TOM JOHNSON ? Boom Boom to his friends ? was an outstanding boxer who deserves to be remembered as something more than the spent shell case that Naseem Hamed left on the floor one night in 1997. Johnson cut a sad and lonely figure that night, staring into his cranberry juice and contemplating his future in a quiet corner of a London docklands hotel. Seeing him on his own like that, so lost in melancholy, it was impossible not to walk up and ask him was he okay.

It turned out he was. "I think it's time I listened to the Lord, " he said. Hamed had given him the kind of beating that ages young fighters. And Johnson was no spring lamb at the start of the night. So surely now it was time to call it a day.

"Will you miss boxing?" he was asked. "Shit, man, " he said, "I ain't retiring. I think this fight was God's way of telling me to move up to featherweight." No athletes kid themselves quite like professional boxers. And no athletes kid us quite like them either. It's difficult to believe that at any point in the past hundred years the heavyweight division was in a worse state than it is in now. Boxers who would have struggled to make a living in any other era are calling themselves heavyweight champions of the world. And the recent glut of so-called heavyweight title fights has only emphasised the depressing sense that the sport has disappeared up its own backside, possibly never to return.

So difficult is it to sell the idea of John Ruiz and Chris Byrd as lineage descendants of Ali and Louis and Marciano that even the usually bare-faced Don King recently gave up the pretence that the heavyweight championship is still the most exalted title in sports and advertised a two-for-one deal on pay-per-view television.

In the first fight, Ruiz ? beaten up when Roy Jones made a day trip to the heavyweight division ? successfully defended the WBA belt against Fres Oquendo in a fight so poor that ringsiders were left reminiscing about the days when the mob controlled boxing and the fights were interesting at least. The biggest roar of the night greeted the fan whose exasperation echoed around the noiseless Madison Square Garden: "This is the worst fight I've ever seen."

To follow, those who were still awake could look forward to the IBF title fight between the underwhelming Byrd and Andrew Golota, who is famous for twice being disqualified for punching Riddick Bowe between the legs and later quitting against Mike Tyson and Lennox Lewis. In another era his licence would have been taken from him ? now, being a nutter is considered just part of his shtick. Golota lost on points but didn't do anything too neurotic and will be back in a championship ring within a year.

And why not? There's that many world titles out there now that the most difficult job is finding bodies to fight. Bodies without toe tags, that is.

Two weeks ago in Las Vegas, Vitali Klitschko fought for Lennox Lewis' old WBC title against Cory Sanders, who claimed a dubious piece of heavyweight history by announcing his retirement before rather than after fighting for the title.

Yet he still did enough to make Vitali look as ordinary as his brother Wladamir, once hailed as the saviour of the division but now working as Vitali's second, ever since he was knocked out by journeyman Lamon Brewster.

It's a sad fact that Vitali ? his big selling point is that he has a PhD; do what you can with that, Max Clifford ? is comfortably the best of the bad bunch who call themselves a heavyweight scene.

Is there a saviour out there? No, just more ways of selling us rubbish. Such is the dearth of colour out there that Mike Tyson is once again being spoken about as the man to clean up the division.

Breakdancing was still in fashion the last time Tyson was at his best. Two years ago Lewis exposed his post-clink comeback as the biggest con trick ever perpetrated on the sporting public. Now he's about to work the same swindle again.

Where it's all inevitably leading to is a fight between Tyson and Jones, the most gifted boxer since Sugar Ray Leonard, who is poised to retire from the sport out of disenchantment as much as old age.

Jones should be remembered as one of the pound-for-pound best. But great fighters are defined by great fights and so dominant was Jones that he was in too few of those.

Instead, he fell back on the old staple of gimmickry ? playing pro basketball on the morning of a fight, making a cameo as a heavyweight.

Now he's talking about fighting Tyson as the denouement to his career.

The sad part? It'll be infinitely more interesting than anything else the division has to offer.