Boxing is a simple sport that’s made complicated by the circus that goes on around it, and the heavyweight division is more affected by that circus that any other. In principle, the matter of who the greatest heavyweight boxer in the world is should be settled by arranging a fight, putting the world’s two best heavyweights in a ring, and letting them punch each other until someone wins. In practice, there are so many different regulatory bodies and political entities involved that getting to a big fight involves jumping through a series of hoops that would be better suited to a gymnast than a boxer.
At the time of writing, the world of boxing has been set on fire by the news that Anthony Joshua and Tyson Fury have agreed on a two-fight deal to take place in 2021, with the loser of the first fight automatically guaranteed the chance to avenge their defeat in the second contest. With Fury holding one version of the world heavyweight title and Joshua holding every other respected version, the matches between the two enormous British fighters have the potential to be the biggest-earning bouts in history. It would be nice to believe that the fights will definitely happen because the deal has been signed, but it would also be naive. This is boxing, and nothing is ever guaranteed.
Aside from the pride of the fighters in the ring, boxing is about making money for the people who promote and sanction the fights. Putting a card together is like trying to come up with a winning combination on an UK casino, and thereby extract the most money possible. Unfortunately for them and for the fighters, it’s also no more predictable than what an online slots game either. As soon as a fight is signed, someone else tends to stick their oar in and try to derail it. When one low-value symbol breaks up a winning line at an online slots website, we call it bad luck. When it happens in boxing, we call it bad judgment. As excited as everyone in both the Fury and the Joshua camps is to have signed and announced the fights, there’s reason to believe that some bad judgment might have taken place already.
The first stumbling block is that on paper at least, neither man is next in line for the other in terms of opponents. Antony Joshua has the small matter of what ought to be a routine defense against Bulgarian veteran Kubrat Pulev to worry about. The problems presented by that fight are two-fold. If Joshua chooses to skip that fight and move straight on to Fury, he’ll be automatically stripped of one of his world heavyweight championship belts, and the Fury bout will no longer unify the world title. It would make better sense to maintain the luster of the Fury fight to take on Pulev and preserve his championship, but we all know what happened last time Joshua looked past a mandatory challenger. He was knocked out in dramatic fashion by Andy Ruiz jr. Joshua has since avenged that defeat, but only a fool would write off the possibility of history repeating itself.
Fury’s immediate problem is a higher-profile one. Before he can get to Joshua, he theoretically owes Deontay Wilder a third fight, and an opportunity to avenge the crushing defeat he inflicted on the American in February. The terms of the contract for the second fight guaranteed Wilder a rematch in the event of a loss, and Wilder is in no mood to step aside. A little over a month ago, it appeared that a deal had been struck for the contest to take place. Now, there are some reports that the fight has been canceled and won’t be rescheduled. It isn’t easy to imagine any circumstances in which that could be true. Fury has insisted that he’s unwilling to pay Wilder to surrender his rematch clause, and it’s doubtful that Wilder would be interested in the money anyway.
Because of the two mandatory matches, there are several ways in which the Fury vs. Joshua bout could be compromised. Should Joshua lose his world titles to Pulev, the fight is unlikely to be of as much interest to Fury, or (perhaps more importantly) to pay per view companies across the world. If Fury loses to Wilder, Fury goes to the back of the queue, and Wilder becomes the more attractive opponent for Joshua to face in his quest to unify the division. Joshua vs. Fury would still attract interest in the United Kingdom whether there were championships on offer to the victor or not, but as a global spectacle, it would lose its appeal. Even if Wilder was to beat Fury, it’s highly likely that a fourth fight between the two would then be ordered, leaving Joshua to take on the division’s lesser fighters while waiting for the long-running feud to be resolved. It’s a truly bizarre situation when the man in possession of most of the belts doesn’t automatically get the biggest fights, but that’s the reality that Joshua has been dealing with for two years.
In the event that everything goes as planned and the two fights happen during 2021, they could easily be the final two fights in both men’s careers. If Fury triumphs over Joshua, he can retire undefeated with his legacy intact, and a resume that shows that he took on every major name in the heavyweight division and beat them. If Joshua beats Fury, he can look back on a career in which he didn’t duck a big fight, took on every mandatory challenger that was thrown at him, and reached the top of the mountain as an undisputed champion. It’s possible that he could be persuaded to stick around for a further fight against Wilder, but should Wilder be beaten by Fury again before next year, the Bronze Bomber’s career could already be over that point.
In almost every other sport in the world, an event is guaranteed to happen when contracts are exchanged. In boxing, it’s just the start of the process. Like all boxing fans, we’re excited by the idea of seeing Anthony Joshua and Tyson Fury clash in the ring in the prime of their careers. At the same time, we’re a very long way from counting or chickens.