Thursday, May 23, 2024

Fury-Usyk: The Wait Was Worth It, But Will Boxing Politics Ruin History?

As this observer reflects on his almost three decades covering Boxing and other combat sports, there are times where I will ponder if an event I covered over that span of time could have been approached from a different angle. It is after all understandable when one writes columns and other forms of content in various mediums day after day, week after week, and yes, year after year, that while one should always stand behind their works and views, much like a film or television director, when one has the benefit to look back years later there may be a feeling that maybe though the work is still good, little tweaks here and there may have made things even better. 

In previewing the encounter between undefeated Heavyweight champions Tyson Fury and Oleksandr Usyk for the Undisputed Heavyweight championship of the world and one where for the first time in Boxing history, all five major sanctioning organizations would have their respective world championships on the line in a single bout, it was appropriate to go back to the 1990’s for a refresher on what led to the eventual unification of three of five world titles in the division for what was the last time a fighter in the division had the label of undisputed champion in November 1999. What was mentioned by yours truly, who covered the crowning of Lennox Lewis nearly twenty-five years ago, but not really delved into due to the length of that column were the various political aspects in the sport that whether right or wrong in terms of policy, almost immediately devalued what at that point took nearly eight years to accomplish from the last time a fighter had recognition in the division as an undisputed champion in 1992.

While the structure of the sport is something that needs to be respected, which includes world champions fulfilling their mandatory defense obligations on an annual basis, a subject that I became very vocal in criticizing Lewis after his victory over Evander Holyfield in the second of their two fights in 1999, and others throughout the sport for not fulfilling their obligations to defend their world titles against a sanctioning organization’s top contender on the aforementioned annual basis, another question that should be asked is are these organizations, who each have their own policies and procedures, not doing enough to ensure that whatever progress is made, like determining an undisputed champion in a given division by way of unification, is not sabotaged?

Some might recall several years ago in a period that predated the global COVID-19 epidemic, the heads of the World Boxing Council (WBC), World Boxing Association (WBA), International Boxing Federation (IBF), and the World Boxing Organization (WBO) established an ongoing dialogue, dubbed “Sanctioning Body Summits" to discuss ongoing issues in the sport with the stated intention of trying to make improvements for the betterment of the sport of Boxing. A step forward that was applauded by this observer who encouraged such dialogues to continue so long as progress continued to be made.

Obviously and in the interest of disclosure with the reader, I as a member of the media did not have access to those closed door meetings and the only information I received was the same information that was made public by the respective organizations whenever such meetings would occur. One subject that if I were in a position to moderate such a meeting however, would concern what should be done under circumstances where there is a unified or undisputed champion in the sport to try and ensure as best as possible that the championships stay unified and hopefully only change hands when a champion is defeated in the ring and not by a decision made by a committee in a boardroom.

The reason yours truly brings all of this up is the sport once again has an Undisputed Heavyweight champion of the world and unfortunately, it seems as though we as a sport are faced with a similar situation as we did in 1999 after Lewis defeated Holyfield. While it was Lewis, who chose to vacate the WBA championship rather than face it's number one contender John Ruiz, which had been agreed on when the WBC, WBA, and IBF established their respective top contenders, which would have to be fulfilled on a rotating basis by the champion, prior to the first bout between Lewis and Holyfield in March 1999, with Ruiz being first in line, before we go further into the subject of what could be done under those circumstances, we need to discuss what happened when the WBC champion Fury met the WBO/WBA/IBF/IBO champion Usyk on May 18th in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in the Kingdom Arena in Riyadh.

With many Boxing legends and celebrities in attendance including Lewis, the Boxing world was treated to a truly memorable occasion, not only because of what was on the line, but because of what happened in the ring. Despite being at a natural size and reach disadvantage, it was the shorter Usyk who initiated the combat in this fight by coming forward, forcing the bigger Fury on the back foot and seemingly getting the better of him by beating him to the punch.

In many cases when there is a significant size and reach disparity between two fighters, it is not uncommon to see the fighter that is seemingly at the physical disadvantage try gradually work their way inside by using head movement, lateral movement, and counter punching to get under the longer reach of the naturally bigger fighter to get on the inside where the terms of combat, at least in theory, would seem more favorable. This was a case where Usyk was able to narrow the gap simply by coming forward and applying pressure on Fury.

