Boxing
Dan Rafael, ESPN Senior Writer 42d

The best heavyweights are fighting ... just not each other, for now

Boxing

So you're a boxing fan and you like heavyweights, you say? Well, you happen to be in an era that just might go down as a golden one -- if the best fight each other.

There are three undefeated big men at the top, each with a claim to the throne. They are in their primes. Each has a fan following. Each owns a distinct personality. Each has been in dramatic fights. They could make for years of big events if they fight each other in a round-robin. Think Muhammad Ali-Joe Frazier-George Foreman, though not as famous.

There is Anthony Joshua (22-0, 21 KOs), 29, the British mega star with movie star looks. He owns three of the major world title belts, has made six defenses, won the 2017 fight of the year (a TKO victory over Wladimir Klitschko), fills stadiums in the United Kingdom and generates massive pay-per-view totals there.

There is American Deontay Wilder (40-0-1, 39 KOs), 33, the vaunted knockout artist. He has made eight title defenses, was in two bouts that were candidates for fight of the year in 2018 and owns perhaps the most destructive right hand in boxing history.

And there is England's Tyson Fury (27-0-1, 19 KOs), 30, the wildly outspoken lineal champion. He's the man who beat the man -- Klitschko, before Joshua did -- to take that designation. He has become a hero to millions for overcoming drug and alcohol addiction and the mental health issues that kept him out of the ring for two-and-a-half years and cost him the three belts he won from Klitschko in 2015.

"You almost have, like, a three-headed monster," said Showtime analyst Paulie Malignaggi, a former two-division titleholder.

You, the boxing fan, want to see these big men rumble in big fights. That means Joshua-Wilder for the undisputed championship, the biggest fight boxing has to offer.

How about a Wilder-Fury rematch, following their epic fight in December that ended in a draw after Fury outboxed Wilder for long stretches but miraculously survived two knockdowns, including a massive one in the final round.

That also means Joshua vs. Fury, a British summit meeting for the ages that surely would fill Wembley Stadium and divide a nation. It would make the all-British Lennox Lewis-Frank Bruno heavyweight title fight from 25 years ago look small by comparison.

It's heavyweight heaven, right? Then you realize that though all three have upcoming bouts, none is a head-to-head match.

  • Wilder will meet mandatory challenger Dominic Breazeale on Saturday (Showtime, 9 p.m. ET) at Barclays Center in Brooklyn, New York. Breazeale got destroyed by Joshua in seven one-sided rounds in 2016.

  • Joshua will face Andy Ruiz Jr., a late replacement for the performance-enhancing drug-filled Jarrell "Big Baby" Miller, on June 1 (DAZN) at New York's Madison Square Garden. Ruiz's only loss came by close decision for a vacant title to Joseph Parker, who then lost it by a one-sided decision to Joshua 14 months ago.

  • On June 15 at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas (ESPN+), Fury will face Tom Schwarz, who, by the way, you have never heard of because he has zero name recognition or accomplishments.

What the heck is going on here?

"I think everyone is being patient with this little thing that we have going on in the heavyweight division," Wilder said. "Just look at it and consider this: The excitement is back in the heavyweight division. The fire is lit. I'm more excited than I've ever been in my career because of everything that's going on with it. So I ask people just to be patient."

But just how patient are fans, who suffered through a five-year wait for Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao to fight in 2015 and who are regularly deprived of major fights, supposed to be?

"You're going to get the main fight that you guys want to see [against Joshua]," Wilder said. "The great thing about it is that we're all still in discussion. I can understand if it was a closed door and we're not having no discussion with nobody. Then it would be something that really would be a laid-out or drawn-out thing. But everyone is still in discussion and talking, and it's just going to take a little time. I just tell people, the fans of boxing, everyone just to have patience. The big fights are going to happen."

But when? It has been about a year since there were initial discussions for Joshua-Wilder. They argued over the money split, the site and various other issues. At times it seemed each side shouldered blame. Ultimately, Joshua, who was under contract to Showtime, saw his deal expire and faced mandatory challenger Alexander Povetkin in September in the first event on upstart streaming service DAZN.

That left Wilder, long aligned with Showtime, to make the next best fight possible against Fury on Showtime PPV. When they fought to a draw in an excellent fight, it generated about 325,000 buys, and they both demanded an immediate rematch and made a deal in principle.

