THIS week, the Boxing News social media channels asked, ‘Who is the next heavyweight star?’ The overriding response was: Who cares?
That’s not to say there are not promising heavyweights on the rise. There are a few. One of whom, Jared Anderson, passed a gut check of sorts last weekend when he dropped and decisioned Charles Martin over 10 rounds. That contest is currently one of only two or three noteworthy heavyweight bouts to have taken place in 2023. More than halfway through the year, no world championship has been defended, nor is a definitive date scheduled, not even those of the alphabet soup variety. As a respected colleague pointed out to me recently, that’s surely a record when all the leading heavyweights are fit and well, when there isn’t a pandemic to contend with, and we’re not in the midst of a world war.
Tyson Fury, though we’re teased with big announcement after big announcement, hasn’t faced a stiff challenge since he stopped Dillian Whyte in April last year. Oleksandr Usyk, tentatively scheduled to face Daniel Dubois on August 26, is closing in on 12 months of inactivity. Deontay Wilder, in on-off-on-off negotiations with Andy Ruiz Jnr, has fought only once in 22 months. Anthony Joshua, who is set to announce his rematch with Whyte next week, last secured victory over an established contender in December 2020. Fury will be 35 next month, Usyk is 36, Wilder is closing in on his 38th birthday and Joshua will soon turn 34. Joe Joyce, who lost to 39-year-old Zhilei Zhang in the year’s most important heavyweight fight, will be 38 in September, one month after his rematch with the Chinese veteran has occurred.
Is it fair, however, to label the current crop as wasters of both time and their obvious talent? To a degree, yes. But it would be untrue to say the division hasn’t produced some memorable fights since 2015, when the dominance of the Klitschko brothers came to an end. The current leading four – Usyk, Fury, Wilder and Joshua – can boast five matchups involving two of them (Fury and Wilder have clashed three times while Usyk and Joshua have fought twice), and there have been other bouts containing each of them which were worthwhile. Therefore, even if all four were to retire tomorrow, we couldn’t accuse any of them of not providing significant thrills, spills, and moments of brilliance along the way. It’s been an entertaining spell for the heavyweights, no question.
But since Fury’s points win over Wladimir seemed to signal a new era, there has been a distinct lack of world-stopping events. In fact, only two contests really had the feel of something special, something historic, heading in. The first was when Joshua took on Klitschko in 2017, and the next came when Fury and Wilder engaged in their rematch at the start of 2020.
There have been others that moved the dial, such as when Joshua and Ruiz came together for a second time in 2019, the first Fury-Wilder encounter in 2018 and the night Usyk outpointed Joshua in 2021. Though Fury-Wilder III was the most exciting of any heavyweight bout to occur in the current era, it would be a blatant untruth to suggest that was a contest the world was clamouring for beforehand. Usyk-Joshua II was another quality affair and one that AJ deserves credit for chasing, but the outcome wasn’t exactly hard to predict.
What we’re yet to see is a contest that boxing fans would have put at the top of their wish-list. So, in the space of eight long years, we haven’t experienced the kind of exhilarating heavyweight showdown that long ago made the division the most appealing; a very simple pairing of the universally recognised one and two. There has been no Fury-Joshua, no Fury-Usyk and – for several years the most desired fight in boxing – no Joshua-Wilder. Even if we just consider the first of those matchups, Fury-Joshua, it speaks of a huge problem in the sport. Why has it been so hard to make a bout between two Britons that would sell out the national stadium several times over?
Though the makeup of the present day – social media, warring powerbrokers, rival broadcasters and multiple titles – is largely at fault, it’s also only fair to point out that this isn’t the first time that fans have been starved of the heavyweight fights they wanted.
Before Mike Tyson came along and cleared up the mess, Larry Holmes failed to take on several of his closest rivals from 1980 to 1985. The likes of John Tate, Michael Dokes, Gerrie Coetzee, Greg Page and Pinklon Thomas were all, for various reasons, overlooked. Floyd Patterson, after ignoring Eddie Machen and Zora Folley, took an awfully long time before he granted Sonny Liston a shot, Jack Johnson infamously steered clear of challengers of colour, so too Jack Dempsey, and Joe Louis’ ‘Bum of the Month club’ was a cloud over the early years of his long reign.
