A time for patience

Luke G. Williams
29/09/2016 7:40am

Luke G. Williams argues that we should show Tyson Fury patience, and continue to regard him as World Heavyweight Champion, even while he is absent from competitive action.

In the wake of Tyson Fury’s withdrawal from his rematch date with Wladimir Klitschko there has been an inevitable rush of speculation, a clamour for title stripping and a jostling for position among the varied promoters and boxers with an interest - sporting and financial - in the upper echelons of the heavyweight division.

Much of the talk and discussion about whether Fury ‘will or won’t’, ‘should or shouldn’t’, be stripped of his WBA (super), WBO and IBO straps has been premature and, arguably, a little distasteful.

Unlike many other members of the media corps, I have no desire to enter into a discussion or pseudo-psychiatric assessment of Fury’s mental or physical well-being. For starters, apart from a few comments from the invariably level-headed Peter Fury, there is precious little concrete evidence to actually dissect, to say nothing of the fact that if Fury is suffering from mental health problems then whatever their nature, scope or severity, he should be allowed to rest and rehabilitate in peace and quiet, without being subjected to intrusive speculation or, for that matter, being the victim of distasteful or vindictive social media comment.

Amid all the confusion and speculation, though, there is one thing I am certain of and that is this: until Fury either retires or is defeated in the prize ring, no other man in the sport can be regarded as the true World Heavyweight Champion, regardless of what decisions the sanctioning bodies make.

By defeating Wladimir Klitschko, who had established a new lineage in the heavyweight division since the retirement of previous lineal champion Lennox Lewis, Fury has won the right to be regarded as World Heavyweight Champion, even if every single sanctioning belt was not  strapped around his waist that heady night in Dusseldorf last November when he became the first man to defeat Wlad in over a decade.

Boxing traditionalists like myself hold true to the concept that titles can only be won or lost in the ring, and are not subject to the whims, decisions or desires of sanctioning bodies or sportswriters. It is through this principle that the proud and glorious history of the heavyweight division can be traced back, albeit with a few ruptures, to the time of John L. Sullivan, when bare knuckles gave way to gloves and when pugilism began its explosion from a renegade activity into a major global sporting spectacle, with the status of World Heavyweight Champion being regarded then, as it should be now, as the most hallowed crown in the universe of physical endeavour.

I appreciate that the sanctioning bodies are, in all but name, businesses, and therefore require regular sanctioning fees in order to function. As such, any champion who lapses into inactivity - for whatever reason - is liable to be stripped of their recognition. If those are the rules the WBA, WBC, IBF et al want to enforce, then that is their inalienable right.

But I believe that the World Heavyweight Championship is a title which exists beyond the distracting paraphernalia of belts, baubles and rankings.

And to my mind, 12 months, or even more, of inactivity by Fury does not justify his championship - the real championship that is, which does not exist in the form of a tangible belt  - becoming regarded as vacant or being re-assigned.

There are numerous historical precedents for a heavyweight champion having long distances between title defences. To name but a few examples: after defeating John L. Sullivan in September 1892, James Corbett did not defend the title again until January 1894, while there was a further gap until March 1897 ahead of his second defence.

Having vanquished James Jeffries in 1910, Jack Johnson did not defend his crown again for exactly two years, while Jack Dempsey's reign as World Heavyweight Champion stretched from 1919 until 1926, even though he did not defend the title at all in 1922, 1924 or 1925.

More recently, Muhammad Ali was prevented from defending his status as champion for several years after defeating Zora Folley in March 1967. As a consequence he was still regarded by traditionalists as World Champion until announcing his retirement in February 1970 (a decision he later reversed, of course).

This is not to say that an extended period of inactivity for a champion is ideal or desirable, merely to point out that should Fury be absent from the ring for upwards of a year, or even two years, it will not be without precedent.

There is undoubtedly less tolerance for such longueurs in the modern sporting world - what with the 24-hour news cycle, short attention spans, Twitter et al. However, just because the heavyweight champion is out of action, that does not mean the division need become moribund.

Sans Fury, there remain many intriguing fights that could be brokered within the division. Just imagine, for example, the dramatic potential of a Super Six style tournament over the next 12-24 months - involving, say, Klitschko, Joshua, Wilder, Ortiz, Parker and Haye – which determined the next challenger to face Fury once - touch wood - he was fit and well again.

Promotional conflicts, of course, might render such a proposal hopelessly utopian, but any match-up involving any combination of the above heavyweights would get fans' pulses racing, regardless of what title or belt was, or wasn’t, at stake.

So let’s leave Fury and the World Heavyweight Championship in peace until such time as he is ready to return - or officially retire - and concentrate on making some heavyweight fights that supply us with the sort of competitive action and excitement that showcases the division at its best.