Turn back the clocks two years. Tyson Fury was weeks away from defying the odds and toppling the unrivalled heavyweight king, Wladimir Klitschko. With a conclusive points victory in Klitschko’s adopted home in Germany, Fury opened the door for a revitalisation of the heavyweight division as the Briton became ‘the man, who beat the man, who beat the man’. With Fury being stripped of his belts over rumours of ankle injuries and failed drugs tests, his WBA, WBO and IBF belts were scattered into the field of heavyweights, giving all involved a needed shot in the arm in the race to reach the pinnacle of the sport.
However, what happened next was not in the script. The promised ‘new breed’ of heavyweight prospects and challengers has struggled to materialise, with the dubbed ‘golden generation’ turning into the underwhelming narrative of ‘Anthony Joshua et al.’
The best of the rest
With Anthony Joshua and Deontay Wilder both in action over the past fortnight, the BoxRec heavyweight rankings are a current representation of the field of heavyweights currently vying for their place at the top of the sport. With sanctioning bodies such as the WBA and IBF historically using their rankings systems for monetary gain (placing high-profile, less able fighters in the upper echelons of their lists), BoxRec and The Ring Magazine rankings are often the most honest and impartial judges of divisional rankings.
BoxRec work on a ‘points’ system, where fighters are awarded points from who they fight, the result of the bout and also how often they fight, with fighters spending more than 365 days out of the ring relegated to an ‘inactive’ tag.
Addressing the current standings after Deontay Wilder’s successful defence against Bermane Stiverne, the first standout point is the positioning of our three belt holders. Granted, the dilution of the titles in world boxing often translates to champions undeservedly picking up honours; however, with our heavyweight champions listed at #1 #3 and #7, it highlights the discrepancies in the best talent rising to the top and deserving their crown.
Politics will always prove the trickiest hurdle to jump in boxing, with promotional companies failing to come to agreements for their fighters to square off against each-other after valuing their assets too highly. This often leads to certain fighters being avoided by the champions, with easier routes and easier ‘mandatory’ fighters being chosen instead of picking the best of the rest.
For example, ignoring the problem with drugs for just a moment, the three champions made their last defences against opponents outside of the top 10: Carlos Takam, Bermane Stiverne and Hughie Fury. Granted, Kubrat Pulev and Luis Ortiz were the initial opponents in two of these three bouts, but with these fights falling through the fighter’s teams were enabled to take an easy route out of their defences.
Fingers can be pointed at the champions in these instances; however, when taking a wider view of the top 10 rankings, it paints a very sorry picture of the heavyweight scene. Two of the top four have faced bans for drugs test failures in the last 18 months, #5 Tony Bellew has had one fight at heavyweight against an injured David Haye and the most impressive scalp on the records of Breazeale, Hammer and Whyte combined is last week’s RTD victory over Eric Molina for “Trouble” Breazeale.
Age is another worrying factor. Despite the heavyweights historically fighting on longer than those in the lower weight classes, seven out of the top 10 are into their thirties, with Ortiz, Povetkin and Pulev at 38 and 36-years-of-age, respectively. The phrase ‘turning old overnight’ was made for boxing, and despite still competing it’s impossible to judge whether said fighters are just continuing to tick over and make money despite being well past their best, without any real aspirations for world honours. With fighters typically entering the ring no more than twice a year after reaching an established point in their career, too much time is wasted ducking, diving and promoting the handful of fights that will go on to define their legacy.
The depth of the heavyweight talent pool is as shallow as it’s been in a number of years and after the promised resurgence of the division after Tyson Fury’s famous night in Germany, it begs the question: where did it all go so wrong?
Flex, drugs and shoulder rolls
Drugs has its problems in all sports, but in a combat sport where someone’s life can be put at risk by their opponent using banned substances, it’s more important than ever that the governing bodies take action. Since Klitschko was dethroned in Dusseldorf, Lucas Browne, Shannon Briggs, Luis Ortiz, Alexander Povetkin and Bermane Stiverne have all tested positive for using a banned substance in the heavyweight division, with countless others facing bans over the last 5-10 years.
With a majority of the above mentioned within a reasonable distance of a crack at a heavyweight title, lengthy layoffs and reputational damage amongst promoters leaves them at the bottom of the pile, lending the champions a perfect excuse not to fight them in the future.
Take Alexander Povetkin, for example. The Russian heavyweight was due to challenge Deontay Wilder in Russia last May for the WBC crown in a fight that many believed was an honest 50/50 contest. However, after testing positive for the banned substance meldonium just a week before the fight, the scheduled bout was postponed leaving Wilder to reap the rewards of a $7 million settlement in the court case that followed.
Fighting Christian Hammer in December, Povetkin is beginning to re-build his career at heavyweight, but with promotors and fighters reluctant to take a risk on a fight that could fall through a week before it is scheduled, a talent like Povetkin is likely to be left out in the cold on the world stage.
Lightning struck twice for Wilder in the form of Cuba’s “King Kong” Luis Ortiz. Failing a drugs test a month before their November 4 bout in Brooklyn, Stiverne was drafted in as a last-minute replacement for Wilder, with “The Bronze Bomber” unable to prove his skillset against one of the most dangerous and underrated active heavyweights. However, now serving a one-year ban and losing his mandatory position, the future is as clear as mud for the 38-year-old, with a challenge for a heavyweight belt looking unlikely in the near future.
Did we under-appreciate the Klitschko reign?
Phrases like “the grass isn’t always greener” and “you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone” can be directly applied to the heavyweight reign of Ukraine’s Wladimir Klitschko. After announcing his retirement following his loss to Anthony Joshua earlier this year, the boxing world was convoluted in its reaction. His legendary status could never be questioned, but fans, analysts and fighters were split down the middle whether saying goodbye to “Dr. Steelhammer” was a positive for the sport.
