By the tenth round of Saturday night’s heavyweight contest between Anthony Joshua and Oleksandr Usyk, Joshua’s goose was cooked. Only able to see out of one eye, the pride of British boxing was surviving on little more than raw courage as he tried – and failed – to tag the elusive Ukrainian. When the bell rang at the end of the 12th and final round it could well have saved Joshua from being stopped for just the second time in his career, as he was being pummelled on the ropes by his merciless opponent.
The Brit lifted one arm in a half-hearted gesture of defiance after that final bell, while Usyk knelt in the centre of the ring, perhaps praying that a sport not always known for its fairness would deliver the correct result on this occasion. It did. The judges were unanimous, and the man who 19 out of 22 Ring Magazine experts picked to lose had his hand raised by the referee.
Joshua swiftly departed the scene, leaving the new champ to bask in the generous applause of the disappointed crowd as he performed his trademark Cossack dance in the centre of the ring.
So now that the crown prince of heavyweight boxing has been dethroned, where does that leave the division?
The Problem with Oleksandr
Oleksandr Usyk is an incredibly skilled boxer, a hardened veteran with an eye-popping amateur record of 335 wins to just 15 losses. He is unbeaten as a pro – 19 victories without defeat now – and became the first man to unify all four belts in the cruiserweight division. A cruiserweight division stacked full of talent, by the way. Usky then moved up to the heavyweight division in search of bigger fish to fry, beating Chazz Witherspoon and Derek Chisora without too much fuss before knocking Joshua off his pedestal. Now Usyk owns the WBA, IBF and WBO belts (plus the IBO version, for whatever that’s worth) while the coveted WBC belt is still in the possession of one Tyson Fury.
While there is no doubt that Usyk is a more than deserving champion, his victory will not gladden the hearts of boxing fans around the world. For one thing, his win puts the kibosh on the Battle of Britain between Joshua and Fury that we have all been waiting (and waiting) for. Who knows if that will ever take place now, but it’s certainly not looking like happening any time soon. And while Oleksandr may be a supreme boxing talent, he is a small heavyweight in an era of giants, and one who does not have the punching power to knock his opponents out. A non-English speaker with a tricky ‘foreign’ name and an inability to provide highlight reel KOs is not one to stir the blood of casual fight fans.
The heavyweight division is boxing’s blue riband event, and without a marketable champion, boxing will just fade away from the back pages.
Fortunately, such a hero does exist…
The Gypsy King and The Bronze Bomber
We won’t have to wait too long for two more heavyweight behemoths to step into the ring. On October the 9th in Nevada, Tyson Fury will fight Deontay Wilder for the third and (presumably) final time. Their first meeting ended in a contentious draw, when most observers believed that Fury had done more than enough to win. The rematch did not require the judges’ intervention, as Fury gave the American a boxing lesson until Wilder’s corner threw in the towel in the 7th to save their man from a further battering.
Since then Wilder has come up with more conspiracy theories than a flat-earther to explain away his defeat, citing betrayal from within his team, drugged water, crooked officiating and (famously) the weight of his ring walk costume as just some of the reasons for his loss.
When the pair meet again in October, most expect Fury to have too much for the Bronze Bomber once again, and the bookies’ odds of
3/10* for Fury versus
23/10 for a Wilder victory reflect this sentiment. However, nobody – least of all Tyson – is going to underestimate the power of the man with the biggest punch in boxing, and if one of those swinging right hooks finds its target then all bets are off.
Having said all that, a win for Wilder would certainly not be necessarily a bad thing for boxing, even if it would shift the centre of the heavyweight world from the UK to the US (as well as the Ukraine). When he is not engaged in bitter recriminations and aggressive pre-fight bluster, the leader of the Bomb Squad can be a charming character, a family man and most certainly a highly explosive boxer. Were he to somehow follow up a victory over Fury by knocking out Usyk then it would shake up the sport completely. An exciting American fighter as undisputed heavyweight champion of the world would surely return boxing to something close to its former prominence, even within the crowded US sports market.
AJ Haters and Fury Fans
Like a certain other British sportsman of colour, Anthony Joshua has received vitriolic abuse online for voicing his support for the Black Lives Matter movement. One comment in particular has been used as a stick with which to beat the Watford man. Whilst attending a BLM meeting in his home town, Joshua agreed to read out a speech written by a friend of his (Reece Campbell) who was unable to attend the event himself. One line of that speech – not Joshua’s speech, remember, he just read it out! – advised listeners not to turn to violence or rioting, but instead to “Show them where it hurts. Abstain from spending your money in their shops and economies, and invest in black-owned businesses.”
