Just when you thought a unification clash between Anthony Joshua and Tyson Fury is closer than ever before, the messy map of the heavyweight belts, and boxing politics, typically hurtles in to potentially jeopardise the dream match-up.
Fury’s demolition of Deontay Wilder, previously undefeated in his 43 outings, in Las Vegas earlier this year left fans purring for a match-up with AJ, who had recently reclaimed the IBO, IBF, WBA and WBO belts he had lost to Andy Ruiz Jr. in New York.
With two men occupying the belts between them, a unification bout could not be any easier to make, right? Not so fast. Boxing’s multitude of governing bodies, and their own respective rankings, throws up plenty of issues for champions and promoters to navigate.
The messy map of heavyweight belts is scuppering the progress of a Joshua vs. Fury bout
The reigning heavyweight champions are keen to meet but several obstacles are in the way
‘Belts are steeped in history and when you’re a young fighter you have heroes and you remember them holding the green WBC belt or the red IBF belt and you remember them being undisputed standing there with all the belts,’ Eddie Hearn said in a recent interview with the Mirror.
They also cause a whole host of problems for fighters and promoters looking to schedule bouts between the best of their craft.
For AJ, his reclamation of the four belts won by Andy Ruiz Jr would have felt like being back to square one, rather than a real step in the right direction.
Fury’s mental health-inflicted hiatus from the sport freed up a host of belts and Joshua was on a trail blaze to scoop every one up. Victories over Charles Martin followed by a unification win over Wladamir Klitschko meant there was just one man to beat to become unified world champion.
Fury holds the iconic WBC belt, while Joshua is the WBO, IBF, IBO and WBA champion
Joshua saw negotiations to fight former WBC champion Deontay Wilder consistently fail
It’s still unclear why a mammoth fight between Joshua and Deontay Wilder, the former WBC champion, never came to fruition, with the Bronze Bomber’s manager, Shelly Finkel, and Eddie Hearn, AJ’s promotor, offering conflicting accounts of why negotiations consistently broke down.
So while AJ would have rejoiced in avenging his sole career defeat to the plucky underdog Ruiz Jr, he would be all too aware that it would be a case of more of the same frustrating failed talks with Wilder.
But come February 22, 2020, the heavyweight landscape underwent a mammoth change. Fury’s victory over the 35-year-old meant that the WBC belt now rested in the hands of the Gypsy King, a man who has had no qualms in fighting out of his comfort zone and proving the doubters wrong.
But Fury’s victory over the Bronze Bomber offered a glimmer of hope about unifying the belts
And it only took until June for Joshua and Fury to verbally agree terms to a two-fight deal, in a massive step towards the fight boxing fans have longed to see.
The path, on paper, would appear relatively straightforward. Yet boxing’s politics, as well as an unprecedented global pandemic, has thrown a major curveball at plans for the all-British showdown.
As holder of four belts, Joshua has obligations to fulfil with each organisation in order to keep those belts. One such obligation is to fight mandatory challengers, fighters picked by an organisation as the next in line to get a shot at the belt.
In the case of the IBF division, that man is Kubrat Pulev. The pair had been scheduled to face in Cardiff in 2017, but the Bulgarian pulled out and was replaced by Joseph Parker.
However, AJ is required to defend the world championship against IBF challenger Kubrat Pulev
And Fury must face Wilder for a third time due to contractual reasons, despite the demolition
Sportsmail exclusively revealed this week that AJ’s fight with Pulev will go ahead in December, regardless of the recent government announcement that plans for fans to return to events have been put on hold.
For Fury, despite comprehensively blowing Wilder out of the water earlier this year, a contractual clause triggered by the Bronze Bomber means the Gypsy King must face him for a third time.
However, while AJ and Hearn are prepared to take the economic hit from not having fans in attendance, Fury’s UK promotor, Frank Warren has insisted that is not a viable option for Fury-Wilder 3. The veteran promotor said the bout cannot go ahead without the fans, making a late 2020 date doubtful.
And the delays caused by the pandemic have onset a host of new problems for both AJ and Fury with the boxing organisations.
The coronavirus pandemic has also seen a major revenue stream cut off with a lack of fans
Frank Warren, Fury’s promotor, says the Wilder bout is impossible to make without the fans
For Fury, he has Wilder to thank for potentially jeopardising his clash with AJ. The former WBC champion fobbed off mandatory opponent Dillian Whyte for over 1,000 days as champion, leading to the organisation to insist that the champion face the Body Snatcher by February 2021 at the latest.
That deadline is set and unlikely to be moveable. But the mandatory challenger is still unknown. A fairly routine fight against Olympic champion Alexander Povetkin was viewed as a chance to get a few rounds in for Whyte heading into the WBC title shot.
But disaster struck for the Body Snatcher, as he was knocked out spectacularly by the wily Russian to throw another spanner into the works. The 40-year-old is now the WBC mandatory challenger, and will remain so if he beats Whyte in the rematch on November 21.
Povetkin is unlikely to take money to step aside, too, with his promotor, Andrey Ryabinskiy, targeting a showdown with the Gypsy King at the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow.
The pandemic presents further obstacles with Fury’s WBC mandatory challenger looming
Alexander Povetkin earned a shock win over Dillian Whyte in August to become next in line
Hearn has described the prospect of a second defeat for Whyte as being ‘terminal’ for his chances at the heavyweight championship. You get the sense that a Povetkin victory could be just as devastating for a Joshua-Fury bout.
And to further muddy the path to a unification bout, another boxing organisation is knocking on Hearn’s door to have their mandatory challenger face Joshua.
Oleksandr Usyk is the WBO’s mandatory challenger, and will face Dereck Chisora on October 31 to cement his place as the next in line to take a shot at Joshua’s throne. Should he win against Delboy, he’s unlikely to go away quietly.
And Hearn has conceded that AJ may have to give up the WBO belt if he wants to make the Fury fight happen, although insisted that the goal is to become unified champion.
By that point, the WBO belt will come into play, with AJ expected to fight Oleksandr Usyk
The Ukrainian must first get past Dereck Chisora in October to cement his place as challenger
‘There’s been a lot of talk about ‘give up the belt,’ but the aim for Anthony Joshua is to be the undisputed heavyweight champion,’ he told Boxing Social.
‘Will a belt get in the way of him fighting Tyson Fury next? Probably not. Will he vacate a belt and fight Tyson Fury next? Yes, I believe he would if he had to, but would he rather maintain all the belts? One million percent.
‘I know Tyson Fury has said, “I already had all the belts.” I know, but you’ve never been undisputed. I hope that means something to people because it means a lot to Anthony Joshua if we get to a position where AJ is fighting Fury regardless of whether the WBO allows their title to be on the line.
In boxing, nothing is ever easy, and the belts are thwarting a huge unification bout
‘It’s almost like I want to go to Usyk and say, “Look, we’re going to vacate the title, but can we vacate it the day after the fight?”’
Boxing politics has often scuppered the biggest and best fights taking place between fighters in their prime, and in so doing robbed fans of the greatest of spectacles.
It’s clear that plenty of pieces need to fall perfectly into place for Joshua to take on Fury in a unification battle for the ages. Whether the pair fight for the right to be named undisputed champion remains to be seen.