Plagued by the tags of being boring, one-dimensional, too professional and favoured by the judges during his 21-year career, the Ukrainian was often subject to criticism in sucking the life out of the most exciting division in boxing. With a spiteful jab, knockout power and unorthodox but effective defence, Klitschko gathered the WBO, IBF, WBA (Super), IBO and Ring Magazine belts during his career, as well as holding the lineal heavyweight title for an impressive six years.
We became accustomed in the late 2000’s to Klitschko’s dominance at the weight, and with challengers failing to trouble the Ukrainian in a majority of his bouts, which were mainly held in Germany, fans developed a real disdain for the heavyweight division and its lack of fluidity.
Like many moments in history, you can only truly appreciate its worth in hindsight, with Klitschko’s resume the epitome of this narrative.
Dipping into the BoxRec archives once again, it’s important to analyse Klitschko’s last six victories in the sport. Before his infamous loss to Tyson Fury, the champ went through six fighters, with five of them boasting unbeaten records before them.
In his late-thirties for all of these bouts, Klitschko would be expected to be well past his physical prime, but with three stoppages and three unanimous decisions he was able to negate the challenge of all six opponents with relative ease.
Results aside, looking at the pedigree of opponent also opens our eyes to the shambolic state of today’s rankings. With wins over fitter, younger, more dangerous versions of Alexander Povetkin and Kubrat Pulev that we see in today’s top 10, Klitschko turned these guys into the ‘names’ that we now demand our belt-holders to challenge as a genuine threat. Mariusz Wach also fights this weekend in New York in an attempt to throw his hat back into the heavyweight ring; five years ago he was a 27-0 fighter looking to steal the heavyweight crown at the peak of his powers.
Klitschko legacy has already been carved in gold, but it’s impossible to deny that the Ukrainian would clean up the whole of the current top 10 if he was to return… bar Anthony Joshua, perhaps.
Tyson Fury’s comeback
So, what of the man who shook up the heavyweight division? Since Fury’s historic night in Dusseldorf where he dethroned Klitschko in emphatic style, the ‘Gypsy King’ has spiralled out of control. With drug, weight and mental health issues, Fury hasn’t fought since and after several ‘retirement’ declarations it was unclear whether we would ever see Tyson step back into the squared circle again.
Granted, that is still the case, but with Fury expected to be cleared to fight in December after his drawn out court case, applying for a boxing licence will be next on the agenda as he plots his 2018. With rumours circulating that Fury will train in Sheffield with Billy Joe Saunders under the tutelage of Dominic Ingle, positive steps are being forged in the rollercoaster story of Fury. With a domestic rivalry with Joshua, an ongoing spat with Wilder and a Parker revenge-mission to complete after he beat his cousin Hughie, Fury has too many opportunities and too much money to be made in the heavyweight division to throw it all away.
With a reported seven stones to shed until he is back at a fighting weight, Fury is under no illusions to the tough road ahead of him – a road that he is used to in a career full of stops, starts and bumps. Speaking to iFLTV in Monaco last weekend, Fury seemed calm and composed as he outlined his view of the heavyweight scene:
I can’t be avoided and put back no more, I’m here, I’m ready and I’m willing to fight… and I want to fight all the best heavyweights out there. Because I’m still lineal. They might have all my belts, but the one thing they haven’t got is the Ring Magazine belt, they haven’t got my lineal status, and all the time these heavyweights are around and don’t beat me, their legacies will never be cemeted… because I am the king of the heavyweight division.
Injecting Fury back into the heavyweight mix will do wonders for the sport, with characters such as Tyson historically playing a huge role in heavyweight boxing. A tune-up fight sometime next spring will be crucial for Fury, but if he can maintain his concentration on climbing the heavyweight mountain for a second time, who are we to discard the ‘Gypsy King’s’ future inside the ring?
A cloud has lingered over the heavyweight division since Fury’s win in Germany, and until the lineal champion returns to the ring we will be forever asking the ‘what if’ questions regarding who reigns supreme. Joshua needs Fury, Wilder needs Fury and the boxing public need Fury… it’s just a question of whether he needs us enough.
With three championship belts scattered across three continents, 2018 should be about the quest for an undisputed heavyweight champion. With Povetkin, Pulev and the winner of David Haye vs Tony Bellew the only real tests for the champions outside of unification fights (excluding the banned Ortiz), the best fighting the best should be the narrative as we enter a new year.
So what is the ideal scenario?
Anthony Joshua vs TBC (in the USA)
Deontay Wilder vs Dillian Whyte (in the UK)
Joseph Parker vs TBC (in the USA)
Tyson Fury vs Shannon Briggs/David Price
Anthony Joshua vs Deontay Wilder
Tyson Fury vs Joseph Parker
Anthony Joshua/Deontay Wilder vs Joseph Parker/Tyson Fury
With venues, PPV timings, time-zones, purses, TV networks and splits the real problem behind the politics of boxing, the above certainly won’t happen; however as fans we’ll except a close second. This generation of heavyweights has promised so much and delivered so little in the past 24 months, with concerns that we are going to repeat the Lennox Lewis vs Riddick Bowe farce all over again.
Promoters need to look after their fighters, but with limited opportunities outside the super-fights and PPV expectations to live up to, these big heavyweight dust-ups are fast becoming the only option. With rumours arising that Joshua only has two fights left with Eddie Hearn and Matchroom, perhaps the time is right for Hearn to sell, sell, sell his ‘golden goose’ in 2018.
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