It's been a long time coming, but boxing's heavyweight division might be back

Kevin IoleCombat columnist
Luis Ortiz, right, works against Deontay Wilder during their WBC heavyweight championship bout in March. (AP)
Luis Ortiz, right, works against Deontay Wilder during their WBC heavyweight championship bout in March. (AP)

Luis Ortiz isn’t the future of the heavyweight division. He’s 39, has two failed anti-doping tests, and is coming off a loss.

But his presence on Saturday’s fight card at Staples Center in Los Angeles, headlined by a fantastic lightweight title unification bout between WBC champion Mikey Garcia and IBF champion Robert Easter Jr., is indicative of the rise of the heavyweights.

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The Garcia-Easter fight is boxing’s headliner on a very busy Saturday that includes major fights around the world.

But it’s impossible to ignore the heavyweights, who have two fights of note Saturday. In London at the O2 Arena, former WBO champion Joseph Parker returns after his March defeat at the hands of Anthony Joshua to face Dillian Whyte in what is a significant bout.

It’s the kind of heavyweight bout we haven’t seen much of in recent years, because the division lacked depth. This fight, though, is between two legitimate contenders, both of whom can fight, and it carries great significance.

Later, Ortiz returns after being stopped in March by WBC champion Deontay Wilder to face Razvan Cojanu. This bout doesn’t have the same kind of significance within the division that Parker-Whyte does, other than it marks the return of Ortiz, who showed in his loss to Wilder to be far better than many had given him credit for being.

Wilder did what great champions do, and he raised his game when it mattered most. He was behind badly but rallied to get himself back into the fight and then scored a brutal finish of Ortiz in the 10th round.

But Ortiz, who had largely knocked cold a collection of lesser lights throughout his career, proved himself to be a top-caliber heavyweight.

Now, none of the heavyweights, including champions Joshua and Wilder, is yet of the quality that were campaigning in the 1990s, when there was a large group of elite heavyweights with considerable depth.

In 1996, for instance, Evander Holyfield, Lennox Lewis, Mike Tyson and Riddick Bowe, all future Hall of Famers, were at the top of their games. But there were plenty of other quality heavyweights, including Michael Moorer, Andrew Golota, Ray Mercer, David Tua, Oliver McCall and Henry Akinwande. George Foreman, another Hall of Famer, held a heavyweight title belt, but he wasn’t a full-time fighter.

And Vitali and Wladimir Klitschko were just coming into their own as elite fighters.

The division has largely gone barren since, but it has been showing signs of life.

Joshua will defend his belts on Sept. 22 against Alexander Povetkin, a former champion in a battle of Olympic super heavyweight gold medalists. Wilder still doesn’t have a fight scheduled after holding out hope of getting a unification bout with Joshua.

There are a number of young fighters on the rise with potential, meaning the heavyweight division could soon regain its stature as the most prominent in boxing. “Dynamite” Daniel Dubois of London, who is 8-0 with 8 knockouts, is prominent among them, but the group also includes 2016 Olympic super heavyweight gold medalist Tony Yoka of France and silver medalist Joe Joyce of the U.K.

In addition to them, undisputed cruiserweight champion Oleksandr Usyk is expected to move to heavyweight. He will instantly be among the better heavyweights in the world when he does and would provide a stern test for either Wilder or Joshua.

The man Usyk beat last week in the cruiserweight final of the World Boxing Super Series, Murat Gassiev, also has great potential and figures to be a heavyweight within the next year. Gassiev is a murderous puncher who, if he adds 25-30 pounds to his frame, could be a major force at heavyweight.

Hardcore fans don’t generally care about the weight divisions and want to see elite fighters face each other. But promoters know hardcore fans will be with them in good times and in bad.

For boxing to grow in popularity, it has to capture the attention of the more casual fan who tends to overvalue heavyweight fights.

Parker-Whyte figures to be an entertaining bout, and Ortiz should deliver a highlight-reel knockout. That’s not bad for a day in which the focus is mostly on Garcia-Easter and Christopher Diaz-Masayuki Ito.

If the adage, “As goes the heavyweight division, so goes boxing,” is true, then it looks like good times are ahead for the sweet science.

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