Sunday, March 12, 2017

TBG Book Review: The Last Great Heavyweights

The Boxing Glove Sunday Night Book Review

By Peter Silkov

"The Last Great Heavyweights: From Ali & Frazier to Lewis & Tyson 

Written By Ollie Odebunmi 

It’s fair to say that no other weight division in boxing carries such a weight of historical significance and mythology as does the heavyweight division. From both, the physical to the spiritual level, the heavyweights have always held the greatest allure for the sporting public. In years gone by, the heavyweight champion of the world was an instantly recognizable figure, even amongst those who did not follow the sport of boxing. While it might be true that the fighters of the lighter weights are the better boxers, pound-for-pound, compared their larger counterparts, and often provide the better action between the ropes, it is the heavyweights who have always held the highest profile within the sport. In it’s greatest moments, the heavyweight division’s champion has held the highest profile of all sportsmen, and the world heavyweight championship was recognized as one of the most prestigious titles throughout all sport.

Sadly, though, things aren’t what they used to be. Over the past two decades’ multiple world titles, combined with a drought of talent, and a lack of competitive big fights, have seen the heavyweight division’s aura as the most important division in boxing slowly fade. The champions who were once so visible have become more and more obscure and unknown. In America, formerly the home of the division throughout most of the 20th century, the heavyweight boxer has been on the verge of extinction. Part of this is due to the division being steadily taken over by Europeans and Eastern Europeans since the mid-90s. Since the retirement of England’s Lennox Lewis in 2004, the division has largely been ruled by Vitali and Wladimir Klitschko, both of whom, despite their undoubted athletic and technical gifts, largely failed to capture the imagination of the boxing public, outside of their adopted country of Germany. 

The result is that the heavyweight division, once the most magnetic in boxing, has become a hollow entity, operating to a growing indifference of the public, and even the die-hards of the boxing establishment.

Photo: Skysports
However, there was a glimpse of hope in the past couple of years with the retirement of Vitali Klitschko, and the rise of a new generation. In America, Deontay Wilder has sparked a new flicker of interest in what was formerly the countries favourite division. In England, Tyson Fury and Anthony Joshua, two very different men, and very different fighters, have led what might still be the beginnings of a new and brighter era for the division. When Fury defeated Wladimir Klitschko in November 2015, it seemed as if the division had found a new champion whose quirky, and sometimes controversial charisma, could bring more attention and excitement to the moribund division. Unfortunately, Tyson’s subsequent out-of-the-ring issues have seen him give up his world titles, as his career has gone off the rails. The result of Fury’s problems has been that the World heavyweight title has once again become a fragmented and devalued article, with several fighters claiming a ‘world’ title at the weight. While the upcoming match between Anthony Joshua and Wladimir Klitschko is undoubtedly a move in the right direction, the fact remains that the heavyweights of today have a long way to go before they can restore the division to anything like it was in the glory years.

Photo: Ali instagram
In “The Last Great Heavyweights: From Ali & Frazier to Lewis & Tyson," Ollie Odebunmi takes us back to when the heavyweight division still carried its weight in excitement and talent, and produced epic world class encounters on a regular basis. Fights that have become part of boxing history. Perhaps the measure of how hypnotic the sport’s heaviest division has been, at its best, can be seen in how the history so easily intertwines with the lives of those following it. Ollie takes us on a journey from the heavyweight division’s greatest era of the 1970s, down to the close of Lennox Lewis‘ career. Ollie’s own fascination with boxing, and primarily the heavyweights, began in 1971, when he watched Joe Frazier defeat Muhammad Ali, in their never to be forgotten first encounter. This fight sparked a fascination with both the sport of boxing, and especially the heavyweight division, which has stayed with Ollie Odebunmi to this day.

The 70s have often been called the division’s golden era, and Odebunmi illustrates why with a deft recollection of the rivalries between Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier, George Foreman, and Ken Norton; as well as a host of other names from that time.  This is a very personal book, with Odebunmi placing the classic encounters of these great fighters into the context of his own life at that time. We experience, through Ollie’s eyes, as these great fighters defend, lose, or regain the richest prize in the sport. 

As well as reliving his own personal circumstances when witnessing these often-epic encounters, Odebunmi gives some great insights into the inner world of these various fighters, including his views on what is happening beneath the surface in these fights.  We are reminded that boxing is as much a mental endeavor as it is physical. Ollie is a man who understands fighters and has a good feel for both, the athletic and psychological aspects, of the sport.

As the era of Ali and Frazier fades, we meet Larry Holmes, and then, Mike Tyson.  ’Iron Mikes’ rise and fall is expertly recollected by Odebunmi. As is the rise of Evander Holyfield, Riddick Bowe, and Lennox Lewis. As we enter the late 80s, and then the 90s, we can see the gradual tarnishing of the sport’s most valuable prize. The world title begins to regularly splinter into multiple champions and top level showdowns become an increasing rare event.

Odebunmi does a good job of intertwining the stories of Tyson, Holyfield, Bowe, and Lewis. We have Tyson’s almost Shakespearian story of triumph and defeat, his rise and fall in the 80s and early 90s, followed by his return and then yet another, even more devastating, fall from the top. Then there is the indomitable Evander Holyfield, defying expectations again and again, and the brief brilliance, and wasted promise of Riddick Bowe. Lennox Lewis’s determined rise to the top is told with some good insight from Odebunmi, as we see Lewis develop from a seemingly unremarkable young professional, into the undisputed world champion. 

Photo: Boxrec
The climatic fight of “The Last Great Heavyweights: From Ali & Frazier to Lewis & Tyson"  is Lewis’s demolition of a faded Mike Tyson, in what was to be the pinnacle of his career. Lewis would have one more fight, his brutal and bloody victory over Vitali Klitschko, before he chose to walk away from the sport while still undisputed champion. What has followed in the division since has, unfortunately, been largely forgettable. This is illustrated by Odebunmi’s brief sketch of the decade following the retirement of Lewis.

Odebunmi does mention Anthony Joshua briefly in the closing pages of this book.  At this point, Joshua had only just turned professional. Armed with an Olympic gold medal, and had fought only once, but already had shown the kind of raw promise, which followers of boxing’s one time greatest division are always searching to find.

Weighing in with 302 pages, “The Last Great Heavyweights: is a fast-moving and entertaining read by someone who has a great ability to transfer his insight and enthusiasm for the subject into his writing. While some photos would have been nice, their absence should not be a deal breaker. This is an excellent book for anyone who has any interest in the golden days of the heavyweight division, whether you want to read about Ali, Frazier, Foreman, Tyson, and Holyfield for the first time, or else relive the past through Odebunmi’s own personal experiences. Don’t be surprised if you find yourself digging out your old copies (or going to You Tube) to re-watch some of the great encounters that occurred between these fighters. Odebunmi has recalled an era that is unlikely ever to be matched, let alone surpassed. It was a time when the heavyweight division genuinely was the ’heaviest’ division in boxing. Alas today, it is the heaviest only in physical weight, rather than world class substance. 

Yet, we can always hope for a better future.

Ollie Odebunmi has his own website: and can also be reached on two face book pages. and  

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Copyright © 2017 The Boxing Glove, Inc. Peter Silkov Art. All Rights Reserved.

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