Wednesday, June 27, 2001

Boxer finds title shot elusive

        Larry Donald has been protected, and he has been ducked. He has been meticulously groomed and scrupulously avoided. He has moved up the ladder in heavyweight boxing as if he were toting an anvil, so gradually his shoes could be carbon dated.

        The Cincinnati fighter fancies himself “the uncrowned heavyweight champ,” but he has yet to come close to coronation. Once an Olympian, once-beaten as a professional, Donald nonetheless is disparaged as a man who has moved up in the rankings by pounding palookas and circumventing contenders.

        His career is a microcosm of what's most wrong with boxing — an absence of coherent structure and an abundance of unregulated corruption. Many a good fighter has been stifled by mendacious management and malleable sanctioning bodies. Many a bad fighter has been advanced through backroom politics. Which category Donald fits is hard to say, because he is 38-1-2 but hasn't fought anyone of consequence since he lost to Riddick Bowe in 1994.

Boxing's winding road

        In boxing, as in the Hollies' greatest hits, the road is long, with many a winding turn, that leads us to who knows where.

        The winner of Donald's bout with Canadian Kirk Johnson July 7 in New York will be designated the World Boxing Association's mandatory challenger and be assured of a title shot no later than March 3, 2002. That's “assured” as distinguished from “guaranteed.”

        John Ruiz is scheduled to defend his WBA title Aug. 4 against Evander Holyfield. The winner of that bout may see Donald or Johnson as an unnecessary risk for an unappealing payday. There's bound to be more money in fighting WBC/IBF champion Hasim Raham or Lennox Lewis or Mike Tyson. In boxing, money talks; everything else is Marcel Marceau.

        “Instead of the WBA champ fighting a mandatory against Kirk or Larry Donald, I can see the writing is on the wall for a unification bout,” Gary Johnson, the fighter's father, told the Toronto Sun. “I guess we have to keep winning. But you have only so long. We don't want a world title shot when Kirk's ready to retire. We want the shot right now.”

        In other sports, an elite athlete could move through the ranks rapidly and expect a chance at a championship near the peak of his game. In boxing, warring promoters and cable networks frequently manipulate matchups for their own ends.

Running out of time

               Donald's promoter is Don King. King's obvious priority, however, is arranging a big-money unification bout for another client, Raham. Donald, meanwhile, is 34 years old and running short on time for a serious title shot.

        “I'm not going to get into a politics game,” Donald said during a telephone press conference Monday. “I'm expecting to fight the winner of John Ruiz and Evander Holyfield.”

        Donald called his bout with Johnson, “the biggest thing since going to the moon.” Unless Donald's ideas of lunar travel are derived from Ralph Kramden (“One of these days, Alice...”), he was exaggerating at least a little.

        This is not to say the fight lacks appeal. If nothing else, it should put Donald's career in context. It should tell us whether he has been overlooked. Or overrated.

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