The so-called golden age of heavyweight boxing was the 1970s. This was the age of Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier, George Foreman, Larry Holmes. The presence of so many powerful heavyweights in the same era prompted a series of fights which have become widely renowned. The ‘Fight of the Century’ between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier. The Thrilla in Manilla, the exhaustive third in a trilogy between the same combatants. The Sunshine Showdown, when a seemingly invincible Frazier lost his undefeated record to the imposing George Foreman. The Rumble in the Jungle, when a seemingly invincible Foreman lost his undefeated record to Muhammad Ali.
In order to become a legendary fighting sport, you need legendary fights. In order to have legendary fights, you need lots of not-so legendary fights. From 1970 to 1980, the WBC sanctioned twenty five separate fights for the heavyweight championship of the world. Throughout the same period, the era’s top boxing name and personality, Muhammad Ali, fought a gruelling 29 times. Now, in the 2020s, we find ourselves in arguably the most exciting era for heavyweight boxing since that heady golden age. No one would argue this era is the second coming of the 70s, but it has already proved far more entertaining than the two decades which preceded it. This is largely down to the personality of the fighters. Boxers have learned that self-promotion is almost as important to their career as tangible boxing ability. Tyson Fury, Deontay Wilder and Anthony Joshua are all household names. To them, the title of ‘heavyweight champion’ appears almost incidental. An asterisk next to the name of ‘celebrity’.
This, perhaps, is part of the problem. For while this is the most successful era of heavyweight boxing since the 70s, it is also the most inactive. Top boxers have realised they don’t necessarily need to throw punches to be successful, and it is hurting the sport.
The numbers don’t lie. The aforementioned statistic of Muhammad Ali’s fight count in the 70’s far exceeds that of the current lineal heavyweight champion: namely, Tyson Fury. Since returning to the sport in 2018, Tyson Fury has entered the ring seven times in five years. This is the apex of his boxing career, yet he is much more commonly seen on social media than lacing his gloves. In the same period of time, Ali entered the ring 21 times, three times the amount of Fury.
The recent breakdown of fight negotiations between Usyk and Fury, the two current heavyweight championship belt holders, has frustrated almost everyone keen on the sport. The troubles of organising big fights has been exacerbated by the influx of Middle Eastern money into boxing. Undoubtedly, Fury and Usyk are within their right to pursue as much money as they can. According to SportingNews, Anthony Joshua earned over 60 million for his rematch with Andy Ruiz Jr, hosted in Saudi Arabia. Whether the speculation of negotiations breaking down in hope of a more lucrative Saudi deal is true, one fact cannot be denied. There are currently two heavyweight champions in boxing: Tyson Fury and Oleksander Usyk. And they are not in the ring with each other.
How can boxing claim to be the premier fighting sport in the world, ahead of its rising UFC competitor, without any fights? That, unfortunately for boxing fans, remains unclear.
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