FOR a glorious moment it seemed like sporting logic would prevail and the biggest fight in boxing would actually happen. But the peculiar logic unique to this business prevailed. Negotiations for Anthony Joshua vs Deontay Wilder, to unify all four major titles and decide an undisputed heavyweight champion of the world, have failed. Boxing remains boxing and, as is so often the case, it’s own worst enemy. After months of discussions to make the fight the world wants to see, we are, perhaps, a step or two further along the path. But it’s been a long and winding road to get there.
Eddie Hearn, of Matchroom Boxing, Joshua’s promoter, and Shelly Finkel, Wilder’s manager, met to discuss the super-fight as far back as November of last year, when Joshua was ‘only’ the IBF and WBA heavyweight world champion. Joshua had another unification clash at the end of March, when he beat Joseph Parker to add the New Zealander’s WBO crown to his title haul. The first signs of frostiness between the two camps became manifest when Wilder declined to attend the fight week as a pundit.
After defeating Parker, asked for a message for Deontay Wilder, Joshua declared, “Let’s go!”
He continued, “On this side of the Pond, we’re serious. UK, Great Britain boxing, is on the map.”
His team took their instructions and negotiations with Wilder began in earnest. It was a complex situation though. In Alexander Povetkin the WBA had a mandatory challenger for their heavyweight title, which Anthony Joshua held. Two weeks after the Parker fight the WBA told Hearn he had 28 days to negotiate the Povetkin fight before they called purse bids for it.
These talks ran in parallel, and a deal for a unification with Wilder would have taken priority over a defence against Povetkin. So in April Hearn offered Wilder $12.5 million for the Joshua fight.
But Wilder came back with a surprise. He emailed Joshua and his trainer Rob McCracken with an offer of $50 million. Hearn greeted this with a note of scepticism but was curious to find out more. However a face-to-face meeting in New York with Wilder’s representatives, Finkel and influential advisor Al Haymon, was booked, then cancelled and ultimately did not happen. It had been a surreal build up to a non-existent meeting, as for weeks Hearn had been peppering his public remarks with references to Finkel as “Shirley Winkle”.
“When they made the $50 million offer,” Hearn told Boxing News, “AJ said that’s interesting, get the contract. I went back and said please can you send the contract. They said no you’ve got to accept the deal first. Sometimes you can get a deal point with five or six points and say I accept those, please send the contract. This didn’t even really have them. I didn’t want to accept anything publicly. I think they wanted us to accept the fight.”
Name calling notwithstanding, the lines of communication did remain open, even with more questions to be asked. Matchroom were however running out of leeway with the WBA when it came to that body’s expectations for their mandatory challenger. Hearn explained, “We said, ‘Can we have a week’s extension?’ We were negotiating with Povetkin at the time because we had to get a deal in place. They [the WBA] said we’ll give you a week extension. Then we got to the following week and they said, ‘Any news and I said, ‘Can we have another week extension?’ and they said, ‘Okay but we don’t want too many of these.’ World of Boxing [Povetkin’s promoter] said go on then, then the next week [Matchroom requested], ‘Can we have another extension?’ I think we asked for five or six extensions before purse bids were called.”
Particularly pertinent to the Wilder negotiations, Joshua’s team would conclude that he ought to fight in the UK next. On May 25 Rob McCracken, Joshua’s trainer told Boxing News, “Without a doubt for me the Wilder fight will take place, it’s just whether it’s this year or next year, that’s to be determined. I’d like Anthony to fight in the UK in his next contest. I believe that’s what’s in his interests and best for him.”
The talks however still forged ahead. Matchroom’s Barry Hearn, Eddie’s father, met with Shelly Finkel in New York on June 1. The conversations were positive and progressed so far that Eddie Hearn made a new offer (of $15 million to Wilder, it would emerge). Key points seemed to have been settled. “They accepted the deal. So we controlled the worldwide rights, it was all agreed, no problem,” Hearn insisted. He sent over a contract on Monday June 18.
The following Sunday Finkel replied to him, saying that he would respond with comments. This response was not immediately forthcoming, although in a June 25 interview with ESPN Finkel said that he only had “a couple of notes” for the contracts. He was going to get back to Hearn on the Friday, at the end of the week.
Hearn complained, “So you already know the comments, you’ve reviewed the contract and you know the comments and you don’t want to send them for another six days. Shelly also knew that the WBA were about to pull the axe down so whether they were just trying to run time on this because they knew this was coming from the WBA, I don’t know. What I do know is, if you want a fight and you get a contract on the Monday, you give it straight to your lawyer and you get the comments back within 48 hours, simple as that. This would have been 12 days with no comments back.”
The WBA then intervened, giving them no more added time. On June 26 they declared that Joshua must agree to box their mandatory challenger, Alexander Povetkin, next. “In the last two weeks, every day, the WBA have been contacting me, because obviously World of Boxing [Povetkin’s promoter] have been saying we need a decision, we need a decision,” Hearn said.
That’s that. Decision made. All that’s left of the potential super-fight are the recriminations. “What seems to come out now is our offer that they accepted was a bulls*** offer and a joke. So I guess he didn’t want the fight, Finkel. Wilder, I believe Wilder wants the fight. This is either a big plan to gain exposure for Deontay Wilder, which by the way has worked unbelievably well for him or just mismanagement. But they’ve got three managers as well. So every time it goes to Shelly, it’s got to go to Al and it’s got to go to Jay Deas. But it can’t take two weeks, just to have the comments,” Hearn said.
“Genuinely I think he’s been mismanaged. If the shoe was on the other foot and AJ said get that fight, I’m in, I would be straight back probably on the same day with my comments to the contract. But if you knew what the comments were on Sunday, when you sent me the email, why do you want to wait six days to send me the comments, if there are only two? Which is what he’s saying. Is it because you knew the WBA were about to pull the axe down?”
Perhaps all is not entirely lost. Whatever happens Joshua is going to fight Alexander Povetkin at an open air stadium in the UK in the latter half of September. But Wilder still has the contract and now has a date and a venue for the Joshua fight, April 13 2019 at Wembley stadium in London.
“There are only two comments, which they said they’re going to agree to anyway. One they’re saying was the date, they knew it was October [if they’d agreed to fight this year] and then there’s only one choice [for the venue]: Cardiff. But they knew that anyway. But apparently the other one was talking about the rematch, which was agreed by them in the terms which they were going to accept. So if they’re telling the truth, the deal’s done. They now know the date, if that’s really what they think they didn’t have. April 13 at Wembley. They’re accepting that term they already agreed to. So why not sign it now? Now we want to put pressure on and say you missed the boat for September. Come on, let’s get it signed. I want people to put pressure in them and say get the comments back,” Hearn declared. “Now we’re saying sign it or send the comments. You’ve got the fight, it’s there. So you can’t say: ‘he’s ducking me, he won’t fight me, he’ll never want to fight me.’ It’s there. If you think we’re bluffing, call our bluff. Sign it. And we’ll sign it before the ink’s dry.”
Hope springs eternal. This is boxing and money talks, one way or the other.