"So you're a boxing fan and you like heavyweights, you say? Well, you happen to be in an era that just might go down as a golden one -- if the best fight each other." -- Dan Rafael, four months ago.
Back in May, the big three in the division (in whichever order you wanted to rank them) -- then-unified titleholder Anthony Joshua, world titlist Deontay Wilder and lineal champion Tyson Fury -- all had fights lined up. I lamented that even though the division was as healthy and interesting as it has been in many years, since the outstanding 1990s era that included Lennox Lewis, Riddick Bowe, Evander Holyfield, Mike Tyson, George Foreman and Michael Moorer, the best big men were not fighting each other.
My, oh my! How things can change in four months.
Back in May, the biggest fight in heavyweight boxing, and perhaps in the entire sport, was supposed to be an inevitable showdown for the undisputed world title between Joshua and Wilder. It would have been a fight between two undefeated and charismatic power punchers with divergent personalities. They had tried to make a deal at various times to no avail and went their separate ways.
It left the big three to fight within a few weeks of each other, but none were involved in a fight for which there was major anticipation. It felt like they were each just spinning their wheels.
Wilder had a mandatory defense to make against Dominic Breazeale on May 18. England's Joshua was due to make his American debut in what most expected to be a routine victory over Jarrell "Big Baby" Miller on June 1. Fury was set for the first fight of his nine-figure Top Rank/ESPN deal against little-known German Tom Schwarz on June 15 in Las Vegas.
Wilder got the stretch rolling with a massive first-round knockout of Breazeale. But Joshua's first fight in the United States could not have gone less to script. First off, Miller was booted from the fight for multiple failed random drug tests and replaced on about a month's notice by Andy Ruiz Jr., a solid fighter but given no chance by anyone to actually win.
Then Joshua and Ruiz got in the ring and produced an unforgettable fight with a most surprising result. The third round, which is almost certainly going to be the round of the year, saw Joshua drop Ruiz only to have Ruiz get off the floor and knock him down twice. In the seventh rounds, Ruiz dropped AJ twice more to score the massive upset knockout victory to claim three belts.
It was as big of a jolt as the heavyweight division had seen since Hasim Rahman's similarly massive upset of Lewis to become champion (briefly) in 2001. As the old boxing saying goes, fights make fights, and Ruiz's shocking win created another super fight for the division -- the rematch.
The night before Ruiz stunned the world, Wilder pulled his own stunner by announcing that he and Fury had a deal in place to meet in an early 2020 rematch of their terrific and heavily disputed December 2018 draw in which Wilder scored two knockdowns, but also got soundly outboxed for long stretches. It was such a shocking announcement because Wilder is advised by Al Haymon, the Premier Boxing Champions creator, and Fury is with Top Rank. To put it mildly, those two camps are not friendly.
And so here we are with the heavyweight division inching its way to a series of really big fights. Things look very promising.
Most significantly, Ruiz and Joshua are set for a rematch because Joshua exercised his contractual right to one just days after the June fight. They are due to meet on Dec. 7 (DAZN) in a most exotic location -- Diriyah, Saudi Arabia -- in a gargantuan fight that, barring a draw, will change the course of the division one way or the other. After racking up thousands of frequent flyer miles last week with a three-city media tour that took them to Diriyah, New York and London in three days, both are off to training camp. Ruiz-Joshua II is must-see and, for my money, the biggest fight of 2019.
While the announcement that Wilder and Fury had a deal for a rematch -- and a third fight, too, as it turned out -- was great news, this is boxing. Rarely are things so simple. It turns out there were strings attached: Wilder and Fury would both first have to win interim bouts to get to their much-anticipated rematch.
So that is where we are at now -- still needing a bit more patience.
Fury is set to fight Otto Wallin (undefeated but unknown, sort of like Schwarz) on Saturday (ESPN+) at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas and Wilder is due to meet Luis "King Kong" Ortiz in a rematch of Wilder's action-packed 10th-round knockout in their March 2018 showdown.
Wilder-Ortiz II is supposed to take place in November, but there has yet to be a formal announcement of the date, site or what network will handle the pay-per-view.
Joshua is favored to beat Ruiz in the rematch (according to Caesars Sportsbook) -- although that status did him little good the first time around -- and Fury and Wilder are also big favorites for their upcoming fights.
So what's the path forward after those three fights?
The Ruiz-Joshua II winner will have to deal with an IBF mandatory defense against contender Kubrat Pulev or risk being stripped of that belt. As title defenses go, it's a solid fight. Pulev is a good contender. He's big, he's experienced and he can crack.
Fury and Wilder would be headed to a pay-per-view rematch that is penciled in for Feb. 22 (though that could change). And then, since Top Rank and Haymon made a two-fight deal, Wilder and Fury likely would meet for a third time later in 2020.
And don't forget it's not just about Ruiz, Joshua, Wilder and Fury. The beauty of the division is also that there is depth behind them like there hasn't been in years.
We will see former undisputed cruiserweight champion Oleksandr Usyk, a pound-for-pound caliber talent, make his much-anticipated heavyweight debut against Tyrone Spong on Oct. 12. Usyk is already in a mandatory position to challenge the Ruiz-Joshua II winner when that obligation is due. Former titlist Joseph Parker is set for what looks like an entertaining fight against Dereck Chisora on Oct. 26, longtime contender Dillian Whyte is still to be reckoned with and always-exciting rising contender Adam Kownacki is also in the mix for a major fight.
So you're a boxing fan and you like heavyweights, you say? Well, it's been quite some time since we've been able to say this: The state of the heavyweight division is good. Enjoy.