Rewind just a few short months to the beginning of the year, and 2019 looked like it was going to provide us with the answer to one of the hottest questions in boxing: who really is the top of the heavyweight tree?
Now, with all three contenders set to enter the ring against fighters no one was talking about in terms of title challenges before, it has all gone a bit flat. What is happening, and what are the chances Joshua, Fury and Wilder will ever fight?
The most disappointing development is the rematch between the lineal champion and the WBC belt holder, for a number of reasons. First of all, we had all just witnessed, were still talking about, and most of us still repeat watching, the 12th round of their first encounter. Secondly, it looked like it was the easiest title fight in boxing history to make. Everyone wanted it; it was merely a question of agreeing on a place and time. Thirdly, the two fighters and their respective camps had managed to gain the moral high ground in a sport where that can be harder than surviving the full 12 rounds. So what happened? Unfortunately for fans of the sweet science, money happened, as it invariably does at the top level of every major sport.
You cannot blame Tyson Fury. He was offered a deal that no one reading this would hesitate to turn down, so the cries of hypocrisy go both ways. It is just a massive shame. When the fight was controversially declared a draw in LA on December 1st, if those watching had been told the two men with arms aloft would go on to face Tom Schwarz and Dominic Breazeale in their next fights there would have been as much disbelief as a disappointment.
Ironically it is just this kind of politics in the sport that is driving people over to the UFC, where 9 times out of 10, fighters fight who the public want them to. From almost unknown in the UK a decade ago, the UFC can now fill arenas, as demonstrated in London’s O2 last month. British fighters dominated the card, one which produced brutal knockouts and upsets galore, and left the experts at Oddschecker scratching their heads. Ironically, of course, because the common factor in both camps is ESPN, the broadcasting giant who recently got exclusive rights to both the UFC and Tyson Fury.
With each of the three main contenders firmly in their own deals with broadcasters, there may not be a way out. It has emerged that Wilder was offered a deal with Showtime – Eddie Hearn’s promotion and crucially the people behind Anthony Joshua, but he turned it down. Heavyweight boxing in the States is in nowhere near as healthy a state as it is across the pond, and it feels like a huge opportunity missed to capitalise on the momentum from the fight in December and elevate it into the forefront of sports fans’ attention once more. It is unlikely the casual supporter who was starting to prick their ears up would pay too much attention to the Breazeale fight.
Of all three fights the most intriguing is the Joshua Miller one. Not many people are expecting it to be anything other than a mid-rounds stoppage win for the WBA, WBO and IBF holder, but there is no doubting Miller will provide some entertainment. Hopefully he can provide as much inside the ring as outside it. Big Baby can bang, and he will provide Joshua with some questions he hasn’t been asked before. We have seen Joshua adapt in fights before and barring him getting drawn into a brawl, which is something that is always a possibility with AJ, the step up in class for Miller should prove too large.
There is a light at the end of the tunnel, even if the road there is not necessarily one anyone would have chosen. If these three continue to go up against increasingly questionable opponents, dragged up from the bottom of the broadcasters’ and affiliates’ barrels, the public are likely to vote with their feet and remote controls. Then, when the golden goose looks like it will lay no more, they will be forced to make the fights that the boxing and sporting world wants to see. We can only hope it is not too late by then.