By Cliff Rold
The bricks are being laid in the foundation of what plenty in boxing’s power circles hope will be a mega-event.
The idea of, eventually, getting to a showdown between an undefeated Anthony Joshua and an undefeated Deontay Wilder just smells like money. How much money, whether it could get from what would already be a pretty big fight to the area of legitimate superfight, probably relies on two things:
1) Continuing to rack up knockouts.
2) Building credibility beyond their stats.
Big fights aren’t just about numbers. That’s often the birthplace for the imagination but it’s only the beginning. As two forces move towards each other, the substance they give their numbers builds the public appetite. They don’t always have to stay undefeated. That helps, but what matters is getting to a place where two fighters stand out as the top of the field in the public eye.
Right now, Joshua and Wilder both have plenty of knockouts. What they lack is the credibility that name, proven foes can provide. Neither has abundance in that regard. To be fair, none of the fresh (if not always young) lights in the heavyweight division do.
Luis Ortiz has Bryant Jennings…and not much else. Joseph Parker has Carlos Takam…and Andy Ruiz? Joshua has tough Dilian Whyte and titlist Charles Martin. Wilder has Bermane Stiverne.
That is to say, we’ve got some interesting talent emerged since Tyson Fury lifted the heavyweight title from Wladimir Klitschko before being unable to hold it together long enough to defend it.
We don’t have anything particularly proven in the class. Joshua-Wilder is just one possible destination for the future of the division. From the perspective of Showtime, which does business with both Joshua and Wilder, it’s certainly the desirable destination right now. Already, Stephen Espinoza is speculating openly about the idea in the press, as he should be.
Big fights don’t grow if no one is talking about them, planting the seed of their possibility in more ears along the way.
Joshua, more than any of the new heavyweights, has a chance to stamp himself with credibility sooner than later. He’s got Wladimir Klitschko next with some 90,000 tickets already sold. Klitschko at 40 won’t be his prime self anymore and he enters off a long layoff. He’s still eons more proven, and flat out better, than anyone Joshua has seen as a pro.
He’s better than anyone Parker, Wilder, or Ortiz has faced too. Should he win, Joshua will be lauded as having picked up the mantle of heir apparent. At that point, everyone else becomes a threat to his position.
The world will be in front of him. When Fury returns, and one assumes he will, Joshua has another monster stadium fight and more room to enhance his bona fides. He and Ortiz now share a promoter; that might not ever be a monster promotion like Klitschko or Fury, but it would satisfy serious boxing fans and intrigue casual fans by bell time.
If he can stay undefeated, will Wilder have similar opportunities?
That is the Wilder conundrum. We will continue to see it play out Saturday night (Fox, 8 PM EST/5 PM PST).
At 37-0 with 36 KOs, Wilder has combined a big television style with similarly large personality. What he hasn’t done, in a career carefully cultivated since a 2008 bronze medal, is pick up the validating win that fully legitimizes him. Stiverne was a good start but since, in what would be five defenses with a win this weekend, we haven’t seen Wilder face a second consensus top-ten heavyweight opponent. Stiverne remains the only opponent who can make that claim. This weekend’s challenger, Gerald Washington (18-0-1, 12 KO) has some size and athleticism in his favor, but he’s still green as a pro. It’s hard to say what kind of test he’ll be but those who are skeptical aren’t unreasonable.
That isn’t to say they’ve all been patsies. Wilder’s faced some tough guys like Artur Szpilka and a faded Chris Arreola, but they are more the type of foe a fighter used to fight on the way to winning a belt. Wilder, who holds the WBC belt, got to the belt and is now picking up those critical development rounds.
Part of the conundrum is that Wilder can’t control what goes on outside the ring. He had a chance at some validation last year in the form of Alexander Povetkin. He signed to face the former Olympic champion and WBA titlist in Russia only for Povetkin to test positive for a banned substance. The opponent originally slated where Washington is also tested positive. Even if that wasn’t an opponent (Andrzej Warzyk) anyone cared about, it points to the struggle of the last year.
Add to that Team Wilder’s stated refusal to consider Ortiz, who also once tested positive for a performance enhancing substance, and the conundrum gets worse. The heavyweight division might have some exciting possibilities, but it still doesn’t have much depth. If Joshua beats Klitschko, the money he represents makes the line to fight him longer than the line to Wilder.
That might make the Wilder conundrum one he’s stuck with for longer than he’d like. He’s the American heavyweight star in a heavyweight era that doesn’t really need America like it used to. If Wilder keeps winning, he’s going to get to the big payday. Finding the foes that finish his validation will determine whether he gets there as a genuine co-star in the event.
Cliff Rold is the Managing Editor of BoxingScene, a founding member of the Transnational Boxing Rankings Board, and a member of the Boxing Writers Association of America. He can be reached at [email protected]