Boxing will have an undisputed heavyweight champion in early 2024 after Tyson Fury and Oleksandr Usyk agreed to fight each other in Saudi Arabia on Feb 17.
Fury holds the WBC belt, which he won in 2020 when he beat Deontay Wilder. He has defended that belt three times, against Wilder, Dillian Whyte and most recently against Derek Chisora.
Usyk has held the WBA, IBF and WBO heavyweight titles since beating Anthony Joshua in 2021. He has defended those titles twice since: against Joshua and Daniel Dubois.
Both Fury and Usyk are undefeated so far in their professional boxing careers.
The last time boxing had a unified and undisputed heavyweight champion was in 2000 when Lennox Lewis held all four titles.
Analysis: Saudi Arabia has got the heavyweight division dancing
The moment Fury and Usyk step into the ring will define this era of heavyweight boxing. It will always be the most important dance in the sport, bar none.
The showdown, with the pair in their prime, will serve as a reminder that ‘the richest prize in sport’ – as the title of undisputed heavyweight champion has often been called – is truly that. Emblematic; symbolic in sport and culture. And when heavyweight boxing is strong, the rest of boxing is, too.
It is important that the Fury-Usyk bout reminds fans that the pinnacle of the sport still exists, in an era that has been threatened by the rise of YouTubers in the ring and fights between social media influencers. These sideshow events have become lucrative but frustrated traditional fans and boxing purists, who say they devalue the sweet science.
In recent months, it has taken Saudi Arabia’s investment and the timely intervention of Turki Al-Sheikh, a genuine boxing aficionado and the chairman of Saudi Arabia’s General Entertainment Authority, to get the mega-events over the line.
In the same week that the Fury-Usyk fight was confirmed, Saudi Arabia confirmed another blockbuster event, featuring Anthony Joshua and Deontay Wilder on the same card, despite their rival promoters – albeit those two heavyweights are not fighting each other.
The announcement of these big fight nights shows that Saudi Arabia is taking over heavyweight boxing. It is winning where others have failed: first with a heavyweight event bringing promoters Eddie Hearn (for Joshua) and Frank Warren (for Wilder) under the same roof. There they were at a Wembley news conference, two seats apart, Hearn’s fighter Joshua on Warren’s event. Hitherto unheard of, because despite being two of the most influential players in the sport Hearn and Warren have barely, if ever, spoken personally.
These are the kind of events that authorities in the UK and the United States have simply been unable to get over the line. Yes, there have been five significant heavyweight fights in recent years (Fury-Wilder thrice, Usyk-Joshua twice) but boxing fans have hoped for far more. That seems to be changing – rapidly.
In the past, rivalry between promoters, broadcasters and the different sanctioning bodies has meant that a unified champion never lasts for long. Yet if the right roadmap of fights is put in place to satisfy the mandatory challengers for each belt, it could revolutionise the sport and prevent another period of stalemate.
The bigger picture is the plan for 2024, which necessarily involves Joshua and Wilder. Provided they come through their fights against Otto Wallin and Joseph Parker respectively, they will meet in another blockbuster contest. The Wilder fight could be Joshua’s nirvana as he seeks to become a three-time heavyweight champion. Win and he gets another shot at glory; lose and it is goodnight.
Also for 2024, throw into the mix Francis Ngannou, the MMA fighter who knocked down Fury, and Filip Hrgovic, the IBF No 1, who could be a match-up for either Wilder or Joshua.
The UK tried, the US tried, but it is Saudi Arabia that has got the blue-riband division, its promoters and the sanctioning bodies, under the same banner, heading in the same direction.