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Eddie Goldman is the host and producer of the No Holds Barred international podcast, the publisher of the No Holds Barred blog, and a senior contributing editor at the ADCC News.

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Monday, January 15, 2018

2018, The Year Of The Heavyweights 


by Eddie Goldman

Welcome to 2018, which is shaping up to be the year of the heavyweights.

Two heavyweight title mega-fights were just officially announced, as you may already know. And while neither was a surprise and both were long reported to be in the works, the timing of these announcements was curious, to say the least.

On Friday afternoon Eastern Time, right before a long weekend in the U.S., with Monday being a national holiday to mark the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., it was officially announced,that March 3 in Brooklyn, New York, the 32-year-old American, WBC heavyweight champ Deontay Wilder, 39-0 with 38 KOs, would finally face the ageless Cuban Luis "King Kong" Ortiz, 28-0 with 24 KOs.

Then on Sunday morning U.K. time, and still before sunrise in the U.S., came the official news that on March 31 in Cardiff, Wales, the 28-year-old Anthony Joshua of the U.K., the IBF and WBA super champion, with a record of 20-0 with all 20 wins coming by knockout, would face the 26-year-old WBO heavyweight champ Joseph Parker of New Zealand, who has a record of 24-0 with 18 KOs, in a title unification bout.

It almost seemed like these two announcements were made for fights competing with one another. In reality, they could signify the first round of a series of historic fights which could not only eventually lead to the crowning of one undisputed heavyweight champion of the world, but the elevation of such a champion to the status of being the top and most intriguing athlete in the world, not seen since the heydays of fighters like Joe Louis, Muhammad Ali, and Mike Tyson. And, of course, such developments could lift the sport, if you can call it that, of boxing further out of its self-imposed marginalized status, assuming that for a little while at least the people running it can avoid barreling down a self-destructive path.

Not a lot of people are expecting Joseph Parker to defeat Anthony Joshua. Though both are undefeated, Parker has not looked like a world-beater in his last several fights. In December 2016 he won a close majority decision against then-unbeaten Andy Ruiz Jr. to win the WBO belt. He was also taken the distance against late replacement Razvan Cojanu in May of last year, and won another majority decision in September in a terrible fight against the then-unbeaten and highly awkward Hughie Fury, the younger cousin of former champ Tyson Fury. Parker had been knocking most of his opponents out before those three fights, and they raised questions about both his power, speed, and ability to adapt to higher-level competition.

Parker's signature win, so far, was a controversial third-round knockout in the fight right before those three decisions, in October 2016 when he stopped perennial contender Alexander Dimitrenko. Even though Parker sometimes looked sloppy in this fight, he repeatedly hurt the taller Dimitrenko, who is an inch taller than Anthony Joshua. But the final, and fourth knockdown of the fight, in just the third round, appeared to take place when Dimitrenko had been pushed down to the canvas and was on a knee, and Parker landed a hard body shot after a clearly legal one. The referee, the late Marlon Wright, originally signaled that there was no knockdown. But when Dimitrenko stayed on the canvas writhing in pain and spitting out his mouthpiece, Wright counted him out, for this non-knockdown. Still, Parker was dominating the fight and Dimitrenko was never in it. And if you think Parker just beat up a washed-up bum, remember that in his two most recent fights, Dimitrenko has scored victories over previously-unbeaten opponents, including a first-round knockout of the highly-touted Adrian Granat.

But for Parker to be even competitive with Joshua, he will have to show more speed, better footwork, and more accurate punching than in his last three fights. It is obvious that Joshua has the advantages in power and size, and Parker does not have the power Klitschko had to take advantage of a mistake by Joshua when he knocked him down last year and came close to stopping him. Parker has said that he thinks Joshua has a glass jaw, which obviously is hyperbole, although his chin is one vulnerability Parker will seek to exploit.

If Parker fights like he did, though, in his recent fights, Joshua will have no trouble finding him, hurting him, and stopping him. Expect a competitive fight with impressive moments for both guys, but Joshua remains a prohibitive favorite for logical reasons. Even after Joshua's less-than-impressive performance against late replacement Carlos Takam in his most recent fight, he still dominated that entire fight. But if Joshua gets distracted by all the glitz and business side of things during his training, he could underestimate Parker and take a win as a given, which can never be done, especially in heavyweight boxing.

The business side of this fight also may indicate some important changes for Joshua. He and Klitschko were extremely respectful of each other in the lead-up to their fight, with both, of course, promising victory. The Joshua-Parker fight has already descended into nastiness, with Parker's promoter David Higgins lacing into Joshua, Parker joining the chorus, and Joshua vowing not to shake Parker's hand after the fight after his expected victory. This is how they are building this fight, as if they need this rubbish to sell it.

If this fight is to elevate boxing to must-see status around the world, it cannot be viewed as akin to the fake "wrestling". It should be sold as a unification fight of major heavyweight titles, and a prelude to the winner fighting to unify all the major belts. That would be historic, so the hysterics are both self-defeating and unnecessary. But this is professional boxing, which has always skirted the law and laughed at decency, and appears to be quite ready to squander the prestige and even glamour it achieved after the Joshua-Klitschko fight.

If the favorite Joshua wins and then holds three of the major four belts, it is far from a given that he will try to win the one he doesn't have, the WBC belt, this year. Holding multiple titles means having multiple mandatory contenders, which can range from being an annoyance, a farce, or a fair way to guarantee that top contenders are not locked out of having a title shot for political or business reasons. But Joshua satisfied his obligation to fight the IBF mandatory by beating Takam, and may be able to take care of two mandatories at once by facing Alexander Povetkin. He has been announced as the WBA mandatory, and also knocked off the WBO number one contender, Christian Hammer, with a lopsided unanimous decision in December. That fight would free up Joshua for another unification fight afterward.

