Among all of the big men in boxing right now, there is one genuinely good heavyweight. And although—or, more likely, because—Luis “King Kong” Ortiz has looked impressive in his two most recent HBO fights, no recognized fellow champions seem interested in trying to pick up his WBA belt. Ranked contenders aren’t lining up for it either.
Why wouldn’t the top fighters in a division want to challenge themselves against the best in their weight class? Wouldn’t beating the best champion also be the best business decision?
There’s no simple answer to that. Knock off Sergey Kovalev, Gennady Golovkin, or Saul Alvarez and the doors to the Treasury will fly open for you. There are no other fighters at their weights who can begin to provide the paydays that they can. But Luis Ortiz, who is as dominant (or more so) in his division as these three are in theirs, doesn’t offer the same financial incentives they do.
Remember, boxing is primarily about making money—short-term and long-term money. In an era of splintered titles and little mainstream interest in the sport, the best fighter in a division is whoever is most loudly proclaimed to be so; there are narratives that can be constructed to point to any undefeated fighter as best. Only real boxing people can tell the difference. And that, in the world of commerce, is of very little importance.
So it’s no wonder that none of the other heavyweight champions (Tyson Fury, Deontay Wilder, Charles Martin, Lucas Browne), undefeated prospects (Anthony Joshua, Joseph Parker, Dominic Breazeale), or established star fighters (David Haye, Alexander Povetkin) are eager to dive into the treacherous waters Ortiz presents. It’s likely that they’d all lose to him; most would be embarrassed on their way to being knocked out; and Breazeale and Martin are too undeveloped to even get hired on as his sparring partners.
None of this is necessarily a bad thing for the division, though, and it’s certainly not a bad thing for business.
Like most Cuban amateur stars who got late professional starts after emigrating, Luis Ortiz brings a lot of difficult baggage with him, and so has been stuck playing catch-up, racing against time, weight, general apathy, the spookiness of being a southpaw, and possible health issues to establish himself as the preeminent guy in the division. He’s hoping to cash in once or twice before something—probably more circumstantial than oppositional—brings him down.
The problem for Ortiz is that there are strategic matchups that exclude him—fights can be made between all the other top heavyweights that will pay them well, but would entail far less risk than their getting into a ring with him. Ortiz is also hamstrung by contemporary perceptions of what a top tier heavyweight is supposed to look like. If the muscular, chiseled, in-their-primes Joshua and Martin ineptly flail away at each other for three or four desperate rounds, it’s likely that no harm will be done to either’s career. The frenetic combat allows the victor to become a hero and the loser to remain entirely viable. Being systematically taken apart by a middle-aged man whose vast and spreading waistline accentuates his unpumped biceps and pecs instantly crumbles the carefully built marketing campaign of whoever’s dumb enough to step into the ring with him.
So let’s remove King Kong from the jungle for the time being, and look at how the egalitarian runners-up might shake out.
A nearly perfect balance of substandard heavyweights, largely with shared strengths and weaknesses, makes for vigorous debate as to how they’d do against each other. We’ll get to that.
Despite promoting two undefeated champions and an undefeated title aspirant, Al Haymon’s Premier Boxing Champions has had a dismal track record when it comes to scouting marketable heavyweight prospects. If you have money and know what you’re doing through astute matchmaking in all its permutations, you can keep fighters undefeated while creating a buzz around them, even if they’re not very good. But the PBC approach has been to promulgate first, to oversell their prospects in a way that brings early interest, and then kill off their momentum by matching them against modest journeymen who are still not bad enough to keep from exposing cringe-inducing limitations.
Deontay Wilder, after a series of cinematic-looking first-round knockouts that got the easily hoodwinked talking about him, lost his power during his title winning performance over the mysteriously sluggish Bermane Stiverne. He has since had difficulty putting away European part-time pros. His first 32 blowouts never reached the fifth round, but he’s gone 41 rounds in his last four fights. If people are still talking about him a little bit, it’s mostly because they’ve finally gotten the joke.
The situation with Charles Martin is even worse. He may have more natural talent than Wilder (not the toughest proposition), but all but the most basic instinctual fighting maneuvers are unknown to him. There’s a reason why he’s yet to face a technically sound boxer or anyone whose name is vaguely recognizable to any but hardcore viewers.