Usyk was able to win the first four rounds in my mind with this approach in addition to landing the quicker and seemingly more effective punches. As has become customary in many of Fury’s fights, he spent a lot of time doing this period of the fight choosing to showboat, frequently dropping his hands and taunting Usyk, most notably when he was in a corner. 

While clearly this was an attempt to bait Usyk into making a mistake and though there are probably some that found Fury's antics entertaining, the reality is the only thing it did for Fury was waste time and seemingly create a deficit on the scorecards for him to overcome. It was also to put it politely, not a smart approach one should take in the biggest fight of their career. Fury is not the first fighter to make such a miscalculation, and despite the evidence of it being the wrong approach more often than not, will likely not be the last. 

It would be between rounds five and eight that Fury became serious and was able to keep Usyk at distance with his longer reach as well as by getting his punches off first. This not only seemed to narrow the gap on the scorecards, but also created a significant hurdle for Usyk to try to overcome. Despite the clear shift in momentum at this stage of the fight, one thing that impressed me about Usyk was even though he took his share of punches from Fury and showed he could take the bigger fighter’s punch, he also deflected a good portion of Fury's offense by keeping his guard high. While this made him more vulnerable to body shots, which some believe to be a potential weakness for Usyk after being hurt to the body in his previous bout against to contender Daniel Dubios in August of last year, it was an effective strategy. To Usyk's credit, though he appeared to be hurt by hooks to the body in this fight as well at points throughout the fight, he was able to withstand it and kept coming forward. 

Despite the success he seemed to have in the middle rounds, it was also during this period of the bout that Fury appeared to suffer a broken nose. Although yours truly cannot say with certainty what punch may have caused the damage, I believe it may have come in an exchange of punches where Usyk was able to get the better of it. What is indisputable is the blood that began to flow from Fury's nose was a clear indication that it may have indeed been broken, not only due to the flow of blood, but also the fact that almost immediately after it happened, Fury began pawing at his nose every couple of seconds, which not only usually indicates a broken nose in some way, but also the possibility that the blood flow might be making it difficult for the fighter on the receiving end to breathe. 

Upon seeing the frequency in which Fury was pawing at his nose as well as the flow of blood, I wondered aloud as I was watching the fight, whether it would be stopped due to my having covered numerous instances over the years where bouts had been stopped due to various types of nose breaks including those that were seemingly not as obvious due to lack of blood flow coming from the nose. Although the fight would not be stopped because of the obvious injury to Fury's nose, it did cause the ebb and flow to shift back in Usyk's favor. 

This would set the stage for what would be a dramatic ninth round. For it would be late in the round that Usyk would connect with a flush left hook to the head of Fury, which badly staggered him. What would follow would be an assault of unanswered punches that would have Fury badly hurt, almost defenseless, and barely staying on his feet. Finally, Referee Mark Nelson stepped in and ruled a knockdown against Fury as the ropes prevented him from going down under the barrage of punishment. Frankly, under most circumstances like this where a fighter is badly staggered and taking unanswered blows to the degree that Fury was at this stage, the fight is usually stopped.

While Fury benefited from an experienced referee in Nelson making a split second judgment call to step in and rule a knockdown rather than stepping in and stop the fight, a different referee under the same circumstances, who is more cautious of the dangers that come with combat sports in terms of the risk for potential long-term injury or God forbid worse, would have likely stopped the fight. Some may view Nelson's call as controversial, but what a fan should keep in mind is a referee’s primary responsibility is the safety of the fighters, but also the need to make split second decisions under circumstances like this, regardless of what might be on the line in a fight. Mark Nelson is a world-class referee that has officiated many bouts on every level of the sport. Though only he can say what his thought process was, one could assume that he relied on not only his own experience as a referee, but also the knowledge that when put under similar circumstances in his career, Fury has been able to get off the canvas and recover. Thus, and fortunately for Fury, he was given the benefit of the doubt.

The knockdown and judgment call by Nelson however, would nonetheless prove to be the crucial deciding factor in the fight. As he had done several times throughout his career, Fury was able to recover and in the final three rounds of the twelve round world championship bout, was able to make those rounds close and competitive. Unfortunately for Fury, he was unable to score a knockdown of his own, which would have narrowed the impact of the knockdown in the ninth round, resulting in Usyk winning the fight and becoming the Undisputed Heavyweight champion of the world via split decision at the conclusion of the bout, with the deciding scorecard being determined by a single point in Usyk’s favor. If Usyk did not score the knockdown in the ninth round, this fight would have ended the same way the first bout between Holyfield and Lewis did in March 1999, in a draw.

