As Australia’s Jai Opetaia becomes the latest champion to emerge at cruiserweight, Elliot Worsell investigates why its previous suitors rarely stuck around
NO division in boxing is used and abused quite like the cruiserweight division and therefore its abandonment issues are both understandable and deep-rooted at this point.
Wedged between light-heavyweight and heavyweight, two classic and popular divisions, it has for a while now struggled to speak up for itself and prove itself as anything other than a stopgap between those far sexier destinations. Indeed, cruiserweight was and has always been seen as a place for light-heavyweights to go if they didn’t fancy cutting down to 175 pounds any longer, or, conversely, a place for smaller heavyweights to go if they didn’t fancy mixing it with the big boys anytime soon.
That, after all, was the whole point of cruiserweight: to be a bridge.
Created in 1979, the first sanctioning body to recognise the weight class (190 pounds back then) was the World Boxing Council (WBC), who sanctioned a bout between Marvin Camel and Mate Parlov for their title on December 8 of that year. That fight ended in a draw, leaving the title still vacant and the division still floating aimlessly, yet a rematch between the pair was to finally give the cruiserweights some forward motion, with Camel this time winning (by unanimous decision) to lift the WBC belt and become the world’s first ever cruiserweight champion.
Camel, a southpaw from Montana, USA, had competed primarily as a light-heavyweight during his career, though had started weighing between 180 and 185 pounds the year prior to getting his opportunity to fight for the cruiserweight title. He had never before boxed for a world title, not at light-heavyweight nor any other weight, and, as a light-heavyweight, had lost against Matthew Saad Muhammad over 10 rounds and also been stopped in six by Danny Brewer. In other words, while a capable light-heavyweight, and a capable fighter overall, Camel was never considered a world-class fighter or anything like world championship material before he decided to make the move to cruiserweight and explore the terrain there.
This reality was undeniable when, in Camel’s first defence of the WBC title, he found himself outboxed over 15 rounds by Carlos De Leon, a skilful Puerto Rican who had just defeated Waldemar Paulino inside a round in a WBC eliminator. A far superior fighter, De Leon would go on to beat Camel twice, the second by eighth-round stoppage, and would also, after suffering a shock loss against ST Gordon in 1982, create a fine legacy as a cruiserweight champion.
Speaking of 1982, that happened to be the year the World Boxing Association (WBA) got in on the cruiserweight action and followed the WBC’s lead. Their first recognised cruiserweight champion was Ossie Ocasio, another Puerto Rican, who lifted the WBA title after defeating South African Robbie Williams via split decision in Johannesburg. The division was at the time still being called ‘junior-heavyweight’ by the WBA, but that would soon change when they got in line with the WBC and chose not to complicate matters further.
As for the International Boxing Federation (IBF), they were late to the party and didn’t get involved in cruiserweight shenanigans until December 1983, when former WBC champion Camel was matched against Roddy MacDonald for their inaugural title. Now more settled at the weight, Camel would win his second cruiserweight strap against MacDonald, grabbing the new IBF belt with a fifth-round stoppage in Canada. This was a belt Camel would again then surrender in his first defence when Lee Roy Murphy stopped him on cuts in the 14th round in October 1984.
In summary, despite the doors it opened for fighters, the cruiserweight division and its cruiserweights endured some teething problems at the beginning. Light-heavyweights were still getting used to the added weight, also-rans elsewhere were still getting used to the idea of being titleholders at cruiserweight, and the division, as a whole, was still filling out with both contenders and champions. Consequently, challengers were in short supply and title reigns were just short. With three titles changing hands with regularity, it wasn’t easy to identify the best cruiserweights in the world or for that matter pinpoint anyone likely to create any kind of long-lasting legacy at the weight.
But then Evander Holyfield came along and the division at last found a man who was not only fresh – that is, spared the scars of failures past – but also seemingly built to compete at a weight of 190 pounds. Indeed, having turned pro at 177, after winning Olympic bronze as a light-heavyweight, it hadn’t taken Holyfield long to start weighing in the high 80s and eventually, by 1986, the 190-pound cruiserweight limit.
By then, just two years after turning professional, Holyfield was in line to fight for the WBA cruiserweight title against Dwight Muhammad Qawi and begin what would become a brief yet dominant reign at 190 pounds. Still young in the game, Holyfield showed no signs of naivety and inexperience against the rough and rugged Qawi and, together, they produced one of the all-time cruiserweight classics, with Holyfield eventually winning a 15-round decision. The fight was close, the decision split, and both knew they would one day share a ring again in pursuit of a more conclusive finish.
But that could wait. First, Holyfield, the new WBA champion, had other business to attend to. This included a title defence against Henry Tillman (TKO 7), a unification fight against IBF champion Ricky Parkey (TKO 3), and a defence of both belts against Ossie Ocasio (TKO 11), all of which saw Holyfield come on leaps and bounds and seem to grow in his role as WBA champion.
This was never more apparent than in December of ’87 when he reunited with Qawi for a rematch and this time managed to stop Qawi inside four rounds. Quite different than their first encounter, which was both gruelling and close, Qawi was this time hurt and dropped twice in the fourth round before the fight was wisely halted two minutes and thirty seconds into that round.
After that, with his score with Qawi settled, Holyfield had just one more job left to do as a cruiserweight champion: complete the set and become the division’s first undisputed ruler. To do so, he would have to put his WBA and IBF titles on the line against Carlos De Leon, the owner of the WBC version, whose relationship with that title now stretched back to 1980.
