By Cliff Rold
Every era could have had a fight it didn’t.
It’s true even of the most fondly recalled.
Ask most longtime boxing fans about the greatest eras at heavyweight and it won’t take long for the 1970s or 1990s to dominate the conversation. Both featured rare depth and countless memorable encounters. Decades where rivalries like Ali-Frazier or Holyfield-Tyson are only the tip of the iceberg don’t come along that often.
Yet, in both decades, there are still some matches left to wonder about. We never saw Joe Frazier face the likes Ken Norton or Ernie Shavers. In the 1990s, the absence of a professional clash between Riddick Bowe and Lennox Lewis still rankles.
The current era at heavyweight is still a story unfolding. It hasn’t gotten off to a bad start. Since Wladimir Klitschko lost his claim to the heavyweight title to Tyson Fury in 2015, we’ve seen a resurgence of fan friendly action around the top of the division.
After more than a decade without a single heavyweight fight really sniffing Fight of the Year honors, business has picked up. Klitschko and his brother Vitali kept the division profitable for years but it’s fair to say there weren’t a ton of classics to recall against them or between their contemporaries.
Since Fury-Klitschko, we’ve had the emergence of Anthony Joshua as the new mega-draw and his own near-universal fight of the year against Klitschko in 2017. Both Dillian Whyte-Derek Chisora fights were barnburners as was Whyte’s scrap with Joseph Parker and Chisora’s battle with Carlos Takam. Dominic Breazeale and Adam Kownacki have added to the violence.
Oleksandr Usyk is on his way.
And in 2018, Deontay Wilder answered lingering questions about his quality of competition by stopping Luis Ortiz and dropping Fury twice to salvage a debated draw.
In 2019, the heavyweight division has a healthy supporting cast with a clear three-man race to be the one, true king.
Those are all good things.
This week, Tyson Fury signed an exclusive contract to take his talents to ESPN when it looked like he was on the verge of a rematch with Wilder.
Is this a bad thing?
Heavyweight was fractured before this week. Joshua and Wilder, before Fury returned from personal problems to reasserted himself in the class against Wilder, was the fight everyone wanted to see. It was the fight that looked farthest away.
Joshua seems to be exclusive to DAZN while Wilder is a tent pole for the PBC, meaning Showtime and Fox right now. If we can’t have Joshua-Wilder in 2019, Wilder-Fury II was the next best thing available. After the buzz of their first fight, it seemed to make too much sense not to happen. The only thing bigger in the absence of Joshua-Wilder or Wilder-Fury II would be a certain stadium event between Joshua and Fury.
Until Joshua, Wilder, or Fury loses to someone else, any combination of those three is the most desirable fight in the division. Will we look back at this week as the moment where the new era at heavyweight hit a ceiling for how good it can be?
Does Fury to ESPN mean no superfight at heavyweight for the foreseeable future?
That’s a real concern many fans have expressed on social media this week and who can blame them? It was hard enough to cross-pollinate the casts of characters in the US market largely confined to Showtime and HBO for the last thirty years. More networks might mean more fights in 2019, but unless one of the outfits can corner a big chunk of a single division, it also means obstacles to significant fights.
Jr. bantamweight, bantamweight, and cruiserweight are healthy on DAZN because they have those kinds of chunks. Welterweight and Jr. middleweight can do healthy round robins on Showtime while middleweight has a series of quality foes lined up for Saul Alvarez on DAZN. Top Rank has a big piece of light heavyweight available for ESPN.
We won’t get all the fights we could in those divisions but the talent clusters on those networks can make some serious matches, and coin, for the next year or two.
At heavyweight, if Fury, Joshua, and Wilder can’t find ways to fight across platforms, what’s left is woefully less than what could be in the ring.
No one can say with a straight face that any of these fighters are afraid to step up. Joshua has a strong ledger for a man with just 21 fights. Fury already has been in the ring with Klitschko and Wilder. Wilder went straight from Ortiz to Fury and previously signed to fight Alexander Povetkin before the fight was scuttled on a positive test for a banned substance for Povetkin days from the contest.
The fighters fearing a loss may not be as significant as networks fearing a lost stake in boxing’s most reliably profitable division.
If the worst we get is a delay of Wilder-Fury II until the fall and the winner finally figuring out the business with Joshua next year, this will all have been a tempest in a tea kettle; a delay that won’t feel like that big a deal a year or two from now much less in the long eye of history.
However, if we get to the end of 2019 without any of the big three squaring off, it pushes the timetable back farther for all of them and this unfolding era itself. It threatens to suffocate what has been a bright spot for boxing at a moment where everyone was remembering just how much the top of the heavyweight division means when its hot.
Cliff Rod 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]