Crowning a Cruiserweight King
With the advent of the World Boxing Super Series, followers of the cruiserweight division have arguably never had it so good. Though one of the youngest weight classes in the sport, 200lbs has a relatively rich modern heritage and a burgeoning reputation as one of boxing’s most exciting divisions.
With Oleksandr Usyk and Murat Gassiev set to provide one of the division's defining moments this Saturday, with the winner becoming the first man in history to walk away with all four major belts, we take a look back at two of the biggest divisional unifications of years gone by...
Evander Holyfield vs Carlos De Leon
WBA, WBC, and IBF titles
9 April 1988, Las Vegas
Holyfield’s long and storied career will perhaps always be better known for his achievements and opponents elsewhere, but this contest, fought less than a decade after the first-ever recognised cruiserweight title bout, was a major milestone in the division’s formative history.
Holyfield had wrested the WBA strap away from the fabulous Dwight Muhammad Qawi in a back-and-forth, 15-round epic inside two years after switching over from the amateur ranks, before decisively ending the rivalry with a four-round knockout less than 18 months later.
By the time he met De Leon, the 'Real Deal' was already a unified champion. Tennessee’s Rickey Parkey swapped a run of IBF title fights in Italy for the bright lights of Caesars Palace and was stopped on his feet inside three rounds by an irresistible Holyfield who, by this point, was already talking up his chances of conquering at heavyweight.
De Leon, himself only the second holder of a world cruiserweight championship in history after beating Marvin Camel eight years earlier before losing it in his very next fight, reclaimed the WBC title from Bernard Benton in March 1986. Three successful defences followed, but by the spring of 1988, the scene was set for a showdown with Holyfield – a man with over 30 fewer professional fights to his name.
The difference in experience between the two men was stark, but Holyfield was not to be denied. Try as he might, though, ‘The Real Deal’ could not put De Leon down. Instead, with his Puerto Rican opponent trapped in a corner midway through the eighth round, he strung together a combination of a dozen or more unanswered punches, giving referee Mills Lane little option but to step in to stop the onslaught.
It was a faultless performance from Holyfield and the coronation of a man who that night became the division’s original undisputed ruler.
David Haye vs Enzo Maccarinelli
WBA ‘Super’, WBC, and WBO titles
8 March 2008, London
Haye-Maccarinelli was one of those rare treats: an all-British unification between two KO artists arguably at the peak of their powers, placed in the right venue and made at the right time.
One of the most significant fights aired up to this point on what was still a fledgling Setanta operation in the UK – the other being Calzaghe vs Kessler – it was a legitimate sporting rivalry between two men who always seemed to be on a collision course.
Contested for Maccarinelli’s WBO strap together with the WBA ‘Super’ – even a decade ago, the sanctioning body’s title picture was frustratingly splintered, with Firat Arslan the ‘Regular’ champion – and WBC belts that Haye claimed in a career-best, come-from-behind win against Jean-Marc Mormeck in Paris three months prior, it meant that only the IBF title was unaccounted for, held at the time by American stylist Steve Cunningham.
Considered by many going in to be something close to a 50-50 fight, it was Haye that the oddsmakers made favourite, with quotes of around 1/2 available for a win for the Bermondsey man, and slight odds-on to prevail inside the distance.
Both had recovered admirably from a stoppage loss early in their career, but it was each fighter’s known vulnerability that made an intriguing match-up feel even more combustible. As it proved on the night – with a late start after 2am for the main event for the benefit of a US audience watching on Showtime - the atmosphere inside London’s O2 provided the kindling.
Glimpses of each man’s power were shown in glancing shots and first-round near-misses, but a cautious opening was only ever going to be ephemeral. Haye started the quicker in the second round, and his movement and jab controlled the action from the centre of the ring.
Seconds later, it was all over. Maccarinelli, not for the first time in the round, was pressed back into a corner, and a huge right hand from Haye marked the beginning of the end, with the Welshman sent crashing into the ropes.
Haye – always a clinical finisher, but at this stage in his career an explosive, athletic force of nature – smelt blood. A barrage of shots, left and right, battered Maccarinelli who, rising, was then caught by another right hand that dropped him to the canvas, before bouncing back up instinctively, but with scant time to regroup. Referee John Keane administered the count, but with the Swansea native teetering precariously, the fight was waved off.
Like Holyfield before him, the unification was to be Haye’s last outing at cruiserweight, vacating the belts in May that year in preparation for a lucrative move to heavyweight. Mixed fortunes in the ring were to follow, but the Mormeck-Maccarinelli sequence ensured the Hayemaker’s spot in divisional history was secured.
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