By Michael Rosenthal
Boxing fans must be the most patient sports fans in the world.
Those who follow the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox never have to wonder when – or if – the baseball rivals will face one another. They meet 18 times every single season, which gives their devotees a regular fix of arguably the greatest rivalry in American sports. In a perfect world, that’s how it should be.
In boxing? Fans can only wait and hope – and perhaps pray – that the best-possible matchups become reality.
For example, we thought the Tyson Fury and Deontay Wilder rematch was imminent when suddenly Fury surprised us by signing a rich, multi-fight deal with powerful ESPN and Top Rank. Now Fury is fighting a German named Tom Schwarz on June 15 and we’re left to wonder when he will face a legitimate threat.
Fury or Wilder vs. Anthony Joshua? Ha. I don’t even think about that. Too masochistic.
Another example: The best-possible matchup in the sport is Terence Crawford vs. Errol Spence, a near-perfect pairing that would send fans into a tizzy, but promotional and television rivalries will make it difficult (impossible?) to put that event together.
Waiting. Hoping. Praying.
Sometimes the fans’ patience never pays off, which is a shame. Lennox Lewis vs. Riddick Bowe, a natural matchup of big, talented heavyweights in their primes in the 1990s, had “classic” written all over it. It never happened. (Sigh.)
And sometimes the fans’ are thrown a bone beyond the natural expiration date. The obvious example: Floyd Mayweather vs. Manny Pacquiao. The biggest stars of their generation should’ve fought around 2010, when they were still near their peaks and Pacquiao might’ve been a legitimate threat to the pound-for-pound king.
Instead, they met in 2015, when Pacquiao had already begun to slow down and Mayweather was 38. The fans, obviously desperate to see the long-discussed showdown, bought into it in big numbers but they should’ve known that two old warhorses couldn’t produce a fight worthy of the hype. What a waste.
It’s no wonder that boxing fans are perpetually frustrated.
Why does it happen?
I mentioned promotional conflicts. If Fighter A and Fighter B are aligned with competing promoters and those promoters don’t do business with one another, then “A” and “B” are more likely to fight not-as-talented “C” and “D” than each other. The same can apply to TV alliances.
There is the proverbial (and often exasperating) marinating process. Promoters want to stage their biggest fights at the time at which they can maximize profits, not too early and not too late. The problem is that unforeseen factors – a loss, an injury, a move to a different promoter or network – change the equation or they wait too long.
And, of course, there is the risk vs. reward factor. Fighters are almost always willing to take great risks for the right price. The question is: What’s the right price? Competing sides often disagree on the answer, which too often leads to dead ends in the negotiating process.
There IS hope, though, as those of us who have followed boxing long enough know.
Sometimes the fans ARE served fights about which they can get excited. Fury and Wilder met once, giving us a fight compelling enough to create demand for a sequel. Andre Ward and Sergey Kovalev were at the top of pound-for-pound lists when they met in 2016 and again in 2017. And Canelo Alvarez and Gennady Golovkin have met twice and, barring something unforeseen, probably will do it one more time.
Fury definitely threw a wrench into the heavyweight fan but I believe the big three – Fury, Wilder and Joshua – will find ways to meet each other for one overriding reason: money. They can make a good living against second-tier heavyweights but not the otherworldly cash they can generate against each other.
Money is a powerful motivating factor.
Fury and Wilder will now have to overcome promotional and television rivalries (Wilder is aligned with Showtime) but, assuming they win their upcoming fights, it seems the plan is to fight one more lesser opponent this year and then begin serious negotiations for a pay-per-view rematch early next year.
Fury and/or Wilder vs. Joshua? That’s a little more complicated but, at the risk of sounding overly optimistic, I believe that money will drive them together at some point soon. Who else is Joshua going to fight?
I’m not so sure about Crawford vs. Spence, who are aligned with Top Rank (ESPN) and Premier Boxing Champions (Showtime and FOX), respectively. The fact they have said they want to fight one another, as well as Arum and Co.’s apparent willingness to discuss it with Al Haymon at PBC, gives me cautious optimism but the process could be arduous.
One, Crawford arguably needs Spence more than Spence needs Crawford for a simple reason: Most of the top 147-pounders fight for PBC. That includes Keith Thurman, Shawn Porter and Manny Pacquiao, all of whom would make for a big-money fight against Spence. If Crawford beats Amir Khan on April 20, he could end up fighting the unbeaten but lesser-known Egidijus Kavaliauskas next.
And, two, the clock is ticking. Spence is a big welterweight, meaning he probably won’t stay at 147 pounds much longer, while Crawford has fought only twice at the weight.
I know. You’re gritting your teeth and asking yourself, “Why does it have to be so difficult?” This is boxing. If you stick with it through thick and then, if you can endure the pain, you will invariably be rewarded with a gem of a matchup here and there.
Waiting. Hoping. Praying.
Michael Rosenthal was the 2018 winner of the Boxing Writers Association of America’s Nat Fleischer Award for excellence in boxing journalism. He has covered boxing in Los Angeles and beyond for almost three decades.