In PBC’s distant third place is Dominic Breazeale, an oafish giant of such ineptitude that it’s only a matter of time before he knocks himself out tripping over his own feet. Boxing people say that football players never make good fighters, and Breazeale does nothing to refute that hoary wisdom. His only market value is as a 17-0 heavyweight with 15 kayos available to be knocked out by anyone who ponies up the money to pay for it.
The question for the cash-hemorrhaging PBC is what it’s worth to sell off each of these guys’ undefeated records.
There is suddenly a plethora of heavyweight fights being bandied about as upcoming. Some make sense and will probably happen, and some are bullshit—either saber-rattling or else bad ideas that are unlikely to actually take place. (Shannon Briggs versus anyone else mentioned here would qualify.) We’ll confine ourselves to the serious possibilities.
Let’s start with the titles, such as they are. The following fights either already have dates and locations or are in the process of being scheduled. Although these are major fights, what may prove more interesting is the space they open up in the division once they’ve been completed. That’s when everyone can really get to work.
Tyson Fury is a short term placeholder champion, a massively-proportioned English Traveler descending from a long line of lawbreaking bareknuckle brawlers. Against hefty odds last November, he lassoed the IBF, WBA, and WBO belts from Wladimir Klitschko, doing a surprisingly light-footedly elephantine dance around the ring while flicking jabs at a suddenly ossified longtime champion who appeared to show a patrician distaste toward pugilism in general and his opponent in particular.
The upset decision made Fury the legitimate lineal world champion. It did little to assuage doubt about his abilities. That it didn’t is irrelevant: Fury’s economic potential is enormous if he can prevail in the Klitschko rematch.
Fury eats up all the oxygen in any room he enters, something that Wilder, Martin, or Ortiz will never be able to do. He’s an original thinker with a lot of outlandishly offensive ideas—a polarizing figure who people will pay good money to either support or see lose. Since gaining the titles, he has been featured on an HBO special, serenaded crowds at various events, stuck his face aggressively into other heavyweight faces, and hinted that he would not honor Klitschko’s rematch clause, opting instead to take a “bigger” fight at some surprise exotic location.
The rematch with Klitschko will certainly take place, but for the overall benefit of heavyweight boxing over the next couple of years, it’s important that Klitschko not win it. He is a relic whose era has passed totemically, if not actually, and who holds no lure to anyone outside of Germany and the Ukraine. More significantly, his winning back the title would gum up the works, effectively reestablishing gridlock at the top of the division.
A Fury victory, on the other hand, allows him to stir up all kinds of lucrative mayhem. His fights might be dull, but the promotions won’t be.
Deontay Wilder came out of the starting gate faster than almost any American heavyweight of recent years, accompanied by lots of fanfare as to what a killer he was, and got handed his WBC title belt early, but then wound up stranded when his own glaring limitations made it obvious to even his staunchest supporters that he could only fight at about an even level with club fighters cherry-picked from the WBC’s top 30 rankings. Once awash in buzz, now no one gives a fuck about Wilder. (In the post-fight proceedings after his last defense, attention toward him was effortlessly usurped by Tyson Fury’s bullying.)
Haymon, his PBC promoter, may now be stuck with an expensive, artificially-produced piece of deadwood. What’s the solution? Stop throwing good money after bad and recoup some financial losses. Roll the dice against an opponent who, even if better than your guy, wouldn’t produce a highlight reel video of one perfectly timed left hook to the prognathic jaw forever debunking him.
Although there’s been a lot of lip service paid to having Alexander Povetkin travel to the Barclay’s Center in Brooklyn or Madison Square Garden in NYC to take on Wilder, don’t bet on its happening
More likely, the fight will require having Wilder fly to Russia to accept the ludicrously inflated payday offered by Povetkin’s manager, Vladimir Hryunov.
It’s unlikely that Wilder could defeat the capable and mean-spirited Povetkin on neutral ground; in Russia, he’d need the persuasiveness of exactly the behind the scenes guys Povetkin has already got in his corner.
