“The mission I set out on in the beginning – to become heavyweight champion of the world, undisputed, lineal champion – you could say that mission is complete.”
That quote by Lennox Lewis not only summed up his brilliant career but nicely concludes the journey of this six-piece timeline from 1885 to 2016. Before the official end but by no means the definitive ending lets jump all the way back to 1990 when Evander Holyfield dethroned Buster Douglas to collect the lineal title.
It wasn’t until April of 1991 that Holyfield made his first defense and it was in a fight billed as a “Battle for the Ages” against 42-year-old George Forman who had returned to the ring in 1987 after a ten-year lay-off. To many people’s surprise Foreman managed to last the full twelve and even knocked the champ off balance in the seventh but Holyfield outpointed his much older challenger.
Everyone in world boxing wanted to see one fight and that of course was Holyfield verses Mike Tyson. The fight was initially signed in November 1991, but the colossus bout was first delayed due to Tyson getting injured before the former champ was eventually sentenced to six years in prison for rape. The next logical opponent for Holyfield was WBO champion Francesco Damiani, but that fight was scrapped due to the Italian picking up an injury. In the end Holyfield stopped Bert Cooper in seven-rounds after receiving his first ever standing eight-count.
In 1992, Holyfield defeated former lineal champion Larry Holmes by unanimous decision before agreeing to fight the 1988 Olympic silver medallist Riddick Bowe on November 13. It was a gruelling fight that Bowe won by unanimous decision in Las Vegas, Nevada, the tenth-round in particular was one for the ages.
Bowe was now the new undisputed – discounting the WBO version – and linear heavyweight champion. The first defense of his titles was supposed to be against Olympic rival Lennox Lewis who had just stopped Donovan ‘Razor’ Ruddock in two-rounds. All four originally agreed to fight the winners from each bout but after a dispute over financial splits – sound familiar? – Bowe famously held a press conference to announce that he will relinquish the WBC title and threw it in the dustbin.
Although Bowe was no longer the WBC champ, he was of course still considered the linear. He successfully defended his titles in 1993 with two knockout victories over Michael Dokes and Jessie Ferguson. Almost a year to the day on November 6, Bowe and Holyfield signed for their rematch to take place in Caesars Palace, Las Vegas. Holyfield won by majority decision, but the fight was more famously remembered for when parachutist James “Fan Man” Miller landed in the ring during the fight.
Holyfield became the third man in heavyweight history to regain the lineal title after securing revenge against Bowe. In his first defence in April 1994, he took on another undefeated fighter Michael Moorer, who was also a former WBO light-heavyweight and heavyweight champion. Holyfield knocked down Moorer in the second-round, but the challenger recovered well to become the first-ever southpaw heavyweight champion winning by a majority decision.
By November 1994, the lineal title changed hands once again when ‘Double M’ lost his unbeaten record to the now 45-year-old George Forman by a tenth-round knockout. Moorer was ahead on all three judges’ scorecards until he was caught by a short right-hand that knocked him down for the ten-count. Forman became the oldest fighter ever to win the world heavyweight title and the fourth to regain it.
Foreman’s second reign was an fantastic achievement but the fact that he decided to fight low-ranked opponents rather then top contenders showed flaws within the linear timeline. The new champion was stripped of the WBA title before he could defend it because he refused to fight their number one contender Tony Tucker. Instead Foreman fought the IBF mandatory, German Axel Schulz which he won dubiously on points. The IBF ordered an immediate rematch in Germany but Foreman once again refused to cave in to yet another governing bodies demands so was stripped of his remaining title.
Without a recognised version of heavyweight gold Foreman was still considered the lineal heavyweight champion. In 1996, he defeated Crawford Grimsley in Tokyo on points before winning a close decision in a tough encounter against Lou Savarese in 1997.
While Big George’s second reign began to discredit the ‘linage legacy’ there were credible champions holding world titles; Holyfield was the new unified champion holding the WBA & IBF versions following an eleventh-round stoppage against a returning Mike Tyson in 1996 before the famous ‘Bite Fight’ in 1997, while two Brit’s Lewis and Herbie Hide held the WBC and WBO titles respectively. At the ripe age of 48-years-old Foreman agreed to face Shannon Briggs in an “eliminator bout” for the WBC strap. Briggs outpointed Foreman in a controversial majority decision to become recognised as the new lineal champion.
On March 28, 1998, Lewis defeated Briggs by a technical knockout in the fifth-round to retain his WBC title and claim the lineal championship giving its standing credibility once again. Following a unanimous decision victory against the awkward Zeljko Mavrovic, Lewis and Holyfield battled out a controversial draw in New York City in 1999.
