Eddie Hearn’s assertion that there is a “brilliant chance” Anthony Joshua will fight Deontay Wilder in November or December, unifying the heavyweight title for the first time since Lennox Lewis owned the division nearly two decades ago, is the best news boxing has had in a long while.
The sport and the business need an undisputed heavyweight champion. And confused fans want someone they can identify with as the best fighter in the world, without argument, someone who can rule for more than a few fights – like it used to be in the days of Joe Louis, Rocky Marciano, Muhammad Ali and Mike Tyson. Whoever ends up with the WBC, IBF, WBA and WBO belts should be that man.
Why is Hearn so certain it will happen? One man: his business associate, John Skipper, the executive chairman of DAZN, a streaming outlet that was little known a couple of years ago, but is now a major player across the boxing landscape. It was Skipper who persuaded Gennady Golovkin and Saul Álvarez to sign – pretty much guaranteeing a third fight between the two best middleweights in the world.
And so to the heavyweights. Wilder has to see off his WBA mandatory challenger, Dominic Breazeale in May, and Joshua must beat Jarrell “Big Baby” Miller in June.
What opened the door for the two unbeaten giants to square off was Tyson Fury’s recent decision to sign with ESPN, which scuppered his rematch with Wilder. Skipper then stepped in and will engage the WBC title-holder in serious talks this week.
Ben Davison, Fury’s trainer, told video journalist Kugan Cassius “everyone brings their piece of the pie” to the deals. “It has to be 50-50, to find out who’s the best.” He said he would not be shocked if Wilder went to DAZN, adding, “Definitely not. DAZN will do a lot to get Wilder, but will [Wilder-Joshua] happen this year? I don’t think it will.”
However, if Skipper persuades Wilder to sign – and even if he does embark on promotional bouts before meeting Joshua – there will be a lot of happy faces in the Matchroom offices in Romford.
As Hearn said this week, “The only way that deal was ever gonna get made was doing it this way – the John Skipper way. I think he will get Wilder, I do. It’s fantastic. We’ve got a brilliant chance of making the Joshua fight.”
DAZN is subscription rather than pay-per-view, with growing audience reach in the United States – as Davison acknowledges – and Skipper and Hearn, apparently, can get the numbers to make sense. It has opened up the game for other fighters, too.
Johnson steps out of the shadows
There’s a second or maybe third-hand quote in Ulysses that James Joyce might have borrowed specifically for the 33-year-old Lincolnshire light-heavyweight, Callum Johnson: “Be careful what you wish for in youth, because you will get it in middle life.”
On another quality DAZN show, Johnson, who has toiled most of his career in anonymity, stopped evergreen Irish-American Sean Monaghan on the undercard at the Turning Stone Resort & Casino in Verona, upstate New York, on Saturday night, to put himself in a very dangerous place: the prospective opponent for boxing’s quiet destroyer, Dmitry Bivol.
After battering the 37-year-old Monaghan (a former bricklayer whose parents emigrated to New York from County Meath), Johnson said in the ring: “It wasn’t perfect, but I’m ready for the top level again. I want to fight the winner of the main event tonight.”
In that bout, the extraordinary Bivol enhanced his reputation at the expense of rock-headed Joe Smith Jr, securing a shutout points defence of his WBA light-heavyweight title as if he were shadow-boxing in the gym.
And this is how boxing works: because Johnson, a Matchroom fighter, is now perfectly placed as Bivol’s next opponent, an assignment as dangerous as it is potentially life-changing.
Johnson, whose only loss in 19 bouts was in his previous world title challenge when he shocked the undefeated IBF champion Artur Beterbiev with a cracking head shot in round two before being overpowered by the Russian in the fourth – is desperate to test himself at the highest level again. “I think I probably needed that loss more than I needed to win, mentally,” he said of the Beterbiev fight, “to make me realise how much I want that world title. Eddie’s going to push for me to get the biggest fights possible.” With Skipper watching closely.
Bivol, meanwhile, is a bit of a sleeper, known to hardcore fans, but yet to explode in the wider consciousness. He is a joy to watch, a master of space and distance, with easy power and an emotionless demeanour reminiscent of Marvin Hagler. For 12 rounds, he cruised in second gear to break down Smith, a tough, 29-year-old New Yorker with a decent record but none of the tools to bother a champion from a different stratosphere. Bivol was as sharp, focused and hurtful at the end as he was in nearly every exchange, and had Smith hanging on in a neutral corner on as the final bell went, bruised and dazzled.
Johnson will struggle to do any better than Smith against the Russian phenomenon, but he won’t shrink from the challenge.