Then, seemingly days away from signing contracts, Fury veered off course. He and promoter Frank Warren stunningly signed a co-promotional deal with Top Rank, which is aligned with ESPN. There was faint hope that the rematch would still be made when Top Rank chairman Bob Arum offered Wilder, a broadcast free agent, a lucrative deal to fight a regular opponent for $12.5 million followed by a fall rematch with Fury for $20 million (plus a share of pay-per-view profits). Wilder was guaranteed $10 million for the December fight with Fury.

Wilder declined the offer, as well as a three-fight, $100 million deal with DAZN that would have included a $20 million payday to fight Breazeale, $40 million to fight Joshua in the fall for the undisputed title, with the third fight being an immediate rematch with Joshua for another $40 million -- even if Wilder, in the worst-case scenario, got knocked out by Joshua in the first round. Wilder also could have taken DAZN's other offer, a four-fight package worth $120 million, but it also turned that down.

Instead, Wilder remained with Showtime, though the fighter, his camp and the network declined to characterize the kind of deal he made other than to say he will be making big money Saturday.

"I'm not in every dollar and every penny of Deontay's business, but knowing what I know, he's not turning down big money to take little money," said Stephen Espinoza, president of Showtime Sports, who has been involved in negotiating many major fights, including the Mayweather-Pacquiao blockbuster and several Wilder and Joshua fights.

"Deontay, I know for a fact, wants the Joshua fight. And he wants to make the fans happy. But the terms he was presented would require him to sign with a promoter and network for a number of fights far beyond just the Joshua fight, so it's not really fair to say it's Deontay's fault.

"If you were doing everything to make a fight, then make the fight. Don't make the fight with a bunch of strings related to unrelated fights. We didn't say to Pacquiao or [Conor] McGregor, you have to sign for two more fights with Showtime after you fight Mayweather. That would have torpedoed the entire discussion."

Joshua insists that he wants to fight Wilder and said Fury's signing with ESPN could help get it done because though Fury is exclusive to ESPN, he and Wilder are not contractually tied to a broadcaster.

"I think it made my fight with Wilder easier [to make]," Joshua said. "I don't know why Tyson Fury made that deal, but he did what's best for him. I feel like it just shows Wilder that now he's not the relevant party. He's not the one bringing the money to the table. DAZN and ESPN are. Showtime aren't bringing anything to the table, so Wilder's not in control, and he needs to kind of humble himself and get on board before it's too late and me and Tyson Fury end up fighting."

But that won't be for a while. At least with Fury, he took himself out of a major fight for the time being. Arum and Warren have said that the idea is to give Fury two or three fights in the U.S. to build his name and drawing power here before looking to make the rematch with Wilder or perhaps with Joshua in 2020.

"ESPN have put a lot of resources behind him financially and their network behind him to build his profile in the States," Warren told Britain's weekly Boxing News. "His profile, if he does what he's supposed to do, he'll have a bigger profile than all of them. That will increase his value, and [ESPN is] looking to build their pay-per-view platform, which they will do. It's to the benefit of him and all the other boxers regarding pay-per-view fights."

Matchroom Boxing promoter Eddie Hearn, who promotes Joshua, said he appreciated the transparency from Team Fury.

"They're saying maybe 2020 it might happen, but at least we know where we stand so we don't waste our time," he said. "Ideally, Wilder wins spectacularly and Joshua also, and I'm hoping after June 1, the fans and the entire world say, 'The fight must be now. No more excuses, no more interim fights, no more mandatories. We don't accept anything else.'"

Espinoza is also a lifelong boxing fan, so he understands the business as well as the desire of fans to see the biggest fights.

"I understand the frustration and impatience," Espinoza said. "As a fan, I want to see the big fights as soon as possible, just like everyone else. But having said that, if the Wilder-Joshua fight had been made when we first discussed it, which was almost exactly a year ago, in retrospect it would have been premature. It was a little bit early."

Espinoza said he thought Joshua should have at least fought in the U.S. and gained more exposure than he had with his U.K.-based fights being televised to smaller audiences in the late afternoon because of the time difference.

"I think there is some value in maybe not making a fight at the first possible opportunity, and this one certainly has gotten a lot bigger in the last year," Espinoza said.

But it has gotten no easier to put together.