Due to the contentious decision in the first fight it was inevitable that a rematch would follow to decide who would be considered the undisputed heavyweight champion. Sequels are rarely as good as the first but in the case of Lewis verse Holyfield their rematch was a lot more entertaining. The British-Canadian showed his class by outpointing Holyfield unanimously in Las Vegas, Nevada.
Lewis reigned supreme by the turn of the millennium with wins over Michael Grant, Francois Botha and David Tua, albeit without the WBA title that he was stripped of following the Holyfield victory which was just another sanctioning body flexing its ego. By 2001, the boxing fan and his mother were shouting from the rooftops for Lewis and Tyson to finally share a ring but before that fight could happen Lewis had to deal with Hasim Rahman in Brakpan, South Africa. In a shock result it was Rahman that knocked out Lewis in five-rounds to collect all the marbles. Seven months later Lewis secured revenge with a fourth-round knockout of Rahman to become the fifth man in heavyweight history to regain the lineal title.
Finally, to everyone’s delight Lewis and Tyson took to the ring on June 8, 2002 at The Pyramid in Memphis, Tennessee. In the highest-grossing event in pay-per-view history Lewis knocked out Tyson in the eighth-round to cement his legacy as one of the greatest heavyweights of not only his era but of all time.
A year later at the Staples Centre, Los Angeles, Lewis fought his last professional bout against Ukrainian Vitali Klitschko. Although, behind on the score cards at the time of the stoppage due to a severe cut Lewis was awarded the victory by technical knockout. Lennox Lewis announced his retirement in February 2004 creating another break in the lineal championship timeline.
Many boxing fans consider the lineal heavyweight title as vacant from the point that Lewis decided to hang up his gloves, but the historic title was in fact put on the line when younger brother of Vitali Klitschko, Wladimir fought Uzbekistani Ruslan Chagaev in 2009. The then unified heavyweight champ Klitschko beat Chagaev into submission in Gelsenkirchen, Germany.
Know body can discredit Wladimir of his lineal status after a decade of heavyweight domination. The Ukrainian was a formidable force for six-years defeating the top contenders of his generation such as; Eddie Chambers, Samuel Peter, David Haye, Jean-Marc Mormeck, Tony Thompson, Alexander Povetkin, Kubrat Pulev and Bryant Jennings as well as others.
It wasn’t until November 28, 2015 that Klitschko was finally defeated by Britain’s Tyson Fury in Dusseldorf, Germany. In an unexciting and uneventful clash of styles Fury outthought and outwitted the former champion to become unified and lineal heavyweight champion by unanimous decision.
Following months of failed negotiations for a rematch, a failed drugs test, relinquishment of the titles he had won and in the end retirement from boxing, the lineal championship title became vacant in 2016.
Even though Fury has since come out of retirement and claimed to be still the lineal heavyweight champion history suggests otherwise. None of the former champions from yesteryear ever returned as champion but merely the challenger.
When James Jefferies buckled under public demand to return to the ring against champion Jack Johnson, we did not ignore the five-year gap following Jeffries retirement in 1905. That would discredit a chunk of Johnson’s reign and the champions before him. The same goes for when Muhammed Ali was unfairly stripped of his title after refusing to induct himself into the armed forces for the Vietnam War. Both came back as challengers to the throne, never a champion.
Some say the lineal title can only be lost in the ring, hence “the man that beat the man” but unfortunately that is unrealistic if you take into consideration the former champions who retired undefeated. A new man will always rise to the top eventually, whether that man will be Fury again, Anthony Joshua or Deontay Wilder remains to be seen. The only way to clear up that argument is quite simple, they need to fight eachother.
The other problem with Fury’s claim is the acceptance of the failed drugs test, which has never happened in the history of the lineal title’s existence or at least been proven. To vacate and be stripped of your titles because you decide to retire is one thing but to fail a drugs test is nothing short of scandalous. Some suggest that there are certain politics involved and the case isn’t as open as shut as some may think, but Fury’s acknowledgment and acceptance of the ban would make even his most loyal fan question that decision.
However you want to perceive the current status of this historic title is your personal opinion, but my conclusion is the lineal championship will continue to remain vacant until we have an undisputed heavyweight champion once again. Let’s just hope that the current heavyweights can follow in the same footsteps as the linear greats.
Don’t forget to listen-in to the Talkin Boxing with Billy C Show and follow me on Twitter@JohnnoSE23