FEAR OF HEIGHTS
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,
AFTER I BEAT RUIZ I SHOULD HAVE TAKEN TWO YEARS OFF TO LET MY BODY RECOVER, BUT I DIDN’T”
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