With the win, Olekdsndr Usyk puts his stamp on what will be a Hall of Fame career by not only becoming the first fully undisputed champion in Heavyweight history, but also because he also successfully fully unified the Cruiserweight division prior to moving up to Heavyweight, he is the only fighter in Boxing history to have successfully unified both divisions. Now comes the difficult question of what comes next. 

There was a preordained rematch clause for this fight, which would give Fury now an opportunity to try to become a three-time world champion if he wants to invoke it. The problem in terms of what is for the time being the undisputed championship is the IBF has mandated that its top contender, the undefeated Filip Hrgovic, is due for his shot at the title. Hrgovic is due to face former world title challenger Daniel Dubois on June 1st in Saudi Arabia.

Whether Usyk will ask for an extension, assuming that the rematch in Fury has already been confirmed and scheduled or, will agree to face the winner of the Hrgovic-Dubois bout next, assuming Fury wants more time to both recover and decide what he wants to do, is unknown as of this writing. The possibility of Hrgovic-Dubois being the the vacant IBF world championship is very real now if the IBF decides to strip Usyk of it's world title and thus would write a different type of chapter in Boxing history. 

It would mark the shortest period of time that a world championship in any division in the sport was fully unified before a title was stripped by a sanctioning organization from the champion and thus breaking the undisputed distinction. Two weeks…

While it is and should be viewed as a reflection of a sport that more often than not chooses to get in its own way that a possibility like that would even be on the table, it is also the definition of a conundrum and also a potential legal mess. On one hand, the standards of the sport need to and should be respected. World champions should fulfill their obligations. On the other hand, one might question and probably should, why an organization, in this case the IBF, would agree to sanction a fight for an undisputed championship if they were potentially planning to strip whomever the winner was without fourteen days of another bout where its top contender would be competing. Furthermore, why would they agree to sanction the bout knowing that there is a rematch clause of the bout that determined an undisputed champion, if it is indeed their intent to strip their world title from the champion?

Although I often refer to these types of situations and others involving the business side of the sport as “Just Another Day In Boxing Paradise," it is often situations like this which keeps Boxing as a constant subject of ridicule. At minimum, the parties involved here should have a mediation and if a compromise cannot be reached, which would allow Usyk to keep his undisputed championship and for the winner of Hrgovic-Dubois to get their opportunity, I personally cannot see a scenario that would not end up in litigation, which would be costly for all parties involved. A true mess.

While this may be all speculation and Fury might take more time, which would allow Usyk the time to fulfill his obligation and face the winner of Hrgovic-Dubois before the end of 2024 or perhaps early 2025, what could be done to prevent a situation like this in the future? If the dialogue between the sanctioning organizations is still ongoing, this should be priority number one at the next meeting. Though yours truly is not involved, I did come up with a possible idea that could be polished and refined by those who are involved.

Some may recall that prior to 1995 when the unified rules were adopted by the Association of Boxing Commissions (ABC), rules for a given bout were either left to individual state commissions/regulatory boards, and in the case of world title fights, a combination of rules from the various sanctioning organizations involved if it was a bout for a unified or undisputed championship. The adoption of a universal standard of rules, which has in the near three decades since it was introduced, also been implemented by various regulatory boards around the world, cleared up confusion  and has become the standard of how fights are regulated in terms of rules. Perhaps one of these “Summits" of the sanctioning organizations should be used to come up with some sort of consolidation of each respective organization’s procedures/policies as well as potentially a consolidation of rankings structure to be used only in a circumstance where there is an undisputed champion in a given division to try and ensure as best as possible that a championship stays unified as well as ensuring that fighters who earn opportunities to fight for a world title get their opportunity rather than fighting for a vacant title and then having their legitimacy as a world champion questioned and in some cases, not recognized by certain entities involved in the sport including various television networks and some in the media.

For now, this is only an idea from yours truly, but clearly something needs to be done. History should not be temporary and if these sanctioning organizations are truly interested in doing things for the betterment of the sport, it's time to prove it, rather than continuing to put the fighters involved and the sport as a whole in a “No-Win Situation." Boxing deserves better and so do the fighters.

“And That's The Boxing Truth." 

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