THE VACANT ORIGINAL EIGHT LIGHT HEAVYWEIGHT CHAMPIONSHIP WON BY ANDRE WARD BUT VACATED AGAIN UPON WARD’S RETIREMENT
Boxing traditionally has only eight weight classes. The Original Eight Light Heavyweight division, a new Golden Era similar to arguably the greatest light heavyweight era of all time: the late 1970’s and early 1980’s which featured names like Galindez, Lopez, Johnson, Scott, Rossman, Conteh, Saad Muhammad, Mustafa Muhammad, Spinks and Qawi.
I take the lineal championship very seriously because it is decided in the ring, so I take the utmost caution in considering a champion’s linear title claim to be void. However, during 2017 Adonis Stevenson had gone so long without facing a top challenger, and had a linear title claim weaker than usual in an Original Eight context. Stevenson had allegedly won the lineal title from Chad Dawson. The problem to me was, Dawson had just been knocked out easily by Andre Ward at a weight under 175 pounds. Sugar Ray Leonard had picked up the WBC Super Middleweight title and Light Heavyweight title the same way when he knocked out Donny LaLonde. Catchweights have been accepted in recent years. Just because Dawson allegedly “didn’t put his title on the line” shouldn’t matter when the bout is scheduled for the 12-round championship distance. Title “not on the line” should be for over-the-weight bouts, such as if the fight between Dawson and Ward was a ten-rounder at a contract-weight of 180 pounds.
In the last installment I noted that the lineal champion had been generally recognized as Adonis Stevenson. The only ratings I look at seriously are Transnational’s and The Ring’s. Stevenson is still recognized by Transnational, though I can no longer see the rationale, especially since they stripped Canelo Alvarez of their middleweight title and Alvarez’ title claim is much stronger than Stevenson’s. The Ring had stripped Stevenson when it made a very reasonable adjustment to its championship policy where the champ must face a top five fighter in ANY division within a certain length or be stripped. Stevenson had not faced top opposition. Stevenson continues to be inexplicably afraid to fight the legitimately ranked but very ordinary Eleider Alvarez, and as the year closes will pay him step aside money for a second time to fight the arguably even more vulnerable Badou Jack. One pattern with Stevenson, even though he is a power-hitter, it now appears clear if he and/or his team is not certain he will be in with someone who’s chin he can dent he doesn’t want the fight.
In 2017 The Ring declared that its No.1 and No. 2, Andre Ward and Sergey Kovalev’s second fight would fill the vacant Ring title. Those two fighters were also 1-2 in my ratings of the division in its Original context. Many other boxing experts and credible pundits also recognized this fight as being for the linear light heavyweight title. Ward scored a spectacular, unexpected KO. The problem being he immediately retired, leaving the title again vacant as 2017 closes.
Criteria: Fighters overall record, perceived talent level, quality of opposition, quality wins and level of performance in wins and losses, where the fighter is ranked in the Transnational Boxing Ranking Board’s Light Heavyweight and Super Middleweight Rankings and The Ring’s Light Heavyweight and Super Middleweight Rankings. Also, strongly considered would be who would beat who and who and by how much one fighter would be favored over the other by odds makers were the fight to be signed tomorrow. The traditional standard of one year of inactivity will drop a fighter from the rankings will be taken into consideration but the fighter is eligible to re-enter as soon as he fights again. Champions will primarily be the recognized lineal champions, with consideration also given to champions recognized by the Transnational Boxing Rankings Board and The Ring. This is how the traditional light heavyweight division looks today:
1. Sergey Kovalev (Russia 31-2-1 27KO)
2. Sullivan Barrera (Cuba. 21-1 14KO)
3. Adonis Stevenson (Canada. 29-1 24KO)
4. Oleksandr Gvozdyk (Ukraine 13-0 11KO)
5. Artur Beterbiev (Russia. 12-0 12KO)
6. Eleider Alvarez (Colombia 22-0 11KO)
7. Dmitry Bivol (Russia 12-0 10KO)
8. Joe Smith, Jr. (U.S. 23-2 19KO)
9. Marcus Browne (U.S. 20-0 15KO)
10. Badou Jack (Sweden 22-1-2 13KO)
Ratings Notes: Andre Ward scored a spectacular KO of Kovalev in their second fight, winning the Original Eight Light Heavyweight Title. He then retired after the fight, finishing at 32-0 16KO. His win over Sullivan Barrera also continues to look better and better. I do not think we will ever see him back as a light heavyweight, however. I do believe in the right situation we may see a heavyweight Ward in the vein of a Roy Jones or James Toney. Ward had also previously stopped the reigning lineal light heavyweight champion in a fight within the traditional weight limit of the division when he easily stopped Chad Dawson. He also beat all the top guys at 168 pounds during an era when those fighters would have been Top Ten light heavies in the Original Eight division context. Thus, his legacy is secure, even when compared to past eras, and that is one thing I look for in a present-day fighter when we evaluate whether he was great or not. Sergey Kovalev got a perfect style matchup in his return against Slava Shabranskyy after his collapse in the rematch against the great Andre Ward. Kovalev did what he needed to in destroying Shabranskyy and clearly re-establishing himself as the number one contender after Ward’s retirement. He was willing to take on Sullivan Barrera next in a fight I would have considered for the vacant lineal crown but Dan Rafael of ESPN reported Barrera instead took less money to take on Bivol on the undercard. Kovalev will now get undefeated but untested and light punching Igor Milhalkin. Adonis Stevenson is still a legitimate threat to knockout anyone with his cannon of a straight left hand, but his lineal title claim is no longer legitimate. He got Fonfara out in two rounds. The problem is it was one round more than Joe Smith just did it in. He again inexplicably will pay the beatable Eleider Alvarez step aside money to instead face Badou Jack, another guy he can still beat. He’s done enough to remain at Number 3.