Once he’s won the title, Povetkin is in a position to hunker down at home, allowing the deep-pocketed Hryunov to import any opponent who can manage to bulk up to 200 pounds, from Roy Jones, Jr. to Mickey Rourke to the late Mickey Rooney.
If sending Wilder to Russian to fight Povetkin can be seen as rolling the dice in exchange for a large infusion of cash, then dispatching Charles Martin to the U.K. in order to get Anthony Joshua his first world title (likewise for a large infusion of cash) can be seen as playing Powerball. It’s a case of PBC’s sacrificing a pawn to the U.K.’s new king in order to stay in the game.
Martin, the company’s IBF champion, is a big, muscled-up street kid—available for stereotyping by anyone programmed to decode his look as menacing. He fights like someone who has been taken aside by older, halfway informed winos from the neighborhood—guys who’d had a few scuffles in prison—and given a variety of narrated demonstrations, and won his title via the IBF’s rarely used “Unknown Ukrainian Opponent Trips in 3rd Round, Hurts Knee, Has to Pull Out of Fight” ruling. There’s not a ripple of interest whatsoever for him in light of the scrum of other undefeated heavyweights hovering around.
Cashing Martin out is the best policy, opening the door for Joshua to gain his first title and vaulting him from England’s proudest hope to being a superstar. PBC can undoubtedly get a little bit of the Joshua action, the way that Don King got a little bit of the Wilder action when delivering Stiverne.
The Brits take their fighters—especially their heavyweights—seriously. Henry Cooper—“our ’Enery”—never close to being a world champion, but tearfully remembered for dumping Muhammad Ali on his ass, was knighted. Frank Bruno became a beloved figure simply by losing twice to Mike Tyson. Even no-hopers like Brian London and Phil Scott had their advocates. So Joshua, whom the whole Commonwealth prays might be the real thing, is a national investment.
But can he actually fight? The stats (15-0, all kayos) are there, as are the size, reach, and Olympic gold medal imprimatur. At 26, he’s just approaching his prime, and has already headlined a PPV against the previously undefeated Dillian Whyte.
Yet there are concerns. Despite the glossy knockout record, his power has, like Wilder’s, at least looked suspiciously staged three or four times. And Whyte took his best shots surprisingly well, even providing Joshua with a number of anxious moments before succumbing. Joshua fights rigidly, which may prove a hindrance if he takes on someone like David Haye in a blockbuster PPV. (He also sports the same oddly progthanic jaw line as Wilder.)
Still, even in a non-fixed fight, Joshua is an almost sure bet to knock out Martin. And any manner of victory sets things up for a fight with Haye or a title unification with Fury. There’s no way to overestimate the potential magnitude of these bouts. Either could be the most lucrative contest ever fought on British soil.
Lucas Browne won his version of the title by flying over to Grozny, capital of the Chechen Republic, so that he could get the shit kicked out of him by the solidly skilled Ruslan Chagaev. For nine rounds, both fighters did their jobs, with Browne getting beaten to a pulp as Chagaev administered a systematic working over. Then 37 years, 248 ½ pounds, and deplorable conditioning brought Chagaev crashing face first into the wall and a bleeding and bewildered Browne was left standing, a WBA title belt being begrudgingly placed around his waist.
The new champion, ill-suited except in matters of courage to being a boxer, will likely lose his title in his first or second defense. It’s certain that Ricky Hatton, his promoter, will continue to maneuver him well, and will pick the opponent who will provide the greatest payday.
He could probably make a good score by heading back to Grozny or Moscow to face Povetkin in a “unification” match (assuming Povetkin beats Wilder) that could be billed as being for U.S. vs. Soviet pride after Chagaev’s demoralizing loss. Browne would have no chance at all against Povetkin, who does everything better than Chagaev and has already beaten a vastly more fit iteration of him rather easily, but he’d head home to Australia a wealthy man.
Or he could just stay home and take on Joseph Parker in the biggest fight ever seen in the Antipodes.
Parker is at the threshold of being a national sports hero in New Zealand, another country that takes its heavyweight boxers seriously. Like his popular predecessors Jimmy Thunder and David Tua, Parker is a muscular Samoan who can bang, a particularly easy sell to those who enjoy their heavyweights looking like comic-bookish wrecking balls.
