- Boxing fans are being robbed of a golden era in the heavyweight division.
- Three elite heavyweights are at the top of their game: Anthony Joshua, Deontay Wilder, and Tyson Fury have emerged as stars who can generate mass interest in a post-Floyd Mayweather era.
- The only problem is that high-profile bouts with them are proving a challenge to organise.
- The longer that life goes on without a fight involving two of them, the likelier it is to be an underwhelming bout like Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao’s in 2015 – a clash that could have been a classic if it had happened six years earlier.
- Joshua, Wilder, and Fury have a chance to add their stories to a heavyweight narrative that goes back more than a century.
- But should they fail to fight one another in their primes, the only thing that will be history is their legacies.
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
Boxing is a sport defined by its rivalries, its trilogies, and its eras.
Jack Johnson shook up the fight game at the start of the 20th century when, as boxing’s long-reigning “coloured champion,” he became the first black man to cross over and win the heavyweight title, a belt that had previously been contested by only white fighters.
His wildly anticipated 1908 bout against Tommy Burns in Australia was eventually stopped by the police over fears that a humiliating beating would incite a riot at ringside.
With Johnson as champion, the media started looking for a “great white hope” to succeed him. The novelist Jack London even led a campaign to get the former champion James Jeffries out of retirement and into the ring, so he could “wipe that smile from Johnson’s face.”
It didn’t work. Johnson knocked Jeffries out in 1910 in a bout dubbed “the fight of the century.”
Johnson, a true fighting man, defined his era. He was the Muhammad Ali of his day, and arguably the sport’s first superstar.
Since Johnson, many chapters have been added to boxing’s biggest nights.
From the “first million-dollar gate,” a 1921 brawl that saw Jack Dempsey violently finish Georges Carpentier in the fourth round and generated more than $US1.7 million in ticket sales, to the 1938 “undercard of World War II,” where the American Joe Louis blitzed the Nazi pawn Max Schmeling in a single round, boxing was steeped in history before it ever got to 1975’s “Thrilla in Manila,” when Ali concluded his three-fight rivalry with Joe Frazier.
Ali fought in a golden era of heavyweight boxing, when many giants of the sport all competed at the same time. They fought brutal fights, exchanging stunning wins and shocking losses, and when it was time for its elite combatants – Ali, Frazier, Ken Norton, and George Foreman – to hang up their gloves, they had inspired enough headlines to maintain interest for generations to come.
It was not until Mike Tyson fought his way to the top many years later that the media spotlight returned to boxing’s glamour division.
And this helped usher in a new golden era through the 1990s and beyond, with Evander Holyfield and Riddick Bowe’s trilogy, Tyson and Holyfield’s “Bite Fight” rivalry, and Lennox Lewis’ mastery of them all.
But in the past 20 years, interest in the heavyweight division waned as Wladimir Klitschko’s supreme reign failed to capture the imagination of the American market. Instead, fighters like the multiweight champion Manny Pacquiao and the undefeated Floyd Mayweather rose to the fore.
In the post-Mayweather era, boxing has been desperate for a new rivalry that will stand the test of time – and there is one in the making as a new golden era of heavyweight boxing is upon us.
The only problem is that the very best in the division – the unified champion Anthony Joshua and the concussive punching Deontay Wilder – are unable, or simply unwilling, to actually fight one another.
Boxing is beautiful and admirable, but also ugly and annoying
The welterweight boxing champion Keith Thurman recently told Business Insider that the sport is “beautiful” and “admirable” because it gets athletes of varying sizes, genders, and abilities to test themselves against one another, unarmed, in a 20-foot ring, using nothing but their speed, power, defensive capabilities, cunning, and will.
But there is an ugliness to boxing. There are mechanisms in place allowing elite fighters to just avoid each other without any real pushback. It is happening right before our eyes, today, and it is robbing fight fans of what could be an immortal rivalry.
Joshua defends his heavyweight world boxing titles against Andy Ruiz Jr. at Madison Square Garden in New York City on Saturday.
Ruiz, a reasonable but dull contender, wasn’t even a first-choice opponent. He was a late replacement after Jarrell Miller was forced to withdraw from showdown because of a series of failed drug tests.
But even Miller, who at a pre-event press conference shoved Joshua so hard that he almost fell over, wasn’t Joshua’s first choice. He was fourth, at best, after failed attempts at coaxing Wilder or the “Gypsy King,” Tyson Fury, into a fight in America, or Dillian Whyte, a fellow Londoner, into a rematch at Wembley Stadium.
Why fighters don’t fight
Boxing is not a league. And rarely is it a tournament. It is its own entity that operates strangely under the banners of rival organisations like the World Boxing Association, the World Boxing Council, the World Boxing Organisation, and the International Boxing Federation.
There is nothing to force the heavyweight champion of the WBC, Wilder, to fight the champion of the other organisations, Joshua. There is no boxing president, like the UFC boss Dana White, to point at one athlete and say, “You. Go fight him for this paycheck on this date. Sign here.”
