The saying is “boxing goes as the heavyweight division goes” and for the first time in a good while they're some compelling fights yet to be realized in boxing's flagship division.
Jack Dempsey led the charge during the twenties. Joe Louis carried the division during the late thirties through the end of the forties. Rocky Marciano during the early to mid-fifties added some of what was missing after Louis was gone, but it wasn't until Muhammad Ali (then known as Cassius Clay) shocked the world in 1964 by beating Sonny Liston that the division really thrived. From roughly 1963 through 1978 the division was dominated by Liston, Ali, Joe Frazier and George Foreman. Larry Holmes came next but never ran with the baton in the eyes of the boxing public and the eighties were devoid of excitement until Mike Tyson became the unified champ in 1987. And from that point on through to the early 2000s the big names and fights involved Tyson, Evander Holyfield and Lennox Lewis. Shortly after Lewis retired in early 2004 the division was locked down by Wladimir and Vitali Klitschko and seen by many as a down time for the division.
The official end of the Klitschko era didn't arrive until Tyson Fury won a unanimous decision over Wladimir Klitschko in November of 2015 to become the recognized universal champ. And in April of 2017 Anthony Joshua stopped Wladimir in the 11th round to insure there'd be no resurrection of it. And today Joshua 22-0 (21), who holds the IBF/WBA/WBO titles, Fury 27-0-1 (19), who is the lineal champ and Deontay Wilder 40-0-1 (39), who is the WBC titlist, represent the top of the food chain regarding the big guys of today.
Until the night of December 1st, the debate raged between Joshua and Wilder in regards to who was the alpha heavyweight of the division. On that perhaps Joshua held a 70-30 split in his favor among insiders with Fury being no more than a footnote. Then after a 31 month hiatus Fury returned and fought Wilder after two tune ups. Prior to facing Fury, Wilder had stopped every opponent he faced and in his prior bout scored the signature win of his career with a 10th round TKO of undefeated Luis Ortiz. Six months later Joshua stopped once beaten Alexander Povetkin in the seventh round and looked impressive in doing so. After that the talk of Joshua vs. Wilder escalated but it never could be agreed upon and instead we got Wilder-Fury. And that turned out to be an exciting clash between two fighters with contrasting styles that ended in a controversial draw.
Prior to the Wilder-Fury clash, it was a horse race between Wilder and Joshua, but that's no longer the case. And the reason for that is, regardless of who you think won between Fury and Wilder, the fact of the matter is Wilder didn't prove that he was superior to Fury whereas Fury showed that at worst he's Wilder's equal and probably better. Remember, Fury fought only 14 rounds in the 31 months prior to facing Wilder, so Tyson can improve more for a rematch than Wilder can because in reality Deontay hasn't improved much over the last five years and he's been very active during that time.
What makes the Joshua-Wilder-Fury threesome so compelling and difficult to handicap is, all three have contrasting styles and have what's needed to beat the other. Joshua is clearly the best technician with the greater form and fundamentals. AJ does mostly everything right with exceptional power in both hands, but he lacks head movement, is sometimes predictable and also doesn't let his hands go freely unless he believes the table is perfectly set. Wilder is an awkward fighter who lacks boxing intuition with poor balance and fundamentals. He has heart, is in great condition and a big right hand. The problem is he does nothing to set it up and is too reliant on it to erase his mistakes. Fury is a conundrum for both as we saw against Wilder. Fury is 6-9 and long and he knows how to use his height and reach. On top of that he's a good mover with good legs capable of moving like a smaller man. And maybe the best thing that can be said about him is he knows his limitations and as much as he talks it up, he doesn't stray from what he knows he does best. Tyson is a difficult guy to fight or box and he never enters the ring with the mindset of winning by knockout – and that made him difficult for Wilder and that would also apply to Joshua if they met.
Due to their fighting styles and different skills, any matchup between the three would be a tricky proposition in trying to pick the winner. Since Wilder had his hands full with Fury aside from the four punches he landed to drop him, Deontay could look better against Joshua than he did Fury, but could also be beaten and stopped by him in a spectacular fashion. If AJ can get inside on Wilder, due to his shorter punches and heavy hands he could do much more damage than Fury did in those spots. However, Wilder could catch AJ coming in and drop him. Yes, he dropped Fury, but only when Tyson was at mid-range and not moving away. Joshua will no doubt push the fight. Yes, AJ has gone down but he gets up. Conversely, if AJ does get Wilder in trouble I don't see Wilder surviving.
As for AJ versus Fury? I think that would go the distance because Tyson would box and never temp fate. There's no doubt that Joshua would press behind his jab and look to get him in trouble with his right hand, but I could see Fury making him reach with it and after coming up short more times than anticipated, I believe AJ would be more judicious with it and take what Fury gave him while trying not to fall for Fury's antics and traps. Joshua also has the weight and strength that Wilder lacked, and therefore he could muscle Fury inside and keep him a little more handcuffed?
The top of the heavyweight division is exciting with three fighters all capable of beating the other two which is different than the Ali, Frazier and Foreman era where they all had a big advantage only over one of the other two. If forced to pick I'd rate Joshua the best and he no doubt has what's needed stylistically and physically to beat Fury and Wilder. He'd probably knock Wilder out and win a decision over Fury – but if Wilder stopped him and Fury beat him by decision I wouldn't be the least bit shocked. And as far as a Wilder-Fury rematch; I'd favor Fury. Usually when the boxer beats the puncher the first time the boxer wins the rematch due to most punchers not being able to adjust. And although the fight between them was scored a draw……I thought Fury won it by a comfortable three or four points. Fury can improve upon what he did and his condition will be better the next time. Other than when he was knocked down he controlled the fight with a few rounds being close. In a rematch Wilder would go right hand crazy again and it's doubtful his offense would be more imaginative the second time around.
Hopefully Joshua-Wilder-Fury will follow the Ali-Frazier-Foreman template and give boxing fans the fights they want starting in 2019 and face each other. Because it's been quite a while since the big guys have had so many fans talking about and pondering more than one single match up! And the fighter who emerges from the field and can post solid wins over the other two will have gone a long way in making his case for the IBHOF.
Frank Lotierzo can be contacted at [email protected].