Opinion

Joshua vs Wilder – Protecting the image

Joshua vs Wilder

One of the great maxims in boxing is that a strong heavyweight division is good for the sport. As the heavyweight tide rises, so shall the boats beneath it. The constant chatter across the media, even in non-sporting outlets, of a possible bout between Anthony Joshua and Deontay Wilder, would attest to this theory. All parties have made their offers, had their say in the press and across social platforms; now it is up to the fans to decide which side of the fence to sit on regarding whose story they believe.

AJ’s promoter Eddie Hearn is a suave and sophisticated individual, intent on managing perception, dictating the narrative and protecting an image. If he doesn’t want to make the fight happen right now, he needs to find a way to make it look like he wants the fight while simultaneously backing away slowly. “Another one that just got away,” is a scenario that nobody desires.

When it comes to the best big men of recent years, there is a phantom fight that immediately springs to mind in the what might have been category. Lennox Lewis and Riddick Bowe could have met in a heavyweight blockbuster. Scratch that – they SHOULD have met in a heavyweight blockbuster. It is to the boxing’s detriment that they never tangled for one of the sport’s biggest prizes and Bowe often shoulders most of the blame.

As it turns out, it was a common opponent of both Bowe and Lewis that helped Riddick, at least, to cement his legacy. Riddick Bowe and Evander Holyfield are forever linked as hardcore heavyweight dance partners. The pair engaged in three outstanding fights that had it all: excitement, controversy and unbelievable twists and turns (the second fight in 1993 included the infamous “Fan Man” incident when James Miller floated into the ring mid-fight on a motorised paraglider).

The first bout was, in my opinion, the pick of the bunch and encapsulated everything I loved about prime Bowe. “It doesn’t get much better than this,” remarked Larry Merchant as both men staggered back to their corners in the 1992 Las Vegas humdinger. Holyfield was later dropped in the 11th and seemed on the verge of a stoppage loss, as his eyes swelled shut and blood seeped from cuts to his face. Bowe won a unanimous decision and went home with the belts and the glory.

Sometimes on the biggest boxing stage, refined skills and calculated game plans fly out of the window; the will to win and personal pride take over as fistic chaos ensues. Fights like these linger in the memory of boxing fans long after the dust has settled and the stage lights been turned off after an electric brawl. Joshua and Wilder should take note.

Despite the excellent trinity of wars that took place between Bowe and Holyfield, it was indeed Bowe’s career-long dalliance with another generational rival that continues to be discussed in boxing circles today. After Bowe’s first win over the ‘Real Deal’, HBO invited up-and-coming heavyweight contender Lennox Lewis to the commentary position, to discuss what they had all just witnessed. As Bowe exited the ring a war of words broke out between the two and it is remarkable given ‘Big Daddy’s’ history that a physical brawl did not take place. On this occasion, both men managed to keep it together. More importantly, it seemed from their verbal back-and-forth that the fight would surely be made sooner rather than later. Consequently, rather than paving the way for an epic trilogy – akin to Bowe’s wars with Holyfield – the Lewis and Bowe non-event is often used as a prime example of a huge missed opportunity.

In October 1992, Lewis sensationally knocked out Donovan ‘Razor’ Ruddock and installed himself as WBC No. 1 contender. That belt, along with the IBF and WBA, was held by unified king Holyfield. Around this time the WBO was still gaining in credibility and trying to muscle into its currently occupied position of what is now known as the ‘Big Four’.

Talking of big fours, a mini-tournament between the quartet of top heavies had been organised to settle the issue of who was heavyweight ruler supreme. A fortnight after Lewis defeated Ruddock, Bowe beat Holyfield and took all three titles in the process. It was then left to Bowe’s manager Rock Newman and Lewis’ charismatic manager Frank Maloney – now female and known as Kellie – to negotiate a deal.