Parker, like his fellow undefeated prospects still largely untested, has some good things going for him. Kevin Barry is a solid trainer who hasn’t skimped on providing his charge with sound, if abecedarian, fundamentals. Parker works off a good hard, speedy jab. And he moves gracefully for a big man. He might seem a little programmed, but that attention to minding his P’s and Q’s will serve him well against a technically unsound opponent like Lucas Browne.
Parker needs only one noteworthy win to jump himself into the elite heavyweight mix. And Browne, to everyone’s economic benefit, is the right man to provide it.
In the U.K., David Haye has long been a figure at the top of boxing’s food chain. A sagaciously self-managed crossover star, he can leave the sport for years, come back whenever it suits him, and still command multimillion dollar paydays headlining PPV cards against handpicked opponents. Movie star handsome, with a never-ending line of funny or irritating bullshit, he’s an unequalled self-promoter. He’s at home wearing the white or black hat too; with Fury, he’ll mostly be the good guy, facing Joshua, he’ll play subtle heel.
Because Haye has had one foot in and one foot out of boxing for so long, and because of age and nagging injuries, the chances are that he’ll only fight once or twice more before permanently retiring. If so, the smarter move is for him to try taking Fury’s title first; he is probably a more beatable choice than Joshua. Haye’s Achilles’ Heel is his chin, but Fury is no puncher. And Fury’s size shouldn’t trouble him too much: in winning the WBA title from Nicolay Valuev in 2009, he’s already beaten a guy who’s far bigger than Tyson.
Haye-Fury is a payday of $10 million or more per man. Whoever wins can then take on Joshua in a title unification that’ll put more money in their pockets than would seem possible to American fight fans. Whoever comes out on top will indelibly attain legendary status in the UK, despite never having beaten a truly formidable opponent.
If this isn’t boxing at its finest, it’s the Mount Olympus of boxing business.
Where might things go from here? It gets complicated. If Wilder beats Povetkin somehow, he notches a credible scalp, and can demand an enormous sum to come to the UK to unify the titles against Joshua. If Povetkin beats Wilder—the more likely result—Joshua would be invited, with tons of money being dangled in front of him, to put his belt on the line in Russia. He’s unlikely to take the bait, but Povetkin could go to England, figuring that he has a good chance to knock Joshua out no matter where, and that the payday is worth the risk, since he too is getting older and will never be a figure who electrifies people.
Past that? The market in China could play a part, where the improbable hero Jun Long Zhang (12-0, 12 kayos) may be paraded out as a national symbol. Zhang has a lot of discretionary influence in his home country: in his most recent fight, he appeared to stop the bout on the referee’s behalf, scoring a quick knockout. It might be tough for an outsider to leave China the winner, other than by scoring a clean knockout with a punch landed unambiguously to the point of the chin.
The point is that the very fungibility of these fighters—the way that they can be mixed and matched in nearly any combination to make a hard to predict and possibly entertaining fight—has breathed the first signs of life into what had long been a moribund weight division.
This comes from Luis Ortiz’s two most recent opponents:
“He is strong as advertised … the guy is as strong as a monster,” said Tony Thompson.
“I was fighting pressure against pedigree. I think it was pedigree that overpowered me,” said Bryant Jennings.
Pedigree, more than anything else, separates Luis Ortiz from every other heavyweight. Anthony Joshua may have an Olympic gold medal, and Deontay Wilder may have his bronze, but nothing compares to being chosen early in life to come through the most sophisticated amateur program ever produced, being routinely reminded of that program’s cultural heritage, sparring against the most talented boxers on the island—which means the world—day after day, and internalizing every varied technique imaginable. Ortiz came into the pros knowing more than anyone he’ll fight will ever learn.
Why go anywhere near him when you don’t have to? He’s 37 or 40 or 42; he’ll go away on his own if you just ignore him.
Charles Farrell has spent most of his professional life moving between music and boxing (with a few detours along the way). He has managed five world champion boxers and has 30 CDs listed under his name. Farrell is currently at work on a book of essays about music, boxing, gangsterism, and lowlife culture; a boxing anthology edited by Mike Ezra and Carlo Rotella; and a TV series, Red House, based on events from an earlier part of his life.