A sentence like this is designed to mortally offend the sensitive soul of a certain type of person, which perhaps explains why the comment voted the ‘best’ beneath the Daily Mail’s account of the Joshua defeat reads “He will now be regretting being political and advising a boycott of white shops. Who backed him as a youth, his local folk ..?” (over 1,000 up-votes and counting). In fact, I gave up scrolling down through the comments in search of something positive about Joshua – instead ‘disgrace’, ‘arrogant’, ‘racist’ and ‘donkey’ were just some of the adjectives used to describe the former British champion of the world and gold-medal-winning Olympian.
Fury has had his own troubles of course, a spectacularly ill-judged interview with (again) The Mail led to his falling from grace and into a spiralling depression. The Gypsy King has managed to battle back to the top of the mountain, overcoming both physical and psychological impediments along the way to claiming the WBC heavyweight title, and winning back the support of the public in the process. Fury’s two fights against Wilder and the attendant publicity tours have gotten him onto the radar of casual sports fans Stateside, and another convincing victory will only burnish his reputation. Throw in his penchant for bizarre stunts – like that time he dressed up as Batman in the build-up to the Klitschko fight and his now traditional rendition of ‘American Pie’ to celebrate his victories – and it’s clear that the big man has become the Peoples’ Champ.
However, as the dream of that $200 million-dollar mega fight fades away, and as more of Joshua’s detractors have been quick to comment, AJ may now be more likely to end up fighting Tyson’s reality-TV starring cousin Tommy than the Gypsy King himself.
The Wild Card
Up to now we have discussed four of the best heavyweights in the world, but there is a fifth who belongs in the conversation. The man called The Body Snatcher, the man who howls like a wolf before starting his walk to the ring: Dillian Whyte. Whyte has been within touching distance of a title fight for what seems like forever, without ever getting one. In fact boxrec has ranked him as one of the top ten heavyweights in the world since 2016, a period during which many lesser boxers have been given the opportunity to fight for the heavyweight crown. The wait continues for the Londoner, and in the meantime he squares up against the doughty Swedish brawler Otto Wallin, a man who has ambitions of one day claiming a belt of his own.
It’s fair to say that Dillian has done things the hard way over the years. His record shows 28 wins as a professional versus two defeats; the first of these was at the hands of Joshua when he was stopped in the seventh round of what had been a ferocious Battle of London. The second came courtesy of a wonder-punch from grizzled veteran Alexander Povetkin, a shot from nowhere in a fight the Londoner had been dominating. Whyte beat the Russian comfortably in the rematch, taking back the WBC Interim belt as he did so. Next stop the O2 in London, a venue which Dillian has made his home patch in recent years and where he enjoys boisterous support, and where the tricky Wallin lies in wait at the end of October.
Through sheer bloody-mindedness and a willingness to fight anybody and everybody, the occasionally surly Whyte has gradually won over the public, and should he ever get that title shot which he so richly deserves, he will have strong backing from British boxing fans.
AJ’s Road to Redemption
When Anthony Joshua lost to last-minute stand-in Andy Ruiz in New York, it was seen as a freak result. Most put it down to the Brit taking victory for granted, looking for a KO in front of the US audience and underestimating the threat faced by the tubby Mexican. This ‘wrong’ was righted when Joshua kept a badly out-of-condition Ruiz at arms length behind his jab in the rematch, which he won on points without exerting too much of an effort.
However, this latest defeat is different.
Joshua tried to box a boxer, and came up well short. Instead of trying to impose his size advantage on the smaller man, AJ allowed himself to be tutored by one of the greatest technical boxers of the decade. This one will be harder to recover from. It may be that Joshua will make some changes to his coaching team, perhaps bringing in a new voice or even severing ties with long-term trainer Rob McCracken. If he tries to outbox Usyk in the rematch – when and wherever that happens – he will surely come up second best again.
This is a low-point for Joshua in what has been a career of mostly highs, but it is one he can come back from. He could take on an easier opponent next time out, but AJ’s track record suggests that he won’t shirk the imposing challenge posed by the new champion. The good looks and easy charm sometimes disguise it, but Joshua still has that street-fighter mentality which allowed him to get to the top of his profession in the first place.
We don’t yet know for sure when (or where) the Joshua-Usyk rematch will take place, although February or March of 2022 has been suggested. However, with three of the big five big men in action next month, we should know a lot more about the state of the heavyweight division by the end of October.
And wouldn’t it be fitting if Hallowe’en was the day that The Body Snatcher could finally get confirmation of his long-awaited title shot?
October 9th: Tyson Fury v Deontay Wilder (Live on BT Sport Box Office)
October 30th: Dillian Whyte v Otto Wallin (Live on DAZN)
*Odds correct at time of writing.