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Why drop­ping down in weight can be a dan­ger­ous move to make in box­ing

Deon­tay Wilder re­cently men­tioned drop­ping to cruis­er­weight but, as El­liot Worsell ex­plains, it’s a move fraught with dan­ger

IT IS of­ten said that to­day’s cruis­er­weights are yes­ter­day’s heavy­weights and that to­day’s heavy­weights are su­per­heavy­weights who have bro­ken free from the mould and al­tered the en­tire com­plex­ion of the di­vi­sion. Two hun­dred pounds. That’s the cut-off point. Weigh be­neath this magic num­ber and you’re a cruis­er­weight. Weigh an ounce over, how­ever, and you’re a heavy­weight, thus qual­i­fied to en­ter an un­ruly and unpredictable land of ex­cess flesh, power and money, and fight, for a purse, a man po­ten­tially weigh­ing 100 pounds more than you.

It’s the sort of dis­par­ity you won’t find else­where; the sort of risk you won’t find else­where. It’s also the rea­son why many of to­day’s cruis­er­weights, de­spite be­ing big­ger than heavy­weights of yes­ter­year, are hes­i­tant to re­lin­quish a level play­ing field and make the jump.

For most, it’s a deal-breaker. A rea­son for not mak­ing the move. But for some, the likes of Evan­der Holy­field and David Haye, it’s a risk worth tak­ing.

Some brave souls will make an even greater jump. Michael Spinks, for in­stance, leaped from lightheavy­weight, or 175 pounds, to take Larry Holmes’ IBF heavy­weight ti­tle in 1985, and then Roy Jones re­peated Bob Fitzsim­mons’ rise from mid­dleweight to heavy­weight in 2003, out­point­ing John Ruiz to win the WBA heavy­weight ti­tle hav­ing weighed just 193 pounds (seven pounds be­neath the cruis­er­weight limit) the day be­fore.

“If I did it all again I would have prob­a­bly taken two years off after I won the heavy­weight ti­tle,” Roy told me ear­lier this year. “That would have given me time for my body to lose the weight the right way. My body needed time to re­cover and I didn’t give it time to re­cover. It needed that break.”

In­stead of a break, a di­min­ished Roy Jones strug­gled to beat light-heavy­weight ri­val An­to­nio Tarver just eight months later. Worse than that, he was then knocked out by Tarver in the re­match, a de­feat which not only sign­posted the start of a painful de­cline but of­fered fel­low ad­ven­tur­ers, those look­ing to play around with their physique, a cau­tion­ary warn­ing.

The warn­ing was this: mov­ing up to heavy­weight is dan­ger­ous, for rea­sons al­ready out­lined, but mov­ing down from heavy­weight is per­haps even more dan­ger­ous. Shrink­ing, we dis­cov­ered, will po­ten­tially rob a boxer of mus­cle, strength, re­sis­tance and en­ergy re­sources, and will force a heavy­weight, some­one who doesn’t have to make weight, to put their body through stress it was once spared.

“I was ex­cited to lose the weight,” said for­mer IBF heavy­weight cham­pion Chris Byrd, who, in 2008, dropped 38 pounds to com­pete as a lightheavy­weight. “It was so hard to stay at heavy­weight; to eat my way up and get on the scale and make it look good so I wouldn’t get crit­i­cised.

“Los­ing the weight was a chal­lenge for me. I be­came ob­sessed with it. The low­est I got down to was 168 pounds. I was think­ing, man, I’m go­ing to fight at su­per-mid­dleweight or mid­dleweight after this. I can do that no prob­lem. I was hav­ing crazy thoughts. You get on this series of highs – work­out highs – and there was no bring­ing me down un­til fight night. But it was a ma­jor detri­ment to me. It killed me.”

If this sounds at all melo­dra­matic, take one look at Byrd’s ill-fated at­tempt to func­tion as a light-heavy­weight on the night of May 16, 2008. Or, in­stead, ask Shaun Ge­orge, the op­po­nent re­spon­si­ble for con­firm­ing what Byrd al­ready sus­pected, what he thinks.

“Shaun Ge­orge did his thing,” said Byrd, past his best at 37 years of age when he fought Ge­orge. “He did what he was sup­posed to do. He beat the hell out of me.

“But I didn’t even warm up be­fore I fought. I was a dead man. I had no en­ergy what­so­ever. When I got in the ring every­body was sur­prised that the Las Ve­gas com­mis­sion ac­tu­ally passed me. I think they passed me only be­cause they knew me. They knew I was a good guy, I looked okay and I was re­li­able.

