THREE months after beating Oscar Bonavena in December 1970, Muhammad Ali got into the ring with Joe Frazier in the biggest fight in the sport’s history. Ninety-one days in which contracts were signed, purses were agreed, and ample publicity was generated. Both were to pick up at least $2.5m, then-record fees for athletes of any kind.

It was simpler back then. Boxers by and large fought their closest rivals to ascertain who was the best instead of squabbling for too long about who was the biggest draw. Because the best rivalries were being settled, the sport was appealing to the public; it was reported at the time that more people saw Frazier beat Ali than had watched Apollo 11 land on the moon two years before.

As we go to press, Tyson Fury versus Oleksandr Usyk is in real danger of collapse as they struggle to agree terms. How people conduct their own business is their own business but, goodness me, it’s maddening that the best heavyweights of their generation could soon pass their peaks without fighting their closest rival.

After being told last year that Fury-Usyk was all but a certainty for 2023, it is understood that a deal was close for Saudi Arabia, where Skill Challenge Entertainment pull the strings, but an appropriate site, at least before the summer, could not be finalised. Problem is, once fighters and their respective teams get wind of the money on offer in the Middle East, any other territory is going to struggle to even get the attention of the parties in question. In Britain, for example, only crippling losses would follow if they attempted to keep pace with the bank of the Saudis. But what other territories do have is a climate that doesn’t essentially prohibit outdoor events during the hottest months, and stadiums and infrastructure already in place to stage the biggest events.

That left Wembley Stadium on April 29 as the frontrunner. However, with less money on the table than the Middle East, both Team Fury and Team Usyk demanded higher percentages to increase their bottom lines. As things stand, one or both parties need to budge on their estimation of their worth for the contest to take place.

Who merits the greater purse is frankly unknown until they fight, however. Fury is the attraction in the UK whereas Usyk owns three of the four belts. And those sanctioning bodies are an impatient bunch in matters like this, with the WBA and IBF in particular keen to enforce opportunities for their mandatory challengers, Daniel Dubois and Filip Hrgovic respectively. For what it’s worth, Deontay Wilder and Joe Joyce hold corresponding positions with the WBC and WBO. Why the sport’s most influential figures continue to hold these organisations in such high regard is another matter.

Boxing News fears we could soon hear what we’ve heard before: That mandatories will be dealt with and, fear not, the ‘undisputed’ fight will occur later in the year. But anyone who has been following the sport in recent years should know that such a promise is akin to a parent saying ‘I’ll think about’ to appease a crying child. We don’t doubt that such a scenario is what they’d like to do but, whether because of titles being stripped or upsets occurring, recent history dictates that the longer a fight is left on the shelf, the less likely it is to ever be taken down.

What is certain, however, is that a concerted effort has and is being made behind the scenes to make this contest. The paymasters, despite the sleepless nights they’re enduring, want this fight to happen as much as the rest of us. With so many moving parts clogging up the progress, though, it’s little wonder our collective dreams are dashed so frequently.

Back in 1971, there were two belts though they were secondary to the bigger issue of deciding the best heavyweight on the planet. And there were no regional complications nor interference from rich nations; with Ali and Frazier both being American, New York was the only logical choice to stage such a bout. So perhaps it’s too easy to look to the past and bemoan the present but, no question, simpler times certainly made for greater ease when it came to making defining fights. How the current convoluted system plays out in the future is unknown, but it is surely a concerning theme.

It is 23 years since Lennox Lewis and Evander Holyfield collided in 1999 to ascertain the world’s best heavyweight. A controversial draw was quickly followed by a return, won by Lewis on points. Since that rematch, we’ve not had a fight as meaningful in the division. There are a few arguable exceptions that ultimately only underline the point.

After Lewis confirmed his retirement in 2004, Corrie Sanders and Vitali Klitschko met in a bout some, including Boxing News, felt would decide the leading heavyweight. However, Sanders and Klitschko were not universally recognised as one and two like Fury and Usyk are today. Boxers like Chris Byrd, John Ruiz and Lamon Brewster were also there or thereabouts.

Fast forward to 2011. Both Klitschko brothers were atop the division and not willing to fight each other for obvious reasons. So, when Wladimir took on David Haye – the only non-Klitschko to hold a belt – it was (and remains) the closest thing we’d had to Lewis-Holyfield in the 21st century.

Two other bouts are worth mentioning.

With Vitali inactive and leaning towards retirement in 2013, Wlad – widely regarded as the division leader – took on Alexander Povetkin in a bout that possibly contained the best two heavyweights on the planet at the time. Again, however, the clamour for Klitschko-Povetkin was nothing like the desire to see Fury-Usyk in 2023. The last instance of a potential one-versus-two occurred in February 2020 when Tyson Fury thrashed Deontay Wilder in their rematch. But with Anthony Joshua revenging Andy Ruiz Jnr just two months before, Fury-Wilder II was far from finished business.

Let’s not get too downbeat. The current crop of heavyweights has generated several contests in recent years that will leave their mark in the history books. Wladimir returning to test Joshua was a triumphant occasion, each of the three Fury-Wilder contests will stand the test of time and Usyk twice outpointing Joshua were masterful displays. Throw in the thrilling exploits of Dillian Whyte, Joseph Parker and Joe Joyce and we can rightly say we’re living through a good era.

What can’t be denied, however, is that there have been several failures to make the one fight that would make the entire world stop and pay attention. The kind of fight that puts boxing on the sporting map for the right reasons. A World Cup, after all, can only be deemed a success if there’s a final at the end of it, regardless of how good the action may have been in the preliminary rounds.

The Klitschko reigns of course made such a final impossible for reasons already explained. But since 2015, Anthony Joshua versus Deontay Wilder did not happen. Fury versus Joshua did not happen. Now Fury versus Usyk doesn’t look like it’s going to happen, at least not in the foreseeable future.

In March 1971, Frazier was 27, two years Ali’s junior. Here in 2023, Fury will be 35 in August whereas Usyk turned 36 in January.

ELSEWHERE in the sport, quality matchups are being signed and for that we must be grateful. Down at lightweight, Gervonta Davies and Ryan Garcia are scheduled to meet on April 22 with world champion Devin Haney in negotiations to defend against Vasiliy Lomachenko the following month. Arguably even better than either of those, leading super-bantamweight Stephen Fulton Jnr will travel to Japan on May 7 to defend two belts against the fearsome Naoya Inoue. Thank goodness for the little guys.

Conor Benn on Piers Uncensored

CONOR BENN’S interview with Piers Morgan on Monday evening (March 6) did nothing to cleanse his image to the boxing public.

Whatever your opinion on Morgan, it was relief to at least hear him ask the most obvious question: Why, if Benn has all of this evidence he is certain will clear his name, is he not taking his case to the one governing body who can do that – the British Boxing Board of Control (BBBofC).

Pride, Benn said.

If the insinuation is that by going to the BBBofC, and in turn United Kingdom Anti-Doping (UKAD), he will be surrendering to their rule then he should instead look at the bigger picture. Seemingly keen to stick his middle finger up to Robert Smith and co, the best way to do that would be to prove his innocence and then never fight in the UK again. Told you so, now I’m taking my (substantial) business elsewhere.

Worst case scenario for Benn would be he is found guilty of taking performance enhancing drugs. If that is the ruling, he can appeal. If that appeal fails, he can then take his case to the Court of Arbitration for Sport where the truth nearly always comes out. Any fears of unfair trials would therefore disappear. Time consuming it might be but if he’s adamant he’s innocent, and genuinely believes he’s innocent, going down that route is now the only way to clear his name.