Wednesday, July 17, 2024

Why the heavyweight division needs a strong end of the year to keep up with the lower weight classes

2023 has been a big year for boxing, with some blockbuster fights featuring top-tier talent and even more big matchups already on the calendar as we head into fall. Gervonta “Tank” Davis fought Ryan Garcia, Terence Crawford dominated Errol Spence Jr. in a long-awaited pound-for-pound showdown, Naoya Inoue stepped up in weight to dethrone Stephen Fulton and Canelo Alvarez is set to face Jermell Charlo in a showdown of undisputed champions. Each of those fights required significant work to get done, but everyone involved found a way to turn 2023 into one of the best for boxing in decades.

The year has not, however, been as exciting for the heavyweight division as in the lighter weight classes. The hope is that some heavyweight fights in August will be able to set up some major clashes before the end of the year or in early 2024.

The first of the fights that could lead to bigger things at heavyweight happens on Saturday when two-time former unified champion Anthony Joshua returns to action. A potential fight between Joshua and former WBC champion Deontay Wilder has been rumored and discussed for some time. Joshua lost his three world titles to Oleksandr Usyk and then dropped the rematch as well, while Wilder lost his WBC crown to Tyson Fury, going 0-2-1 in their three-fight series.

Their respective situations leave both men in a position where they need a big win to justify another crack at a world title and there’s no bigger fight outside of Fury and Usyk for either man.

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Joshua needs to clear the hurdle immediately in front of him first, and that hurdle got a bit less daunting in recent days.

Dillian Whyte was originally slated to fight Joshua but failed a pre-fight drug test, leaving Matchroom Boxing scrambling to find a replacement opponent. Rather than bumping Filip Hrgovic or Derek Chisora up from their respective undercard bouts, Matchroom brought in Robert Helenius, who is coming off a quick TKO win the previous weekend.

Helenius was Wilder’s most recent opponent and it took Wilder less than one round to score the knockout. Given the circumstances, Joshua needs to look good against an unprepared Helenius as something of a measuring stick against what Wilder was able to do against a fully-prepared version of the same opponent.

As big as Wilder vs. Joshua would be, the fight in the heavyweight division is a potential showdown for undisputed status between WBC champion Fury and WBO, WBA and IBF champ Usyk.

Usyk and Fury have come to the negotiating table several times already but have been unable to agree contractually. Fury’s demands for the fight were frequently deemed “unrealistic” and at one point he posted on social media that Usyk needed to accept a 70/30 purse split for an April 29 bout and that the offer would decrease by 1 percent every day Usyk delayed.

Usyk responded by accepting the deal with the stipulation that Fury would make a donation to Ukraine after the fight. Less than two weeks later, the negotiations fell apart completely.

Usyk now returns to the ring on Aug. 26, defending his belts against mandatory challenger Daniel Dubois. Usyk is currently a -1400 favorite to retain his belts in that fight, which is unsurprising given Dubois barely survived the first round against lightly-regarded Kevin Lerena in his most recent outing, suffering three knockdowns in the opening frame before getting a stoppage in the third round.

Even if Usyk retains his titles as expected, it’s unlikely a fight with Fury could materialize before the end of the calendar year. Fury has booked his own fight for Oct. 28, facing former UFC heavyweight champion Francis Ngannou in Ngannou’s boxing debut.

It was an odd choice for Fury, but he is set to make a big payday in Saudi Arabia for a fight that should not present many challenges.

Unlike Wilder vs. Joshua, which feels like something of an inevitability, Fury’s behavior in negotiations — as well as the frequency with which he announced his own retirement before going back on those statements — makes it unclear whether he would ever fully go through with making what would be a legacy-defining fight.

Fury is still putting the blame on Usyk for the fight not coming together sooner but it seems his own words to Sky Sports recently could be turned back on him and his approach to the past round of negotiations.

“In this last year, I’ve tried two or three times,” Fury said. “It’s always not happened for whatever reason. I’m not optimistic. For about a week during the negotiations of this year, I was very optimistic. You can’t force someone to do something they don’t want to do. Unless both parties are willing then these fights don’t get made, as we’ve seen over the years.”

Regardless, Joshua and Usyk both have to take care of business this month to set up the kind of big fight we’ve seen made this year at lightweight, welterweight, super middleweight, super bantamweight and other divisions. Losing a winnable fight would derail big money for all heavyweights involved.

Clear the hurdle in front of them and Usyk and Joshua can both try to secure massive fights and inject some excitement into a heavyweight division that has lost considerable buzz in the past year.

Heavyweight has long been seen as boxing’s glamour division, the division that can capture the public’s imagination with ease. If those big fights can’t come together, the division will fall behind the times in one of boxing’s best stretches in the modern era.

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