight Division Carrying Its Weight

January 10, 1991|EARL GUSTKEY

In a sense, the heavyweight division itself will be on display when Ray Mercer and Tommy Morrison headline boxing's first major show of 1991 Friday night.

In the upper ranks of the heavyweight division today, we have the largest group of world-class fighters, or at least the most promising, since the pre-World War II years, and two of them are in Friday's pay-per-view show.

Mercer, who fights unbeaten Italian Francesco Damiani, and Morrison, who has his obligatory fight with trial horse James Tillis, are only two in a group that stacks up favorably with about any era's.

In other words, boxing, for all its problems--the most visible being an inability to govern itself--still has an abundance of heavyweight talent.

Disagree? OK, here's our 1991 heavyweight team: champion Evander Holyfield, Mike Tyson, Razor Ruddock, Damiani, Riddick Bowe, Carl Williams, Mercer, Morrison, Alex Stewart, Lennox Lewis, Tony Tucker. That's a very good group.

Here are Ring magazine's top 11-rated heavyweights for April, 1940: champion Joe Louis, Arturo Godoy, Tony Galento, Bob Pastor, Tommy Farr, Johnny Paycheck, Lee Savold, Red Burman, Gunnar Barlund, Roscoe Toles and Buddy Walker. Billy Conn, who nearly beat Louis in 1941, was the light-heavyweight champion in April, 1940.

And here are Ring's top 10 from May, 1975: champion Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier, Joe Bugner, Ken Norton, Jerry Quarry, Oscar Bonavena, Jimmy Young, Ron Lyle, Chuck Wepner, Bunny Johnson.

We think the 1991 heavyweights beat the 1940 group almost man for man, and we think Tyson beats Louis. Holyfield? Let's wait until he fights Tyson.

The 1975 group, if you throw in George Foreman, too--he doesn't make our 1991 team because he refused to fight all but two members of the team--probably has a superior top five.

We bounced this theme off boxing historian-author Burt Sugar, who agreed.

"This is probably the best heavyweight class since the late 1930s-early World War II era," he said.

"The Louis-Billy Conn-Lou Nova-Johnny Paycheck-Tony Musto-Lee Ramage-Tony Galento-Buddy Baer group was a good one, but there are more guys of that quality around today.

"In the post-war era, Rocky Marciano dominated an era of blown-up light-heavies and old heavyweights, like Joe Walcott and Louis. In the late-1950s, they almost called off the division for lack of interest, which is why Floyd Patterson rose quickly.

"In the 1960s, you had a very good group at the top with Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier, Sonny Liston, Doug Jones, Jerry Quarry and Jimmy Ellis, and several who were decent, like Oscar Bonavena and George Chuvalo."

Then, as now, many beaten heavyweights were heaped with scorn when they lost to better men, such as Louis. Paycheck, for example, looked horrible when he was beaten in two rounds by Louis in 1940. But Paycheck could dominate other heavyweights in his day, as do many of Tyson's seemingly hapless opponents today.

It is the nature of the sport. Some champions, such as Tyson, scare the will to win from opponents, or at least dull its edge.

Mercer (16-0) instills a different kind of fear in opponents--the fear of broken hands. Here's a guy with maybe the best chin in the division. Last August, Mercer showed the kind of courage required to win in this group when he traded bombs for 12 memorable rounds with Bert Cooper, finally winning a decision.

Mercer, a soldier with no boxing experience, crawled out of a snowbank in West Germany in late 1986 to try out for an Army boxing team. The crash course worked. He won the heavyweight gold medal at Seoul in 1988 and today is on the threshold of his break-away-from-the-pack fight.

Morrison (24-0), who may have the best left hook in the division, took a year off to appear in "Rocky V." He resumes his career Friday.

Claiming distant lineage to the late actor John Wayne, Morrison bears the nickname "The Duke." But Wayne's son, producer Patrick Wayne, is not so sure.

"As far as we know, we're not related to him," Wayne said. "However, if he becomes the heavyweight champion of the world, we'll claim him."

It seems every promising heavyweight has to fight Tillis sooner or later, and Morrison hopes to use Tillis as a springboard into the division's top ranks. Tillis took a young prospect named Tyson through 10 tough rounds in 1986, six months before Tyson won the heavyweight title.

The third marquee heavyweight on the $19.95 show, Bruce Seldon (15-0), was thought to be in the division's upper echelon but was unimpressive in winning a decision over trial horse David Bey. Friday, he meets another trial horse, Jose Ribalta (31-5-1).

Friday's Atlantic City show is the first of several early 1991 pay-per-view shows. Tyson meets Ruddock March 18, Holyfield-Foreman is April 19 and Virgil Hill-Thomas Hearns is set for May.

Dick Mastro is a longtime Los Angeles boxing buff who for the last several decades has tracked fighters' records, real and imagined.

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