“They got it wrong, though. Look at me. I was a skele­ton. I shouldn’t have fought. It was a bad move.”

In the­ory, the idea was a good one. Un­der­sized as a heavy­weight, and an Olympic gold medal­list at mid­dleweight, Byrd, in mov­ing down, would seem­ingly re­move the many dis­ad­van­tages he faced as a small heavy­weight, and bring some of his ex­pe­ri­ence, wis­dom and tough­ness to a weight class far bet­ter suited to his frame. Only none of this hap­pened.

Herbie Hide, a for­mer WBO heavy­weight cham­pion, went through a sim­i­lar thought process in 2006. Not so much a size is­sue, Hide’s fail­ing, they said, was an in­abil­ity to take clean shots from hard­hit­ting heavy­weights.

“The chin thing came about be­cause I was a cruis­er­weight fight­ing at heavy­weight,” Hide told me around the time of his tran­si­tion. ³

“That s**t doesn’t bother me. I know when a heavy­weight hits me on the chin there’s a good chance I’m go­ing to get knocked down. But I also know that if I’m able to get up I will go across the ring and knock their a**e out.”

Hide, un­like Byrd, had lit­tle dif­fi­culty mak­ing his new weight, nor showed signs of de­ple­tion. In fact, the Nor­wich puncher won 14 straight fights at cruis­er­weight, al­beit against ques­tion­able op­po­si­tion, and seemed stur­dier if less ex­cit­ing in his new play­ground.

“At heavy­weight, I’d al­ways try to eat as much as I could,” said Hide. “At ev­ery spare mo­ment I’d be shov­ing stuff in my mouth or tak­ing protein drinks, even when I wasn’t hun­gry. I’m only eat­ing when I’m hun­gry now. I am not bulk­ing up. Heavy­weights will tell you I was a dan­ger at heavy­weight. I was a mas­sive puncher at heavy­weight. Was I knock­ing guys out cold be­cause of my size? No. I was knock­ing them out be­cause I can punch. I’ve still got that power and am still spar­ring heavy­weights. I don’t even bother spar­ring cruis­er­weights be­cause they run too much. They’re too small for what I let rip.”

For some of these shapeshifters, it’s all about a new start, a new chal­lenge, a long-term project. But, for others, the dis­tance be­tween cruis­er­weight and heavy­weight is such that they can ap­proach the short com­mute with an op­por­tunis­tic mind­set. Door left open, they’re free to switch back and forth.

“I found it eas­ier to per­form at heavy­weight,” said for­mer IBF cruis­er­weight cham­pion Steve Cun­ning­ham. “At cruis­er­weight, you get more punch out­put, more box­ing abil­ity and bet­ter fights – and they can punch. We go up and we’re strong, fast, mo­bile and durable.

“At heavy­weight, the only is­sue was their power. I knew I had the en­durance and in­ner strength. I even knew I had the pop to kind of hold them off. I knew they couldn’t re­ally han­dle my move­ment or speed.

“That was al­ways our goal as a heavy­weight. Be the faster, smarter, elu­sive guy. You saw what hap­pened. I had a pretty good run.”

Cun­ning­ham’s four-year heavy­weight ex­per­i­ment ended in 2016, when he re­turned home to fight Poland’s Krzystof Glowacki in a WBO cruis­er­weight ti­tle fight. He shed only five pounds from his last out­ing, at heavy­weight, but found the sud­den speed dif­fer­ence an ob­sta­cle tricky to over­come.

“I was fight­ing heavy­weights at 203 or 204, so the weight wasn’t a prob­lem at all,” he said. “The only is­sue was ad­just­ing back to that speed in com­bat. Sud­denly, you’re back to think­ing, okay these dudes are fast again, just like me. They can get into those lit­tle spots where heavy­weights won’t even think about get­ting. It’s more com­pet­i­tive at cruis­er­weight for me, men­tally and phys­i­cally, than it is at heavy­weight.”

Tony Bellew, mean­while, has only had two pro fights at heavy­weight – a cou­ple of wins over David Haye – but could, if he re­turns to the di­vi­sion in which he won a WBC ti­tle in 2016, find the move a test­ing one. His­tory should tell him that.

