So long written off as fat light-heavyweights or substandard heavies, the cruiserweight division has been enjoying somewhat of a resurgence lately. This is in no small part due to the Sauerlands’ introduction of a tournament that has attracted all-but-one of the stellar names. The cruiserweight limit is 200lbs and the added leeway has helped to entice more talented boxers to stick around and try to make a name for themselves rather than just pushing straight up and aiming for heavyweight glory, as boxers like Roy Jones Jr and Michael Moorer have done in the past.
Despite hovering around in boxing parlance for decades before, the cruiserweight division was formally introduced to the sporting world in 1979 when the WBC officially recognised a bout between Croatia’s Mate Parlov and Montana’s Marvin Camel. Parlov had formerly reigned as WBC champion at light-heavyweight -defeating John Conteh and drawing with the excellent Matthew Saad Muhammad along the way- while Native American Camel was a big light-heavyweight, too small for heavyweight, who found his home at the newly defined weight. The first fight ended in a draw and Camel won the rematch in Las Vegas to take home the inaugural piece of silverware. The WBA followed the WBC in to the world of cruiserweight titles two years later, no doubt salivating at all of the potential fresh sanctioning opportunities! Modern day cruiserweight competitors have a limit of 200lbs (or 14st 4lbs) to adhere to, which is 10 pounds heavier than when the division was first created.
The cruiserweight division is currently in excellent health and much of this resurgence is testament to the World Boxing Super Series (WBSS) tournament that has revitalised interest. There are a few reasons why the cruiserweights have been looked down on over the years and that is due to a general lack of American interest in a European-centric environment and also because some observers just view the protagonists as undersized heavyweights.
The standout pairing presently are Oleksandr Usyk and Murat Gassiev who clash in May to decide who reigns undisputed and supreme. Usyk holds the WBO title that he won against Glowacki in 2016 and brought with him into the tournament. He also has the WBC belt that he took off Mairis Briedis after a stirring semi-final encounter in January of this year. Gassiev enters with the IBF title he took from Denis Lebedev in 2016 and the WBA ‘Super’ crown he relieved Yunier Dorticos of in their semi in early February.
Other relevant names include Marco Huck and Krzysztof Wlodarczyk, both former world champions and veterans of the sport, who lost in the WBSS quarters to Usyk and Gassiev respectively. Briedis’ quarter-final victim -Cuban southpaw Mike Perez- has the skills to make noise at cruiser but that was his first meaningful fight at the weight after boiling down from heavy. Dorticos’ quarter-final victim -Russia’s Dmitry Kudryashov- is a fearsome puncher who suffers from stamina issues and even though he can still win a bauble or two, he does not have the requisite abilities to put together a sort of meaningful run of top level wins. Tony Bellew scored an excellent win over Ilunga Makabu to win the WBC tile in 2016 and later snuck in a farcical defence against BJ Flores before puffing up to heavyweight to chase Pay-Per-View pounds against David Haye. While I don’t blame him for chasing down a name like Haye, in my opinion, Bellew would struggle with all four WBSS semi-finalists.
Over recent years the cruiserweight weight class has not exactly been void of talent. From 1998-2001 Cuban exile Juan Carlos Gomez won and subsequently defended the WBC strap 10 times in his adopted homeland of Germany. Gomez was a heavy-hitting fighter and I was a fan back in the day, but looking at the record now, he certainly fought a few dud opponents along the way! Gomez saw the bright lights of heavyweight beckoning him in and moved up but was far too small to compete effectively against the true elite. Vitali Klitschko knocked Gomez out in nine rounds in 2009. Six years earlier Gomez had outboxed decent Turk Sinan Samil Sam in New York over 10 rounds, proving he had retained the talent and athleticism from his cruiserweight days.
Kazakh Vasiliy Jirov won gold at the 1996 Olympic Games and transitioned smoothly in to the pro ranks, winning the IBF cruiserweight title and defending it six times. Riding high, in 2003 Jirov entered the ring with a polished 31-0 record to take part in a grudge match with James Toney. Erratic Toney had been a superb fighter down at middleweight, through super-middleweight, before badly losing form at light-heavyweight, and found himself in the boxing wilderness before the IBF granted him a shot at the high-volume southpaw champion. Toney rolled back the years and produced a sublime mix of skills, shoulder rolls and hard accurate power punching to nullify the Jirov threat and win his title by decision. Toney moved up to fight at heavyweight and Jirov, who boxed on and off for the next six years, was never the same dominant fighter again.
Back to the present day and with both the winner and loser of the WBSS expected to move up and chase the lucrative rewards that heavyweight boxing has to offer, it could be a while before the next crop of exciting names break through and put the cruiserweight division back in the big time.
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