Boxing occasionally has some loaded summers, but historically the sport has always seemed to cool to some degree between June and September.
It’s really true in 2022.
The first half of this year was about as good as the sport could have asked for but the July and August slates have felt a little like the old school television cycle. Season finales in the classic sense by June, season premieres in September, and maybe a few shows of note tested in between.
A big exception is just more than one week away when unified titlist Oleksandr Usyk (19-0, 11 KO) of Ukraine defends in a rematch with the UK’s Anthony Joshua (24-2, 22 KO). It’s a rich, significant fight, even if at this writing it still doesn’t have official US distribution, set against the backdrop of ongoing war in Ukraine.
Heavyweight boxing has never stopped being big business, but it’s hard not to argue it’s been more fun, more unpredictable since the night Tyson Fury wrested the heavyweight crown from Wladimir Klitschko after a long period of consistent sibling dominance.
In the States, heavyweight boxing developed its biggest attraction in a generation with the rise of Deontay Wilder. A prominent American has meant greater access to the lucrative US pay-per-view market but the volume of heavyweight talent has largely resided where it’s been for almost all of the 21st century.
In particular, Usyk-Joshua II highlights where the very top of the division has largely split time since Lennox Lewis ushered in the 2000s as the reigning heavyweight king. There have been prominent contenders and beltholders from all over the world, but the UK and Ukraine have produced the four most critical champions of the 21st century: Lewis and Fury on the UK side and Ukraine’s Klitschko brothers.
Boxing’s ethnic and national rivalries are nothing new. A good Mexico v. Puerto Rico countdown is always good for a click. Volumes have been written about the battles between US immigrant classes in the first half of the twentieth century. UK v. Ukraine feels like a growing new addition to such storied rivalries.
The real birth of the rivalry, if that’s what we’re witnessing, was June 21, 2003. Lennox Lewis and Vitali Klitschko were set to share a bill with Lewis defending against Kirk Johnson while Klitschko faced Cedric Boswell. The intent was to set up a showdown, giving fans a fresh look at Klitschko in his first US fight before he pursued his WBC mandatory crack at Lewis.
The bigger plan at the time was more elaborate. HBO was heavily invested in Klitschko’s brother Wladimir and initial plans were for Lewis to face Johnson, then Vitali (perceived vulnerable after an injury loss to Chris Byrd), setting up a pay-per-view showdown with Wladimir.
Plans went awry. Wladimir lost to Corrie Sanders before Lewis could get to Johnson. Then Johnson got hurt.
It all ended up being serendipitous.
Lewis opted to accept Vitali, a bold short replacement choice, in place of Johnson and then the whole thing caught fire. ESPN was on site for a week of sports coverage in Los Angeles and suddenly had an attractive heavyweight title fight at the Staples Center to cover. HBO produced its biggest live audience in four years with nearly five million homes tuned in.
The crowd was packed and everyone got more than they bargained for.
Klitschko hurt Lewis early and controlled the early going of a battle between behemoths. Lewis battled back, opening a savage cut on Klitschko, and both men were landing bombs in the sixth round of a classic. When the referee stopped the fight, the cries of ‘rematch!’ were immediate.
It never happened, Lewis opting to retire as champion, but what might not have been clear at the time was the seed setting that had commenced. In the years since Lewis-Klitschko, heavyweights from the UK and Ukraine have been a story that keeps coming back.
There was Vitali’s memorable title defense against Dereck Chisora, a decent fight highlighted by tons of trash talk and wild press conferences. Wladimir Klitschko unified three heavyweight belts in a decision over the UK’s David Haye, lost his unified crown to Fury, and retired following a Fight of the Year classic versus Joshua. The Haye and Joshua clashes were the two biggest heavyweight fights of the 2010s in terms of global audience.
Now we get the next chapter, a sequel to the last. Joshua, one of the sport’s biggest draws outside Saul Alvarez, had his moments last year in an entertaining battle with Usyk. It was Joshua’s second engagement with a fellow Olympic Gold medalist, Klitschko being the other, and the stakes are high. He’s fighting to avoid a 2-3 mark in his last five starts, to protect the brand, and to maintain his place as one of the best heavyweights in the world.
If Joshua wins, it feels inevitable that we see what would likely be the biggest UK fight in history: Fury-Joshua. We’re probably getting that eventually regardless.
Usyk could get to the did-anyone-really-believe-that-retirement-garbage reigning king of the big men first with a win. Imagine the scene. Twenty years after Lewis-Klitschko, Fury-Usyk could pit UK versus Ukraine one more time for all the marbles.
It would be hard to deny its place as one of the great new competitive rivalries in boxing if we get there.
Cliff Rold is the Managing Editor of BoxingScene, a founding member of the Transnational Boxing Rankings Board, a member of the International Boxing Research Organization, and a member of the Boxing Writers Association of America.