AS 2018 wound to its conclusion, there was reason to be excited. The heavyweight division was booming, there were thrilling fights to be made. These would have been major events, accelerating boxing into high prominence in the sporting world. Anthony Joshua had unified three of the four major world titles, while Tyson Fury and Deontay Wilder had fought to a draw in the biggest event of the past year. It all should have been so simple. Joshua had a ready-made British rival in Dillian Whyte and an April date at Wembley stadium (now cancelled). Fury and Wilder had managed to box one another on a Showtime Sports pay-per-view. Logically a rematch should have been relatively straightforward to arrange. Two massive events, each feeding the hype around the other, would have seen the creation of two superstars and huge public demand for them ultimately to decide an undisputed heavyweight champion.
A few years ago we would have been crying out for this kind of drama in the heavyweight division. When Wladimir Klitschko was the dominant champion, none of his challengers made for particularly compelling viewing. Now Joshua, Fury and Wilder have their rival claims. Joshua is of course the unified champion and probably should be regarded as the division’s number one. But Wilder is the longest reigning world titlist and holds the prestigious WBC belt and Fury regards himself as the ‘lineal’ champion, after beating Klitschko before Joshua and like the others remaining unbeaten. They had to fight. They have to fight.
We can but dream. Stage by stage that dream is slowly evaporating. Anthony Joshua made the first move. He’d leave the UK to box in America for the first time as a professional, taking on hitherto little-known Jarrell Miller at Madison Square Garden with streaming service DAZN to broadcast in the US. It will be a career high payday for Joshua, which understandably is hard to resist, especially against an opponent who talks a good game but has nothing on his boxing resume that suggests he’ll be much of threat.
But if that seemed to leave the door open for Wilder to fight Fury, the sport had another thought coming. In a surprise move Fury signed a lucrative deal with American broadcast giant ESPN, a further obstacle to making fights with him and either of his two major rivals.
It’s an understandable move, Fury is well known in the USA as well as the UK now and will want to be well paid. ESPN is a major platform for him across the United States. Furthermore, Fury’s draw with Wilder was an unfair result to most observers. Linking up with ESPN and US promoters Top Rank means he’d box on his own shows in America and lose the disadvantages of being the ‘away’ fighter.
But the WBC revealed that Fury’s team had requested an interim contest, that will take place on ESPN perhaps even against Joseph Parker. So a Wilder rematch will not be happening next and it’s hard to be optimistic about it taking place in the near future, unless the American moves over to the same broadcaster.
It’s indicative of the state of the boxing business today. There are vast fortunes being paid but once a major broadcaster has secured the services of a heavyweight ‘champion,’ that company will be unwilling to let the star slip away to another network. So far it seems that DAZN, ESPN and Showtime have deep enough pockets to sign up one of the big three, but none of them yet has been able to bring two into the same stable.
I’m intensely relaxed about boxers making a lot of money, they’re the men in the ring doing the fighting afterall, as long as there is some hope for the champions to fight one another or meet their best challengers. Boxing is a business, we are constantly told. It makes sense, of course, to maximise earnings. But it’s worth remembering that boxing is also a sport. Viewers and fans do tune into these channels to watch good fights. However for the time being at least the three heavyweight kings have each other in check.
Floyd Mayweather vs Manny Pacquiao set one an example, of how to generate a monumental payday to be sure but leaving the fight too late, getting too old for it to be a compelling spectacle when it finally happened. That has had an effect on the legacies of both men. They’re great fighters, but not as great as they could have been. There are other examples though. We did have to wait for a couple of years for Canelo Alvarez to fight Gennady Golovkin, but not too long and the fight did deliver entertainment in the end. That didn’t exactly hurt Canelo’s career. He was the recipient of the largest contract in sport last year. Perhaps there is something for the heavyweight division to learn there too.