How did we get to a point where the three best heavyweights in the world—and, arguably, the three best big men since Evander Holyfield, Lennox Lewis, and Riddick Bowe ruled the division– are trapped behind seemingly unscalable network walls, fighting soft touch/second-tier opposition rather than one another?
WBC champ Deontay Wilder recently squashed Dominic Breazeale. Anthony Joshua is set to meet Andy Ruiz Jr. on June 1 in New York’s Madison Square Garden. Tyson Fury will then be facing unknown Tom Schwarz on June 15 at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas.
Just about a year ago, boxing fans were celebrating a rebuilt, rejuvenated heavyweight division that was on the road to finally having a fan-friendly, mainstream-friendly unified world champion.
In March of last year, then WBA/IBF champ Anthony Joshua captured his third world title belt, easily decisioning WBO titlist Joseph Parker. The 6-foot-6 British star was on the road to fulfilling the early-career hype that painted him as the sport’s next big thing and as a billion-dollar asset with massive crossover potential.
Also in March, WBC champ Deontay Wilder passed the first real test of his championship career. In battling back from adversity against tough and crafty Cuban, Luis Ortiz, Wilder proved that he was more than just a big punch with a big mouth. The 6-foot-7 “Bronze Bomber” from Tuscaloosa, Alabama proved himself to be an unflappable, tenacious battler with supreme self-belief.
And while Joshua and Wilder were proving themselves on the world stage, former three-belt champ Tyson Fury was climbing out of a black hole brought on by mental illness and substance abuse issues that forced him to vacate his belts. The “Gypsy King” was set to re-start a career that had completely stalled after he defeated long-reigning champ Wladimir Klitschko back in November of 2015.
Then, Joshua and Wilder started talks for a unification bout. Fury, still considered true lineal champ by many, since he was never actually defeated for his belts, would fight a couple of tune-ups and then, presumably, meet the winner of Joshua-Wilder.
But Joshua-Wilder negotiations stalled, thrown off by ego posturing and personality conflicts between Joshua’s promoter Eddie Hearn and Wilder co-manager Shelly Finkel, who Hearn referred to derogatorily as “Shelly Winkle.”
Fury would throw himself at the opportunity to face Wilder in Los Angeles, fighting to a controversial draw with the WBC champ in a bout that produced some fan-friendly fireworks and, best of all, the promise of more to come.
Then, everything fell apart.
Fury signed a multi-fight deal with Top Rank/ESPN reportedly worth in the neighbourhood of $100 million.
The Fury signing killed an all-but-signed rematch with Wilder and created a scenario where two of the three biggest names in the division, Fury and Joshua, were locked into exclusive deals binding them to networks through their promotional ties—Fury with Top Rank/ESPN and Joshua with Matchroom/DAZN.
Wilder, meanwhile, technically remained a free agent with no official promoter and a non-binding deal with Showtime through boxing company Premier Boxing Champions. His free agent status made him a sought-after property for the two networks that now had a ton of money invested in finding a bankable foe for their heavyweight stars.
Both ESPN and DAZN made the WBC champ lucrative multi-fight offers, but Wilder refused to sign anything making him “exclusive content” and, instead, opted to stay put at Showtime where he could field bigger offers that allowed for more career autonomy.
And now, here we are. The three best in the heavyweight division, scurrying after “best available opposition” rather than fighting one another in what would be a classic round robin-style tournament.
In less than a year, boxing managed to shoot itself in the foot, once again victim to its poor business practices and ego-driven bossmen.
Boxing agent Tim Rickson, whose clients include former British and Commonwealth middleweight champion Tommy Langford, says that that there are various factors at play when it comes to boxing’s seeming inability to put together some of its biggest fights.
“It’s business, but a lot of ego comes into it as well,” says Rickson, who is also the editor of British Boxing News. “That power play comes into it where they’re trying to be the biggest promoter with the biggest backing and the biggest fanbase.
“Often the fighter is willing but then sometimes the conflicting promoters’ interests – and now the bigger problem, which is the TV broadcast deals – can result in the fight not being made.”
“It’s so fragmented that it’s just going to be extremely difficult to bring any of those three together,” Rickson says, referring to the Joshua-Wilder-Fury mess.
“If you’re ESPN and you’ve put $100 million into a fighter, you’re not going to let him have a rematch with Deontay Wilder on Showtime.
“Will ESPN say they will step down to let Showtime put it on, or vice versa? No.
“They both want the fight, they have both paid for the fight, they both deserve the fight. They aren’t going to give up their rights to profit from it.”
Discounting business conflicts and ego, boxing’s inherently unpredictable nature also throws monkey wrenches into big fight hopes and plans. For instance, Joshua’s US debut on June 1 was supposed to be against highly-ranked Jarrell Miller—until Miller tested positive for banned substances and the lesser-known Ruiz was plugged in as a replacement.
The influence of the sanctioning bodies stymies big fight possibilities as well, sometimes forcing champions to meet mandatory challengers, who usually present weaker challenges than the much more appealing title unifications against other title holders. Breazeale, for example, was a mandatory challenger from the WBC to titlist Wilder.
Given all the obstacles to putting together some deals these days, it’s a minor miracle that the sport manages to put together as many high-end fights as it does.
Unfortunately, as networks and streaming services spring up and sign more fighters to exclusive deals, the sport will be divvied up further and further. Big, cross-platform fights will become even harder to make.
Maybe, down the road, the sport’s powerbrokers could hammer out a healthier business model with a more all-inclusive, unified broadcast plan. For now, however, fans will just have to take what they can get and cross their fingers for good fortune and good will to bring them the big fights currently out of reach.