If you posed the question: ‘Who was the Greatest Cruiserweight Ever?’ to boxing aficionados, it’s probable you’d receive the answer Evander Holyfield.
Prior to a quadruple reign on the World Heavyweight throne, ‘The Real Deal’ dominated the cruiser class in the late 1980s, winning six title contests and unifying the IBF, WBA and WBC belts before resigning as undefeated Champion and cementing his legend among the big guys.
But while Commander ‘Vander certainly merits consideration as the division’s finest ever CHAMPION, it should be noted that many of the earlier great Heavyweight monarchs routinely fought beneath the initial 190lb (later raised to 200lb) cruiser cut-off. Step forward Fitzsimmons, Dempsey, Tunney, Louis, Marciano, Patterson…to list but a few.
But as the leading Heavies became increasingly super-sized by the 1970s, a need arose to create a new weight category to plug the gap between the 175lb Light-Heavyweights and the ‘no limit’ behemoths dominating boxing’s blue riband class.
The WBC took the lead, augmenting a 190lb division in 1979. However, the inaugural title contest between Native American Marvin Camel and Yugoslavia’s Mate Parlov finished in a 15 round draw in Split and it was not until the following year, when Camel triumphed in the return, that the first cruiser king was crowned. Headdress wearing Marvin later served as the IBF’s first 13st 8lb Champion after he iced Roddy MacDonald over Nova Scotia in 1983.
A year earlier, the WBA got on board but instead labelled the new class ‘Junior Heavyweight.’ Puerto Rico’s Ossie ‘Jaws’ Ocasio was the first to reign on that throne after bagging a 15 round decision over Robbie Williams in Johannesburg. The WBO – founded in 1988- installed Maryland southpaw Boone Peltz as it’s first cruiser king, after he outscored Norway’s Magne Havnaa in Copenhagen in December 1989.
Initially, there were fluctuations regarding the division ceiling. All sanctioning bodies began at 190lbs but in 1982 the WBC autonomously raised their bar to 195lbs. However, uniformity was required when Holyfield and WBC boss Carlos DeLeon met to unify the belts in 1988 and 190 became the standard again. Since 2003, all bodies have adhered to a 200lb (14st 4lb) limit.
The first noteworthy Champion was Carlos ‘Sugar’ DeLeon of Puerto Rico, who was victorious in 11 of 16 World Title gigs (one draw) during four terms on the WBC throne. His third reign was halted by Holyfield who had previously scooped the WBA belt by edging 5ft 7in Dwight Muhammad Qawi, a longstanding Light-Heavy monarch, over 15 glorious rounds in the finest 190lb fight of that decade.
In June 1989, Glenn McCrory negotiated a perforated ear drum to outscore Kenya’s Patrick Lumumba at a rammed leisure centre in Stanley, thus provide Britain with the first of their six World Cruiser kings and the north-east with its maiden World Champion at any weight.
The 90s commenced with the incredible tale of Chicago’s Craig Bodzianowski who challenged WBA Champion Robert Daniels whilst wearing a prosthetic limb, having lost a leg in a motor cycle accident six years earlier!
For the first half of the decade, the division was bossed by formidable, French domiciled Congan Ancalet Wamba who dethroned Italy’s WBC ruler Massimiliano Duran in July 1991, then retained seven times over the ensuing three and a half years before he was stripped.
Hegemony in the later 90s passed to incorrigible Cuban showboater Juan Carlos Gomez who mocked and socked 10 successive challengers from his base in Hamburg, before abdicating to taunt Heavyweights….rather less successfully!
In between, German gypsy Ralf Rocchigiani was the first dominant WBO Champion, claiming the vacant belt against Manchester’s Carl Thompson in June 1995, then surrendering it to ‘C.A.T’ 28 months and six successful defences later.
In 2003, Kazakh southpaw Vassiliy Jirov and fast expanding US former Middle and Super-Middle boss James Toney delivered the best battle of the Noughties, the latter snaring a unanimous decision after a dozen quality rounds to claim the IBF belt.
This was the decade in which British cruisers finally started to rule. The WBO strap remained in our custody from 1997-2009 with Thompson, Johnny Nelson, Enzo Maccarinelli and David Haye all clasping it around their midriff.
Nelson, dubbed a coward after two farcically passive title challenges in the 90s, capitalised on Wincobank wisdom and seriously underrated hitting power to set divisional records for the longest reign (seven years, six months) and most defences (13) before an injury-induced retirement.
Swansea’s Maccarinelli assumed the baton and delivered a string of highlight reel knockouts before he was rubbed out in two, in a March 2008 unification Battle of the Bangers with ‘The Hayemaker’. Four months earlier, the future WBA Heavyweight Champ had climbed from the canvas to clatter France’s excellent WBC czar Jean Marc Mormeck (RSC7) just outside Paris.
During the 2010s, Serbian born warmonger Marco Huck led the way both statistically and aesthetically. The Berlin based ‘Kap’n’s five years of governance in the WBO duchy brought a division equalling 13 defences and was garnished by a titanic trilogy with Ola Afolabi.
The native south Londoner of Nigerian extraction was nudged out each time but Britain did add to its haul when Liverpool’s Tony ‘Bomber’ Bellew snared the WBC gong in a savage three round shoot-out with Congan Ilunga Makabu before 15,000 at Goodison Park football stadium in May 2016.
Poland’s Krzysztof Wlodarczyk (IBF/WBC), Cuba’s super slick Yoan Pablo Hernandez (IBF) and Russian ruffian Denis Lebedev (WBA/IBF) have all governed with distinction this decade.
However, the division really ignites this month with the return of WBA ‘regular’ ruler Beibut Shumenov on BoxNation this weekend and the culmination of the gripping WBSS elimination when unbeaten warlords Oleksandr Usyk and Murat Gassiev collide for all the major belts in Moscow on July 21st. A new P4P contender will surface once the dust settles.
During the division’s 39 years’ existence, the Cruiser bruisers have delivered many outstanding champions, colourful characters and fabulous fights. Which were your favourites?!