The best heavyweight boxer in the world today is IBF champion Michael Spinks, who actually is an inflatable light heavyweight. To begin to appreciate the image problem of boxing's glamor division, take a look at The Ring magazine's latest ranking of the top 10 heavyweight contenders: Pinklon Thomas, Larry Holmes, Tim Witherspoon, Tony Tubbs, Greg Page, Gerrie Coetzee, Trevor Berbick, Carl Williams, Mike Weaver and Michael Dokes.
To further appreciate this problem, take a look at The Ring's second 10 contenders: David Bey, James Broad, Tony Tucker, James Smith, Frank Bruno, Eddie Gregg, Marvis Frazier, Jeff Sims, Mitchell Green and Jesse Ferguson.
These are fellows who mostly fall down for a living. The more talented ones get up, then fall down again. In other words, you or I probably could crack a contenders' list given a proper weight-management program and the ability to count to 10 while lying on our backs.
Despite the division's scarcity of stars, HBO -- sometimes known as Home Boxing Office -- has embarked on a so-called "Heavyweight World Series" to determine, once and for all, an undisputed heavyweight champion of the world. The eight-fight series, all involving title defenses among the several fighters considered champions by various federations and fiefdoms, would deliver us a unified title by summer 1987.
"You have three champions right now, and the only ones happy with that are the championship-belt manufacturers," said Seth Abraham, an HBO senior vice president responsible for the series. "The heavyweight division still is the only division that can consistently attract new subscribers for us. We do 10 fights a year. We need Broadway shows. We need fights that stand as events. We need stars and prime-time players."
The idea for the series developed with HBO's refusal to buy the Thomas-Berbick WBC title fight from promoter Don King. Abraham explained: "I said to Don: 'Frankly, what does that fight mean?' The public says: 'Who cares who wins Thomas-Berbick?' He said: 'What does it take for you to buy Thomas-Berbick?' And in October 1985, our negotiations [with King and promoter Butch Lewis] for a series began."
The series, originally seven fights, began last weekend when Berbick took away Thomas' WBC title. An eighth fight has been added because WBA champion Witherspoon, who beat Tubbs in a title fight, tested positive for marijuana, and as part of his penalty, must fight Tubbs again. (In other sports, a penalty may entail a suspension; in boxing, a penalty allows the fighter to keep fighting at a financial gain).
Here are the remaining scheduled fights in the HBO series:
*IBF champion Spinks vs. Holmes, April 19.
*Witherspoon vs. Tubbs, summer '86.
*Witherspoon-Tubbs winner in mandatory WBA title defense, probably against Bruno, fall '86.
*WBC title defense or IBF title defense, fall '86.
*WBC title defense or IBF title defense, January '87.
*WBA champion vs. WBC champion, spring '87.
*IBF champion vs. WBA-WBC champions' winner, summer '87.
"There are no contenders vs. contenders," Abraham said, "and in that way, we hope to avoid how the ABC [Don King-backed] tournament went up in flames in 1977 when ratings allegedly were being changed on contenders to determine who would fight whom. These are all championship fights."
Still, these fights mostly involve fighters with the box-office appeal of a punching bag.
"HBO, heretofore, has been flawless in picking good fights," said NBC boxing analyst Ferdie Pacheco. "On this deal, HBO got sandbagged into showing a mindless-doldrums set of fights. They all have one thing in common -- Don King."
Enter Mike Tyson. Even Abraham admits that the public might yawn at Berbick-Thomas or Witherspoon-Tubbs, but a fresh face such as Tyson, the 19-year-old wunderkind, could spark fresh interest in the heavyweights. Tyson has signed a multifight deal with HBO.
"We're not going to set the world on fire with our first couple of fights," Abraham said. "Tyson will fight separately from the series at first. If and when Tyson comes in, we'll start hitting home runs. Fights 6 and 7 [the final unification bouts] will give us very big numbers."
The problem is, Tyson might not be ready.
"He could save the heavyweight division, sure," Pacheco said. "But if I had him, I certainly wouldn't want him in the tournament right now. He's too valuable a property to dissipate already. They should nurture him . . . . But I always say that if you take a TV executive and cut his head open, heavyweights will drop out. They always want the heavyweights."
If nothing else, the HBO series will bring boxing fans a unified title, something the heavyweight division hasn't had since Leon Spinks in 1978. Then again, the unification will last only as long as it takes for the various federations to start demanding mandatory title defenses against each of their No. 1 contenders.
"It will be sort of a momentary pause -- nothing more -- in the insanity of triple champions," Pacheco said.
Instead of another weekend of basketball, boxing and bowling, you would be well-advised to tune in ABC Sports' "Western States Endurance Run" Sunday at 4:30 p.m on WJLA-TV-7. Similar to its "Race Across America" telecast earlier this month, ABC covers the extraordinary 100-mile ultramarathon with fine photography, and the understated production is enhanced by good writing. If you absolutely, positively must stay indoors Sunday, this will be your only chance for a breath of fresh air.