“It would be tough,” he said. “I’ve been com­fort­able at this weight [heavy­weight] for the best part of two years now. I even had to cut re­ally fast for the BJ Flores fight [Bellew’s last as a cruis­er­weight]. I had to lose some­thing like five pounds dur­ing the week of the fight. That’s very un­like me but it’s just the way it went. I could make cruis­er­weight again,


but I’d need a fair bit of time.”

In­ter­est­ingly, six-foot-seven WBC world heavy­weight cham­pion Deon­tay Wilder, one of the gi­ants Bellew would es­cape should he scam­per back to cruis­er­weight, seems hip to what’s go­ing on and knows his­tory could be made if he did the same. Though a bean­pole of a heavy­weight with dy­na­mite in ei­ther hand, Wilder weighed just 214 pounds for his last fight, a March epic with Luis Or­tiz, and re­cently ex­pressed an in­ter­est in be­com­ing the first heavy­weight cham­pion to go down and win a belt at cruis­er­weight.

“When I was heavy­weight cham­pion,” Byrd said, “I asked [pro­moter] Don King if I could fight Jean-marc Mormeck for the cruis­er­weight ti­tle. But he said it was against the rules. I was like, ‘How come you can come up and fight the heavy­weight cham­pion, but the heavy­weight cham­pion can’t go down and do the same at cruis­er­weight? That makes no sense.’ The thing is, we’d never had a sit­u­a­tion like that be­fore.

“Deon­tay Wilder, if he wants to do it, could prob­a­bly get down to 200 pounds fairly eas­ily. It won’t be re­ally easy be­cause he’s a big guy and is fill­ing out all the time, but he could prob­a­bly do it, I’m sure.

“You live once. He’s a late bloomer, he’s six-foot­seven, and he can punch like no one else. I hated those type of guys. They’re wiry and have crazy power.

“So, why not? Try it. If he loses, oh well. He’ll still be the heavy­weight cham­pion. Go back and fight again at heavy­weight. Make box­ing fun. This is a fun thing. So long as it doesn’t hurt him phys­i­cally, do it.”

Given Byrd’s own plight, it’s some­what sur­pris­ing to hear him so re­cep­tive to the idea, much less ac­tively en­cour­age and la­bel it “fun”. Then again, Wilder, un­like Byrd, would be drop­ping only one weight class, not two, and would be at­tempt­ing to do so while still in his phys­i­cal prime.

“I think it would be a very stupid move,” said Bellew. “I think it would take away from his dura­bil­ity 100 per cent. He’s in great phys­i­cal con­di­tion but a lot of that would go if he dropped to 14 stone 4 [200lbs].

“He weighs 214lbs but there’s no ex­cess there. Only he will know what he is putting in his mouth, but he seems to train and diet the right way, which makes you won­der where and how he’d lose that ex­tra stone.”

Cun­ning­ham, four inches shorter than Wilder but with a sim­i­larly lean physique, sits some­where in the mid­dle.

“I would love to know how much Deon­tay weighs when he leaves the gym after a good camp,” said the Philadel­phian. “That would re­ally give me a 100 per cent view on how he will do. I’ll say now, though, that I’m 75 per cent sure he can unify the cruis­er­weight di­vi­sion.

“Mind you, he’s six-seven and mus­cu­lar. What can he lose? I be­lieve he may lose his power – that pop – and that causes an is­sue. But he can box, he has the height ad­van­tage, and if guys like [Olek­sandr] Usyk and [Mu­rat] Gassiev leave the di­vi­sion, who else is there? [An­drew] Tabiti is climb­ing the ranks but he gets stopped [by Wilder]. I can’t see [Yu­nier] Dor­ti­cos do­ing any­thing. It would be his­toric, too. It would be a great plan ac­tu­ally.”

It al­ways is. Un­til it hap­pens.

SLIMFAST: Tarver wel­comes Jones Jnr back to light-heavy­weight in 2003

SPEED MER­CHANTS: Jones Jnr is too good for Ruiz [be­low, left] and Mc­cline strug­gles with Byrd [be­low]

DANC­ING DE­STROYER: For­mer WBO heavy­weight boss Hide en­joys some suc­cess at cruis­er­weight be­fore he dis­ap­pear­ing from box­ing in 2010


UP AND DOWN: Cun­ning­ham decks Fury dur­ing his heavy­weight ex­pe­di­tion [left]

BE­FORE THE JUMP: Bellew takes out Flores in his most re­cent cruis­er­weight bout in 2016

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