On these pages I have argued that one day the heavyweight division of today could rank among those of the 1970s and 1990s. That one day the likes of Tyson Fury, Oleksandr Usyk, Anthony Joshua and Deontay Wilder could take their place in the pantheon of greats. But unlike messrs Ali, Foreman, Norton, Frazier and Holmes or the likes of Tyson, Holyfield and Lewis, today’s big men seem reluctant to face each other. As the protagonists and their supporting cast suffer from an increasing number of setbacks, so too do their chances of eternal greatness fade.
With Fury, Usyk and the rest locked in a Mexican stand-off, it had looked for a time like Joe Joyce would be the cleansing fire that burned this stagnating division to the ground. ‘Juggernaut’ was likeable, tough, powerful, had a chin of granite and the Olympic credentials to back it all up. The Rio 2016 silver medalist went 15-0 with 14 knockouts, including impressive stoppages of now-WBA ‘regular’ boss Daniel Dubois and former WBO kingpin Joseph Parker.
Joyce looked set to finish clearing his path to a title shot last Saturday. Defending his WBO ‘interim’ heavyweight belt against fellow Olympic silver medalist Zhilei Zhang, the victor would put themselves front and centre for a shot at unified champion Usyk. Zhang was far from easy pickings, but coming off a loss to Filip Hrgovic and at the age of 39, he was considered there for the taking. But the Chinese southpaw was far from it. Zhang was first to the punch all night long, closing Joyce’s eye with thudding blows until the referee stopped the fight just short of the halfway point.
A loss isn’t a death knell of course, but it did expose the fact that Joyce isn’t quite what we had hoped. The 37-year-old was supposed to be the man to take down the reluctant old gods and to rule with an iron fist (and chin). Instead he tumbled from Mount Olympus like Dillian Whyte, Joshua, Dubois and Wilder before him. A good heavyweight. Not a great one.
There are realistically only two heavyweights operating in 2023 that can call themselves great. I say operating in 2023, but neither Fury nor Usyk has a fight scheduled with a quarter of the year behind us. Herein lies the problem. The WBA/WBO/IBF title-wielding Ukrainian is one of the greatest technicians to grace the banner division in recent memory. But Usyk hasn’t fought more than once in a year since 2018. Even allowing for the pandemic, it’s a shocking level of activity for an elite level fighter.
Usyk’s WBC counterpart Fury gets into the ring more often. With ‘The Gypsy King’ the issue is less quantity than quality. While nobody could begrudge Fury the easy six-round TKO of Whyte he enjoyed last April, coming hot on the heels of his third war with Wilder. But his second fight of 2022 raised eyebrows.
Fury had defeated Derek Chisora in 2011 and 2014, with various regional titles on the line. With ‘War’ having won just one fight in his last four, he was awarded a WBC title shot and a third go-round with Fury. One of the most baffling heavyweight title fights ever, ‘The Gypsy King’ inevitably stopped his rival in ten rounds to end this unlikely trilogy as a 3-0 victor.
With the champions treading water and the next big thing getting Zhang-ed, where does this leave a group that once held such potential? Joshua’s tame performance against Jermaine Franklin counts him out of steering the revival. Wilder’s inability to capitalise on the all-time great nature of his third fight Fury has harmed his standing. The fact he hasn’t managed to engage in a long-rumoured showdown with former unified champion Andy Ruiz Jr is indicative of the problems at the weight. When even the B-level fights aren’t getting made, there’s a serious issue. Zhang and Hrgovic have put themselves at the front of the queue for title shots, but their bizarre fight against each other last year doesn’t evoke much hope either man could truly challenge Fury and Usyk.
Eddie Hearn suggested a way forward this week. The Matchroom head honcho suggested talks were underway for a heavyweight supercard in the Middle East. Hearn claimed talks were underway to deliver Fury vs Usyk and Joshua vs Wilder on the same card. A nice dream, but one Fury quickly woke us all up from by calling it “bullsh*t”. Of course meetings between the four best heavyweights around make too much sense. Better to keep away from each other and fight whatever detritus is left, right lads?
This really could have been it. An era to rival those in which Muhammad Ali and Evander Holyfield once ruled. The talent is there, but that pool is growing stagnant. The chlorine offered by Joe Joyce has been spilled. Boxing is drowning and none of these big men are diving in to save it. Perhaps the lower weights will pick up the slack. There’s certainly enough talent at lightweight to emulate what Sugar Ray Leonard and the welterweights did for the heavyweight-weak 1980s. But as the standard bearers of our cautious present refuse to put ego aside and fight, the idea this era could ever have touched the glories of heavyweight’s past becomes ever more laughable.
*18+ | BeGambleAware | Odds Subject To Change