It does make sense for a victorious Joshua to face Povetkin after Parker, rather than WBC champ Deontay Wilder. The Russian Povetkin, who has also fought several times in Germany but never outside Europe, is better known in Europe, which is Joshua's home base, than the American Wilder. Wilder is also not a big draw in the U.S. or on U.S. TV, at least so far, so there is not even a business urgency for Joshua to plan to fight him.

There is also another wrinkle to having a Joshua-Wilder fight. Wilder is contracted with Al Haymon, with his premium cable fights on Showtime. Joshua's TV home in the U.K. is Sky Sports, which airs his fights on pay-per-view. Joshua has had a deal with Showtime for U.S. TV, but that reportedly has only one more fight left on it, with Showtime having the ability to match any offer from a rival network, as they did with the Takam fight when HBO tried to step in. HBO also aired the Joshua-Klitschko fight on same-day tape-delay after Showtime aired it live in the afternoon U.S. time, and had expressed an interest in signing Joshua as its own boxing program has been sinking of late.

Also, Joshua's promoter, Eddie Hearn, started Matchroom Boxing USA last year, and has a deal with HBO to televise those shows in the U.S. So will Hearn, who now has fights on HBO, Showtime, and ESPN, try to take Joshua with him to HBO? Or will he just play the networks against each other to get the most lucrative deal? It should also be noted that the announcement of the Joshua-Parker fight listed no other TV than Sky Sports Box Office, meaning the American network which will show it, in the afternoon of March 31 in the U.S., has not been determined yet.

Another wild card in all of this is CBS, the broadcast network which is part of the parent company of Showtime. If CBS wants to air Joshua-Wilder thinking that Wilder will win, and that fight is held in the U.S., in either New York or Las Vegas, there may be too much money, coverage, and publicity involved to turn it down.

But if Joshua does end up at HBO, it then seems much less likely that a fight with the Showtime-contracted Wilder would happen any time soon, and especially since it does not appear to be a fight with potential to set or even approach any TV or pay-per-view records. And if Joshua fights Povetkin and then Wilder, and wins all these fights, once again he will have four new mandatories, giving the sanctioning bodies a reason to strip him of a belt or two if he fails to fight them. So where is the urgency to unify all these belts, when almost no one cares about them anyway?

Joshua also has the potential of more lucrative fights with David Haye, if he defeats Tony Bellew in their rematch in May and manages to stay healthy. And the elephant in the room, who still almost looks like one, is former champ Tyson Fury, assuming he can get in any kind of fighting shape and avoid too many physical and mental problems. Then, perhaps in 2019, it's on to Wilder, if he still has his belt, but he also for now should be a lower priority for Joshua than Povetkin, Haye, and Fury.

The plan does seem to be for Wilder to hold onto that belt, by any means necessary. He was originally scheduled to fight Ortiz in November, but that fight was cancelled after Ortiz failed a VADA drug test due to banned substances he said was in his prescription blood pressure medication, for which he never applied for a therapeutic use exemption or even listed that medicine on his prefight medical questionnaire. For that, Ortiz was removed from that November 4 main event and replaced by then-WBC mandatory contender and former champ Bermane Stiverne. Then Stiverne lasted less than a round with Wilder, throwing a total of four punches and landing exactly zero, in a performance in which Showtime announcer Al Bernstein said euphemistically, "Bermane Stiverne was a cooperator."

It appeared very convenient that Ortiz did not face Wilder then, as many believed that in a fair fight Ortiz would clobber the awkward Wilder and ruin Wilder's chances of a massive payday in a unification fight with Joshua. That episode of boxing's brand of trickeration has been analyzed in great detail by the best boxing writers out there, Charles Farrell and Frank Lotierzo, as well as by myself. Not only is it not worth repeating all that, but the only thing that needs to be added now is that it appears that boxing's gods (or devils) will not allow Wilder to lose to Ortiz on March 3, one way or another. Otherwise, this fight will never have been made, and still may end up not taking place for one reason or another.

Friday's announcement of Wilder-Ortiz did not include any mention of who is televising it, meaning that it likely is also being pitched to CBS, since it probably has to land there or Showtime. But unlike boxing, CBS is run professionally, and these major networks usually have their sports schedules in place many months and even years in advance. For example, Super Bowl LIII is scheduled for Sunday, February 3, 2019, in Atlanta, Georgia, and will be televised by CBS. The 2018 Major League Baseball World Series is scheduled to begin October 23 and be televised on Fox, even though the regular season doesn't start until March 29. So what is the likelihood that CBS will shuffle its schedule and risk annoying advertisers, who buy ads also months and sometimes years in advance, for a fight which was already cancelled once? It could be a mistake if they try such a thing.

What is likely to happen is that sometime, somewhere, there will be a WWE-style faceoff between Joshua and Wilder, especially if Joshua-Parker is televised on Showtime in the U.S. Who will be the face and who will be the heel remains to be determined, but let's at least hope that masks and steel chairs are not part of that charade.

Also likely this week are press conferences for these two fights. The Joshua-Parker one will take place Tuesday in London, with foreboding warnings of anger boiling over, and so on. As of Sunday, the date for the Wilder-Ortiz press conference has not been announced and is presumably awaiting the TV deal to be finalized. It may take place this Thursday as part of the final press conference for the January 20 Spence-Peterson card, also on Showtime and also at the Barclays Center, or possibly the day of that fight, but we shall see.

Despite all the behind-the-scenes business maneuverings and typical trickeration, we do seem to be on the cusp of another promising era in the heavyweight division. Let's just hope it doesn't get screwed up.

(Photo of Luis Ortiz and Deontay Wilder by Douglas DeFelice, Premier Boxing Champions.)

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