A fight for all the marbles, Holyfield vs. De Leon would pair Holyfield’s aggression and power with De Leon’s boxing skill and movement. It would also tell us who was the best 190-pound fighter on the planet, which, for a division still yearning for respect and authenticity, was a vital component not to be overlooked. After all, without a torchbearer and poster boy, the cruiserweight division was forever in danger of being known as a collection of champions and contenders, with no real focal point or end-of-the-rainbow target. What it needed was one man; one leader. What it needed was someone as ferocious and seemingly invincible as the many heavyweight champions who had, throughout history, prowled the division directly above it. What it needed was a man like Evander Holyfield.
In 1988, within just eight rounds of action, he had arrived. De Leon, though talented in his own right, had no answer for Holyfield’s strength and power the night they put their three titles on the line and he was duly despatched, leaving Holyfield with all the belts and an entire division at his mercy.
Had he stayed, it could have been the start of something special; a period of dominance to match the dominance of even some of the world’s greatest heavyweights. Yet, with the cruiserweight division still in its infancy and with the heavyweight division still where the money could be found, Holyfield’s stay at cruiserweight was destined to only ever be fleeting. In and out, job done, he had already beaten all the men he needed to beat, and collected all the titles he needed to collect, and now, with sights set on bigger fights and bigger paydays, he decided to make the trip to heavyweight in the summer of ’88. From there, there would be no coming back. Nor, for that matter, any looking back.
In his absence, the cruiserweight division brushed itself down and carried on, all the better for having been graced by his presence. Naturally, the belts he had collected were now divided and split among other, lesser fighters, and during the intervening years a slew of champions would then come along and do their best Holyfield impression, some faring better than others.
The pattern, though, for the most part remained the same. Invariably, fighters would emerge at cruiserweight and excel at cruiserweight before choosing to explore their options at heavyweight, a division far more respected and glamourous by comparison.
In fact, such was its short-stay nature, the division’s second undisputed champion wouldn’t arrive until 2006, when Jamaican puncher O’Neil Bell defeated France’s Jean-Marc Mormeck via 10th-round stoppage. That win delivered Bell the WBA, WBC and IBF belts, two of which (the WBA and WBC) he would then lose in the rematch against Mormeck the following year. (Bell was stripped of the IBF title by that time.)
Beyond that, more came along and flirted, briefly, with the cruiserweight division, though would for the most part lack loyalty and commitment. One such fighter was England’s David Haye. He beat Mormeck in 2007 and then beat Wales’ Enzo Maccarinelli in 2008, thus grouping together three of the four major belts, only to decide against chasing the IBF belt in favour of immediately dashing to heavyweight to fill his pockets.
More recently, Ukraine’s brilliant Oleksandr Usyk, perhaps the prototype cruiserweight, announced himself as the greatest cruiserweight since Holyfield by gathering all four major belts via a string of excellent wins at 200 pounds. These included thrillers against Marco Huck, Mairis Briedis and Murat Gassiev, as part of the World Boxing Super Series, as well as an impressive dismantling of Tony Bellew, himself a former WBC champion at cruiserweight.
Yet, by 2019, to the surprise of no one, Usyk had followed Holyfield and the rest to heavyweight to remove from the cruiserweight division their leader and any sense of order. He has since dazzled as a heavyweight, too, beating Anthony Joshua in 2021 to win the WBA, IBF and WBO heavyweight titles, and there is now every chance Usyk will walk the same path walked by Holyfield in becoming the world’s number one at both cruiserweight and heavyweight. If he does, he will have not only replicated ‘The Real Deal’ but proven himself as the real deal two times over, a feat only Holyfield, of all the men to campaign at both cruiserweight and heavyweight, has so far achieved.
In Usyk’s wake, meanwhile, the cruiserweight division has had to again brush itself down and start over. We have seen, in the intervening years, belts picked up by the likes of Briedis, a Usyk victim, and Ilunga Makabu, a Tony Bellew victim, and also Lawrence Okolie, one of the division’s new hopes. It has, however, undoubtedly lacked a leader, someone to dominate the way Usyk did or, before him, Holyfield.
This rang true at the weekend when Briedis, the consensus number one, surrendered his IBF belt to unheralded Australian southpaw Jai Opetaia in Broadbeach. That was both an upset and a coming out party for Opetaia, who, 10 years Briedis’ junior at 27, expertly capitalised on the champion’s history of hard fights by dragging him into yet another one, sensing it would, for Breidis, be one too many.
And he was right. Outboxing him early, and outlasting him down the stretch, Opetaia sauntered off with a unanimous decision victory and an IBF belt. He also announced himself on the world stage, both as a rising star of Australian boxing and, for a division in desperate need of them, a fresh face at cruiserweight.
Now, with a belt to his name, and with a name that means something outside the Gold Coast, Opetaia joins the likes of Okolie, another undefeated cruiserweight with a title, and Richard Riakporhe, perhaps the most exciting cruiserweight without a belt, as the shining lights at 200 pounds. Between them, there could be some exciting nights and interesting stylistic matchups in the near future. Between them, they could resuscitate the cruiserweight division in a post-Usyk world.
Just don’t go falling in love with them, cruiserweight division. Because history would suggest this trio, like everyone else who came before them, are here for a good time, not a long time. They will, whether successful or not, inevitably and ultimately leave you.