What separates this era from the rest, however, is just how long this has been going on, as the wide array of talent too often go their separate ways. Moreover, the sheer appeal of bouts like Fury-Joshua and Fury-Usyk far outweighs yesterday’s appetite for Holmes-Thomas or the equivalent. Which brings us back to the real question here: why are the current leaders not fighting each other?
It would be tempting to say they’re simply running scared. That, I’d argue, is not the answer. Boxers don’t run scared; they don’t lie awake at night in terror about a potential opponent, particularly not before a fight has even been signed. The fact that there have been negotiations for each of the contests we’ve wanted suggests there is desire. Another misconception is that the promoters don’t want to risk their prized assets. From conversations with all sides, it’s clear they’re the ones losing sleep, and not because they’re petrified of their leading cash cow losing a fight, but because they don’t want to be held accountable for such seismic promotional failings. Efforts to get contests over the line have been gruelling.
Yet each of them, whether boxer or promoter, are too keen to establish control at the negotiation stage to such an extent it makes any kind of compromise all too difficult to achieve.
The lofty positions those promoters and boxers are allowed (and subconsciously encouraged) to inhabit must be blamed. They all have far too much power and are already far too wealthy. Drunk on that power, they stumble around making daft demands and spend too much time reinforcing one side of the story on social media. In turn, they draw others into a false sense of superiority, like certain media channels who care more for views than they do the good of the sport. Asking a loaded question – like, what do you make of your rival promoter/boxer saying you’re a chump? – will generate plenty of attention, but do absolutely nothing to resolve the situation. This is why we must pin plenty of responsibility on the collective boxing world we now live in and continue to facilitate.
Problems will continue to arise for as long as the ‘four-belt era’ is championed. The amount of sanctioning bodies is arguably the biggest factor in all of this, and the problems at heavyweight can directly be traced back – bar the odd period of unity – to 1978 when the title was split in half. At risk of repeating ourselves, once a boxer wins a sanctioning body belt, they cease to exist in the rankings of rival organisations. Therefore, Usyk doesn’t have to fight Fury to keep his three belts and Fury doesn’t have to fight Usyk to retain his strap. Quite the contrary; the bodies demand they fight far less deserving/fitting opposition. There is nothing – at all – in place that demands the best fight the best. Yet those same sanctioning bodies barely bat an eyelid when Fury decides to take on Derek Chisora for a third time. Though we should not bemoan nor begrudge boxers earning handsomely, the fact that marketable heavyweights can earn a fortune by fighting nondescript opposition, while also retaining their status as ‘world heavyweight champion’, means they will do exactly that. And from their point of view, you can certainly understand why.
For the best fights to occur, we’re therefore at the mercy of two rival teams reaching a happy medium at the negotiating table. But how will that occur when one has three belts, one believes their name is more famous, and we can’t move forward with fight one until the terms and conditions of fight two are all firmly in place? The sheer ridiculousness of it all becomes apparent when attempting to explain the situation to casual fans and it’s maddening to experience the same predictable end to high-profile negotiations every single time.
Some have blamed the recent invasion of Middle Eastern riches as another factor, and they’d have a point. Though the Saudis seem to have the right idea – one champion, the best and biggest fights, take it or leave it prize funds – there can be no denying that they do not yet have the infrastructure in place to make it all happen regularly. Consequently, for as long as they tease the boxers (and us) with the biggest fights and prizes, it’s impossible for anyone else to compete from a financial standpoint. It’s not a coincidence that 2023’s heavyweight stalemate began with a ginormous offer from Skills Challenge Entertainment to stage Usyk-Fury and looks like it will end with yet another game of will-they-won’t-they as the Saudis prepare to make their next play.
What is the solution? There isn’t one in the current heavyweight landscape, where the leaders are already filthy rich and communication is reduced to insults on social media. Things must change, at best the negotiation process needs an overhaul, even if we are suddenly presented with Fury-Usyk or Joshua-Wilder. These contests should happen automatically, it really shouldn’t be this difficult to make contests that all fans are so eager to see.
If the heavyweight division is the shop window to boxing, it might already be time to restock and start again.