Oleksandr Gvozdyk was absolutely flawless in annihilating Yuneski Gonzalez. He may be able to beat anyone. Artur Beterbiev is undefeated but after an injury and layoffs, he looks like a fighter on his way down, especially after an unimpressive late stoppage over a completely overmatched Enrico Koelling on ESPN. That fight was on a Top Rank card, so one wonders if he is now on a collision course with Gvozdyk, a fight I now like Gvozdyk in. Joe Smith, Jr. didn’t get to fight Stevenson, Monaghan or Cleverly and somehow ended up on an undercard on HBO against Sulllivan Barrera on July 15, dropping Barrera early and lasting the distance but clearly getting dominated and reportedly getting his jaw broken. Gutsy? Yes. Good business? Not so much. Let’s hope he recovers in 2018 and a matchup with former Dmitry Bivol and Barrera victim Valera, who hung tough in both losses. It would be a good fight for both men.
Sullivan Barrera made a good business move in KOing tricky spoiler Paul Parker on HBO Latino and then getting a fight on regular HBO against fellow Top Ten Joe Smith and dominating the fight. He finished the year again getting off the canvas but clearly winning against a tougher than expected Felix Valera, who also went the distance with Dmitry Bivol. I have defended him but based on Dan Rafael’s report for ESPN that he turned down Kovalev, a fight I would’ve considered to be for the vacant lineal title, to instead face Bivol for less money. I can’t defend that move. Still, I think he’s fought his way to the number 2 spot, and Bivol is still legit Top Ten opposition. He’s fought a Murderer’s Row compared to Stevenson’s last three years. Eleidier Alvarez took step aside money to face Jean Pascal on June 3 instead of Adonis Stevenson. In reality, Pascal came in having lost three straight fights since he got a gift against Yuneski Gonzalez. Alvarez easily won though the performance was unimpressive. Somehow, Pascal remained a friend of at least one judge, who somehow scored it a draw. However, the performance looks a bit better after Pascal showed he has something left in his KO of Ahmed Elbiali. Alvarez does not match up well with almost anyone else in the Top Ten and a couple of others just outside the Top Ten. Dmitry Bivol is into the Top Ten after a first-round knockout of Australian Trent Broadhurst, followed by a KO of former Kovalev victim Cedric Agnew, and his extremely impressive blowout of the underrated Samuel Clarkson. He’s undefeated with a high KO percentage. He just looks slightly mechanical. He also has a win over Felix Valera which looks better after Valera’s solid performance against Sullivan Barrera.
Marcus Browne took care of business in destroying Seanie Monaghan in an all-New York showdown on FOX on July 15 at the re-born Nassau Coliseum. It appeared he would get a bigger name next but suggested opponents have taken different routes. Badou Jack cracked the Top Ten with an impressive destruction of Nathan Cleverly, who wisely retired immediately after the fight. But Cleverly had already been destroyed by Kovalev and lost to Fonfara. Some have given Jack a little bit more credit for the victory than he probably deserves but do give him credit for impressively taking care of business. It looks like he will get Stevenson in 2018 and his chin will need to hold out. He also fought well in his draw with DeGale, a fight I though he won, and a fight that was wildly entertaining. But DeGale went on to lose to Truax.