It was reported at the time that Newman offered Lewis a minuscule portion of the pie – around $3 million – with champion Bowe taking home closer to $30 million in a proposed Las Vegas showdown. Maloney rejected what he labelled as an “absurd” offer and was no closer to an agreement when Newman’s second offer arrived at his door. Rock offered Lennox an interim WBC bout against an opponent of his choosing and, should he win that, a fight with Bowe and an improved $9 million purse.

Bowe bins the WBC belt

Around this time Newman was even talking up a possible first title defence against George Foreman in China, and his erratic behaviour has since helped propagate the version of events that Team Bowe had indeed ducked their challenger. Finally, Rock supposedly put forward a winner-takes-all offer with a $30 million purse up for grabs. Lewis enthusiastically accepted, but, according to Maloney, they didn’t hear back from Newman. During this time, Bowe infamously threw a replica WBC belt into the dustbin. The sanctioning body finally lost patience and stripped him.

Many people assume that Lewis-Bowe was a foregone conclusion (Lewis had already beaten Bowe by knockout in the 1988 Olympics). Indeed, Bowe and Newman’s insistence on avoiding the contest lends credence to this claim. However, I wonder what would’ve happened had the version of Bowe that boxed Evander Holyfield in their first fight met the pre-Oliver McCall version of Lewis that dangled the left hand low and lacked the defensive instincts later installed by Emanuel Steward. I guess we’ll never find out.

One thing that was never in doubt throughout all of the protracted negotiations, offers, counteroffers and bluster from all sides (especially Bowe’s) is that someone somewhere would be able to put up the requisite funds to make the fight a reality if terms were agreed. When it comes to Joshua-Wilder, AJ’s promoter Eddie Hearn appeared sceptical that Wilder’s team could financially ensure their $50 million proposition and asked for a contract and proof of funds. The latter was ridiculed by rival promoter Frank Warren in a recent video who labelled any such request as “a total load of bullshit”. Frank’s point was that Wilder has highly-respected manager Shelly Finkel behind the deal, along with hugely influential money man Al Haymon and Showtime TV’s Stephen Espinoza, which should solidify any monetary terms. Even though there is no love lost between Warren and Hearn, Frank’s point is reasonable. Finkel, Haymon and Espinoza have respected histories in the sport – they don’t write cheques they cannot cash.

While Finkel’s additional notion that Eddie was pulling a scam move is slightly harsh rhetoric, I agree with the veteran American that Hearn had no intention of making the Wilder fight next and had his sights set all along on a couple of money-spinning Wembley sellouts, starting with Alexander Povetkin. Wilder and his team played a blinder by calling Joshua’s bluff and formulating a $50 million offer. While Finkel et al. may have won this battle, they have not yet won the war.

“Another one that just got away,” is a scenario that nobody desires.

Frank Warren, sensing opportunity in the conflict, muscled in on the act with his charge Tyson Fury claiming that they have reached advanced negotiation stages for the former undisputed king to box Deontay Wilder instead. That will be a neat piece of one-upmanship if they can pull it off and serves to catapult Fury back into the limelight before he’s quite ready, which gives him a built-in excuse if things go wrong.

Once Anthony Joshua dispatches of Povetkin he will probably have Jarrell Miller in the way. After Miller, a Dillian Whyte rematch could push us well into 2019. Then, hopefully, all differences can be resolved and the heavyweight clash we all want to see – Joshua vs Wilder – will finally come to fruition. Twists and turns, spanners and gremlins can all throw themselves into the mix before then, so sometimes it’s best to get on and make the damn fight. In the short term, Joshua, Hearn and Co needed a little bit of breathing space to realise their own financial goals before risking it all against an opponent as brash and unpredictable as Wilder.

Requesting proof of funds is a much more palatable way of avoiding a fight than organising a press conference, throwing your belt into the dustbin and, along with it, the chance to make one of the most highly-anticipated heavyweight clashes of a generation. It’s all about protecting the image, you know?

Steve Wellings
Honorary graduate of the Prison Canteen. Covering boxing since 2005 ~ Wolves fan ~ wannabe boxing raconteur.

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