Rival promoters and broadcasters can further complicate the boxing landscape. Wilder is promoted by Shelly Finkel and fights on Showtime. Joshua is promoted by Eddie Hearn and fights on DAZN. So far, discussions between them have flopped, and Hearn apparently infuriated Finkel when he started trolling him on YouTube by calling him nicknames like “Shirley Winkel.”
Joshua wanted to attempt to negotiate the fight himself, appearing on ESPN this week to challenge Wilder to meet him and discuss the fight and a deal themselves, away from promoters. Within a day, Wilder tweeted that he had another fight lined up against Luis Ortiz, a guy he has already beaten resoundingly.
Wilder v Ortiz II ????????????????????
To all my fans,
I want to announce that Luis Ortiz and I have signed for a rematch, with the date and site to be announced shortly.
All my controversial fights
Must get dealt with ASAP‼️#BombZquad pic.twitter.com/RZs7vLEhaj
— Deontay Wilder (@BronzeBomber) May 28, 2019
Wilder and Joshua, fighters who have seemingly been on a collision course for years now, are not the only top-tier heavyweights to avoid each other. Wilder and Fury were supposed to contest a rematch following their disputed draw at the Staples Center in Los Angeles last year.
Fury boxed masterfully through long periods in the fight but got dropped by Wilder’s thunderous power in the ninth round, then again in the 12th when it appeared Fury was down for the count. Fury woke, miraculously got to his feet, and survived until the final bell.
The clash of styles – Fury’s awkward boxing and moving, and Wilder’s one-punch power – combined with the unsatisfying result made fans clamor for another fight, one that could break December’s deadlock.
But Fury signed a $US100 million broadcast deal with ESPN, is now co-promoted by the veteran dealmaker Bob Arum, and has moved from the Wilder high to the comparative low of Tom Schwarz, a low-level opponent he will be expected to handily defeat in Las Vegas on June 15.
Whether Arum and ESPN will thrust Fury back into a big fight that will challenge him later in the year or build his name on the network by matchmaking him with relative pushovers remains to be seen.
Wilder, Joshua, and Fury talk a good fight but seem all too happy to take on lesser challenges, pushing high-profile ones further and further into the future.
But time is of the essence.
Fury said that after he dethroned Klitschko in a 2015 upset in Germany, he drank 18 pints of beer a night, abused cocaine, and drove a Ferrari at 190 mph because he wanted to crush it “like a Coke can” while he was inside. At one point he weighed about 400 pounds, so when he wanted to return to prizefighting three years later he had to lose 150 pounds – more than a third of his weight – just to get fighting fit.
Fury did remarkably well to return from the depths of his depression, easily beating Sefer Seferi and Francesco Pianeta before taking on Wilder. It is to his credit that he is competing once again, considering where he came from.
But boxers who enjoy career longevity tend to be athletes who stay in shape, maintaining a weight around the division they compete in, throughout their stint in the sport; Mayweather is a famous example. Athletes who gain weight and return to training camps out of shape tend to retire early – like Ricky Hatton, a former two-weight world champion.
It is therefore unclear how long Fury, already 30, will stay in his prime.
Wilder, meanwhile, will turn 34 this year, and he may have to adapt his fighting style or risk suffering marginal losses to fundamental skills. Boxing News reported that speed, for one, slows as fighters age through their 30s and that the way to combat this is to throw fewer but more accurate punches.
It is unclear whether Wilder can do this, or how long he can retain his bludgeoning power before it ebbs away into the ether.
The longer Joshua waits to tackle Wilder and Fury, the likelier it is that the quality of such a fight will suffer.
We only need to look at Mayweather vs. Pacquiao in 2015 to see an example of a high-profile fight gone wrong.
The two welterweights had been linked for seven years, and a fight ideally would have been made after Pacquiao battered, bruised, and beat Miguel Cotto by stoppage in 2009. This was when Pacquiao was at the peak of his powers and Mayweather had just returned to the sport after retiring for the first time, beating Juan Manuel Marquez with ease just two months before Pacquiao wilted Cotto.
But the bout wouldn’t be for another six years, long after Pacquiao was savagely knocked out by Marquez. When Pacquiao and Mayweather were finally in the ring together, Mayweather cruised to an easy win over an opponent who was a fading force in the game.
Joshua vs. Wilder or Fury could go the way of Mayweather vs. Pacquiao or, even worse, of Juan Manuel Lopez vs. Yuriorkis Gamboa, a mooted matchup between two technically exquisite featherweights about 10 years ago. It was a bout left to build and build and build until eventually it was never made, robbing fans of an elite punch-up.
Joshua, Wilder, and Fury have the ability and the public interest to live through another golden era of heavyweight boxing – to each contest historic trilogies, adding their names to a fascinating heavyweight narrative that dates back more than a century.
But should they continue to avoid one another, the only thing that will be history is their legacies.
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