Column: Cleaning up the mess in boxing's heavyweight class

TIM DAHLBERG (AP Sports Columnist)
The Associated Press

Lennox Lewis always wanted to fight everybody, and did so often enough to become the last person to hold all the major heavyweight titles at the same time.

That meant Riddick Bowe, even after Bowe threw a title belt in a garbage can to avoid him.

It also meant Mike Tyson, even after Tyson threatened to eat his children.

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''Just prison talk,'' Lewis said. ''At the time I didn't even have any children.''

The best fighting the best. That was always Lewis' philosophy, and it culminated in a 2002 annihilation of Tyson that cemented his legacy as an all-time heavyweight great.

It's also what makes it painful to look at the mess that is the heavyweight division today.

There's no lack of good, possibly even great, fighters. But so far - for reasons that start with greed and go beyond the fighters themselves - there's been a lack of great fights.

''My aim was always to be the undisputed champion,'' said Lewis, who now works for Fox Sports as a ringside analyst. ''These boxers now aren't really talking about that.''

That could change if fighters, their promoters and the various television platforms somehow find a way to work together. But that was unlikely to begin with, and even more unlikely now that the major participants in the heavyweight sweepstakes have aligned themselves with promoters and broadcasting platforms that don't play well together.

Anthony Joshua versus Deontay Wilder is the fight everyone wants to see. Tyson Fury is right in the mix, and there are a number of fringe title contenders who on the right night might make heavyweight history.

But a highly anticipated rematch between Wilder and Fury of their December draw is off because Fury signed with Top Rank and ESPN while Wilder is fighting - at least for now - under the Showtime banner. Wilder against Joshua seems to be even further from reality as the two camps can't agree on broadcasters, terms or even if they really want to fight each other.

So Joshua is fighting at Madison Square Garden in June, but instead of Wilder he's got an opponent in Jarrell ''Big Baby'' Miller who is a decent fighter but hardly a household name. Wilder is fighting Dominic Breazeale on May 18 at Barclay's Center in Brooklyn, while Fury returns to the ring June 15 against Germany's Tom Schwarz in Las Vegas.

And we're suddenly no closer to a first undisputed heavyweight champion since Lewis beat Evander Holyfield 20 years ago to win all the belts.

''The heavyweights nowadays, they want to be undisputed but the business machine takes over and managers take over,'' Lewis said. ''They want longevity, but they're basically slowing down the process.''

The staggering number of sanctioning organizations remains mostly the same since Lewis' day, which by itself makes unifying any title - much less that of the coveted heavyweight division - difficult. But the process is an even more daunting task now, with television networks and streaming services vying to represent fighters who figure to deliver eyeballs to whatever screen they're on.

That has already disrupted the middleweight division, where a third fight between Canelo Alvarez and Gennady Golovkin was put on hold after Alvarez signed what is claimed to be a $365 million deal with the streaming service DAZN. Golovkin finally followed Alvarez earlier this month, signing his own deal with DAZN that could possibly pave the way for the third fight in September.

Joshua is also with DAZN, while Wilder - who has fought mostly on Showtime - is pondering his next move. Fury, though, recently upended talks for a rematch with Wilder of their December fight by signing with Top Rank, which has a long-term deal with ESPN.

Fox, meanwhile, has ties to Wilder through its deal with Premier Boxing Champions, which also represents Efe Ajagba, the Nigerian heavyweight who has created buzz in his short career by knocking out pretty much everyone who has gone into the ring with him.

The explosion of boxing across networks and streaming platforms should ultimately be good for the sport because of the interest being generated. But it also threatens some awfully good potential matchups because there are too many competing interests outside of the fighters themselves.

And that concerns Lewis, who is rooting for the best meeting the best.

''I look at it differently. I would want them as soon as possible,'' Lewis said of the top fights. ''But they can do what they want. It's their era.''

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Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at tdahlberg(at)ap.org or http://twitter.com/timdahlberg

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