Fighters not in the Top Ten but worthy of mention and watching include: David Benavidez missed an opportunity to make some noise here by struggling with Ronald Gavril. I still think he’s’ better off weighing more than 168, and that he showed that again. It appears he’ll start 2018 out with a rematch against Gavril. I think he’s playing with fire and risking his career by continuing to cut down to 168 pounds, despite a likely desire to avoid tough light heavies at his early age. I think a better solution for him is to fight at 175 or even a little higher in non-title fights and just be careful selecting his opposition until his team feels he’s ready for the top of this division. Vyachseslav Shabranskyy got an opportunity but a bad style matchup when he faced Sergey Kovalev. He couldn’t survive long enough to make a war out of it. Yet having only lost to the two current best light heavies in Barrera and Kovalev and having dropped one of them is not enough to keep him from being mentioned. But the reality is the beatings he took against Barrera and Kovalev combined with his wide-open style will probably keep him from ever being a factor again. Juergen Braehmer had a long Top Ten-type run, never stepped up his competition, is 38 years old and lost to Nate Cleverly, but showed signs of life when he cut weight to 168 pounds and beat undefeated American Rob Brant in a fight he went into as a slight underdog in the WBSS 168-pound tournament. He now has a fight with Callum Smith, which suddenly looks very interesting to me as I view it as a good, traditional light heavyweight crossroads fight. Braehmer wins and he may be on the road to re-entering the Top Ten.
Radivoje Kalajdzic gave Marcus Browne hell in a close loss. He’s certainly a threat to crack this Top Ten but has been stalled by inactivity, being out of the ring for over a year. He needs to get active in 2018 and may find himself in the Top Ten as a result. Gilberto Ramirez is with Top Rank and they have wasted our and Ramirez’s time with his recent selection of opponents, though Jesse Hart is a pretty good fighter. His stock is falling as a result and he needs to take a chance. He’s going to regress. Callum Smith has a lot of size and seemed to hit hard, but was not impressive in his opener of the WBSS 168-pound tournament. Suddenly, he is in a true light heavyweight crossroads fight against a resurgent veteran in Juergen Braehmer. I love the fight as it will be a true test to see if Smith is as good as I thought he was; an impressive stoppage should be the goal. Should he do so, he would be well on his way to cracking this Top Ten. I liked Smith to win that tournament and I’ll stay with him at this point.
Yunieski Gonzalez is a tough, aggressive, brawler who ended up being fodder for Gvozdyk. But losses to the guys he legitimately lost to are nothing to be ashamed of. He’s still worthy of some decent fights. Jean Pascal pulled a huge surprise when he fought undefeated puncher Ahmed Elbiali with spirit and commitment. He was rewarded with a TKO win in a very entertaining fight that was seen nationally in the U.S. in a PBC on FS1. Pascal said it was his last fight but after the performance I will wait and see the approach because he would be a perfect and now viable opponent for all the tough Top Ten guys in this division having difficulty finding opponents. Igor Mikhalkin is a 21-1 German-based Russian who has turned up both in the Transnational Top Ten and in a fight with number one-man Sergey Kovalev despite the fact he doesn’t have any Top Ten-level wins and has a low KO percentage, especially when compared to the modern-day state of this division. No reason to believe Kovalev doesn’t start 2018 blowing him out.
Chris Eubank, Jr. has continued to show some impressive offensive skills, as he’s blown out overmatched opposition now at 168-pounds, within the traditional light heavyweight tournament. He has an American amateur background and that shows favorable when you watch him perform. Odds makers have him right there with Smith and Groves to win the WBSS 168-pound tourney. Eubank only has a split decision loss to the again surging Billy Joe Saunders at middleweight, so his record looks good despite the lack of other quality opposition. It appears to me that his one flaw will be lack of defense when he faces better foes. Caleb Truax scored arguably the upset of the year with a gritty and determined performance over James DeGale. He has earned mention because DeGale, though he has already looked faded, was on the cusp of this Top Ten before the loss. George Groves is not a fighter I see being able to crack this Top Ten, but he is right there with the other two fighters given a shot to win the WBSS 168-pound tourney. If he gets through Eubank and the winner of Smith-Braehmer, he may have done enough to earn a Top Ten spot, which is one of the benefits of taking the risk in a tournament format and coming out on top.
Felix Valera dropped Sullivan Barrera and was competitive in going the distance with him. He also went the distance against Dmitry Bivol. The Dominican has shown he can compete with Top Ten level fighters and deserves a mention. A match with Joe Smith would be a good test for both. Ronald Gavril performed well enough against David Benavidez and has Eddie Mustafa Muhammad in his corner, so with a Benavidez rematch upcoming in 2018, he’s worth keeping an eye on.
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