"There's been loads of backwards and forwards, name-calling," Hearn said. "But I'm not particularly liking the noise coming out [the Wilder] camp on the timing of the fight. Why can't we make this fight next? That's the question. It's not that he's afraid of Joshua, just he has other plans, which is concerning."

Although Wilder and his team -- namely managers Shelly Finkel and Al Haymon -- won't discuss their plans, it's widely believed that should Wilder defeat Breazeale, he'll move on to a rematch with Luis Ortiz, whom he stopped in the 10th round of a classic battle in March 2018, and then face unbeaten New York-based Polish contender Adam Kownacki.

"The only plan he should have is to fight Joshua and the same with AJ to fight Wilder," Hearn said. "It's not an attack on Wilder. I believe they both want the fight. I know AJ wants the fight. I'm very, very confident they both want the fight, so it's frustrating."

Some have accused Hearn of torpedoing the bout, but he said nothing could be further from the truth.

"Even if I didn't want the fight, there's nothing I can do. Anthony is his own boss," Hearn said. "He calls the shots in this relationship. He wants to fight Deontay Wilder. We offered him 60-40. We conceded to have the first fight of a two-fight deal in America. We believe Joshua had earned the right to stage the first fight in the U.K. Joshua wanted to give his U.K. fans that fight for the support they gave him, but over time we conceded he would come to America, but still no fight."

Hearn said even if Joshua and Wilder remain with their current broadcasters that should not impede the fight.

"Maybe the first fight is on Showtime, the second on DAZN or vice versa," he said.

Wilder has a different view than Hearn.

"For months we tried. Four different occasions. Maybe five different occasions," Wilder said before rattling off various deal points, including his willingness at one point to fight the first bout of a two-fight deal in the U.K. "Four or five times we tried to make the fight. Now they cry because they don't have nowhere to go.

"Go back and study it. Go back and see who really is the king of the division, who really tried to make these fights. Then when you come back, you'll find yourself in a better place, and you'll come with peace with yourself."

While everybody waits for the big fights, there is, of course, the potential that the party could be ruined or at least greatly diminished if one of them loses.

"The big three, they are very good, but they're not so good that the guys beneath them can't touch them or beat them," Malignaggi said. "If they don't have a good night and somebody who they are facing may have their best night or a very good night, the potential for an upset is there."

Said Espinoza: "That's always a risk and there's plenty of times in history when people waited one fight too long to get there. That risk is particularly great in the heavyweight division where everyone is a threat."

Even Breazeale, a fan in addition to being a top contender, wants to see the major fights.

"Of course, you always want to see the titleholders fight each other," he said. "But right now I think those five names -- myself, Andy Ruiz, Tyson Fury, Wilder and Joshua -- we are the top of the division, and the fans are getting exposed to what they want to see. They're getting exposed to a heavyweight fight.

"When I fight Wilder, it's not going to be boring. It's going to be action-packed. It's going to be big punch after big punch. And the thing with Joshua and Andy Ruiz, I'm excited to be part of the division. I'm also super excited to be the spoiler. Wilder's had a great deal on the table, whenever he was working with Joshua, and I think he should have taken it because, come [Saturday], I'm going to ruin everything."

Assuming, however, that Wilder and Joshua keep winning, Espinoza sounded optimistic about the fight happening.

"I understand boxing fans feel burned by Mayweather-Pacquiao, having to wait years and years and years. I don't think we'll see that," he said. "I think the desire is there on the part of the fighters. The platforms are not an issue because, one, Eddie has been very clear that Joshua is on a fight-by-fight deal with DAZN. On the Wilder side, he has flexibility in his relationship as well.

"I'm not going to get into the specifics, but he has flexibility, so let's remove that. What fundamentally has to happen is the fighter putting his foot down with promoters, with networks, with advisers and say, 'This is the next fight.'

"Looking back at Mayweather-Pacquiao, when they met in person following the Miami Heat game, they looked each other in the eye and decided the fight's gonna happen, and they put word out to their sides that we are going to fight, make a deal and don't come back to me until it happens. If I had to put my money on it, I believe Wilder-Joshua will happen, and I believe it will happen within the [next] 12 to 18 months, by the end of 2020. Call me an optimist but I think it will happen sooner than later."

That is good news to you, the boxing fan.

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