When Britain’s Anthony Joshua took to the ring against Bulgaria’s Kubrat Pulev on December 12th in London, the fight’s outcome wasn’t really in doubt. Joshua is a younger, taller, stronger man and the holder of four different versions of boxing’s world heavyweight championship. Pulev, at 39, had only faced anyone on Joshua’s level once before. That man was Wladimir Klitschko, and Klitschko knocked him out in the fifth round. Despite that, there were worries. There were worries that Joshua would overlook him like he overlooked Andy Ruiz jr the first time he came up against him. There were concerns that history would repeat itself, and Joshua would slip up against a lesser competitor because he had a bigger fight on his mind.
When the fighter that Brits like to refer to as “AJ” took his foot off the gas after a productive third round that saw Pulev hit the canvas twice, those doubts intensified. They got worse when Pulev caught Joshua with a heavy right hand in the fifth round and appeared to wobble him for a moment. Fans needn’t have worried, though. Joshua eventually settled back into his rhythm and sent Pulev crashing down again for a third time in the ninth round. Although the brave Bulgarian was able to drag himself back up from the canvas yet again, he was finished off with an explosive right hand seconds later, and the fight was over. Joshua still has his four world championships, and people can stop worrying that his super-fight against fellow Brit and world heavyweight championship holder Tyson Fury would be called off. It’s definitely going to happen now. It’s just a matter of when and how.
On paper, a fight between Joshua and Fury would be the biggest heavyweight contest of the 21st century. It would be bigger than Joshua’s battle with Klitschko, which Joshua won, and it would be bigger than either of the fights between Fury and Deontay Wilder, of which Fury won the second and suffered the indignity of having the first declared a draw despite dominating the fight. Such a fight needs fans at ringside, and ideally, next year that can happen. For obvious reasons, the fight should be held in the UK, and hopefully, that can soon be permitted, too. What’s harder to work out is how the multiple boxing organizations who need to sign off on the fight can work together and make it happen without any of their mandatory challengers needing to get their shots first – but that’s a matter for the promoters to worry about. All that matters to fans is that the fight happens at all – and the signs are good.
From Tyson Fury, at least, there’s little doubt that he wants the contest to happen. He took to media immediately after Joshua’s title defense was over and confirmed that he’d take the fight, confidently predicted that he’d dispose of Joshua within the first three rounds, and in his typical colorful style, accused Joshua of soiling himself live on television. Joshua, strangely, was more reserved. We’re used to seeing fighters call out their biggest rivals in the aftermath of victories. Joshua was given the opportunity to call Fury out and appeared to hesitate, allowing the fans to make the demand themselves. While some have suggested that might have been a sign of Joshua being nervous of Fury, it’s more likely that he’s reluctant to promise or promote something he may not be able to deliver. We shouldn’t forget that we were promised Joshua versus Wilder multiple times and never got it – and now it’s possible that we never will.
While we’re talking about Wilder, we shouldn’t ignore the fact that he’s still in the background and is still technically owed a rematch with Fury for the title that Fury took from him when he stopped him in February this year. He doesn’t appear to be particularly keen to claim it, though. Despite all the noise he’s made on social media, Wilder and his team allowed their rematch clause with Fury to expire without booking a date for a trilogy fight, and Fury’s team now believes it’s null and void. Fury’s next fight could be against Joshua, with dates in May 2021 being suggested as possibilities. If, however, Fury has to fight Wilder again first, Joshua could busy himself with Ukraine’s Oleksandr Usyk in the meantime. There are still banana peels that could prevent this dream fight from happening.
Assuming the fight happens, that presents a different kind of challenge for heavyweight boxing as a whole. While you can offer something that everyone wants to get their hands on, you’re in the same position as an online slots website. People will continue to give you money until they get what they want out of you. As soon as they’ve got it, though, the show’s over. Most people log off when they’ve won the jackpot playing best UK slots. They know they’ve extracted the maximum possible return from the game, and so there’s nothing for them to gain by staying. In boxing terms, that jackpot is a fight between Fury and Joshua. Once it’s happened and there’s a clear winner, the question of what comes next will be asked – and it’s hard to answer it. There will probably be a rematch, but beyond that, there’s nobody on the horizon for either man. The online slots jackpot will have been paid out. Everyone will be ready to log off. It’s possible – perhaps even likely – that both Joshua and Fury would retire as men with nothing left to prove and nobody left to fight after competing against each other. Nobody could blame them for that, and their respective legacies would remain intact no matter who won or lost.
Heavyweight boxing might seem exciting right now because of the prospect of a fight between two of the biggest names the sport has seen in years, but don’t let that fool you. Peek behind the curtain, and there’s nothing there. Fury and Joshua are both incredible headline acts, but there’s nobody on the scene at the moment who looks capable of stepping up and replacing them when they go – and that’s worrying for the whole sport. Fury versus Joshua is the only big heavyweight fight left. That’s great for marketing, but not so good for longevity.