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Saudi Arabia Calling - Are Anthony Joshua and Deontay Wilder finally set to get it on?

Could the exciting, yet frustrating, heavyweight division finally be set to burst back into life during the second half of 2023; boxing writer John MacDonald looks at the current state of play...

It appears that boxing’s sleeping giants are about to awake from their slumber.

While 2023 has been a fantastic year for the sport, with many highly-anticipated bouts taking place across various weight classes, the big men have been conspicuous by their absence.

So far, the most significant heavyweight fight of the year has been Joe Joyce’s defeat to Zhieli Zhang, back in April. As things stand, their rematch, slated for September, is one of only two meaningful confirmed clashes in the marquee division.

However, it appears that may soon change. 

After months of speculation, a deal to stage a heavyweight extravaganza in Saudi Arabia, in December, is edging closer. 

The main event of the card would be a clash between former titlists Anthony Joshua and Deontay Wilder. At various points in the recent past, this would have been the most anticipated fight in the sport, as the winner would have been crowned the undisputed heavyweight champion.

In the wake of Tyson Fury and Oleksandr Usyk twice defeating Wilder and Joshua respectively, there will not be any straps at stake. Yet, it remains an intriguing match-up; both men carry fight-ending power, but each of them are as vulnerable as they are dangerous. It's a captivating mix.

Eddie Hearn, promoter of Anthony Joshua, confirmed this week that an agreement is almost in place: “We virtually have a deal agreed in principle, subject to few final discussions on stuff,” he told Boxing News.

As negotiations for one heavyweight super-fight near completion however, another has fallen through. 

A clash between Oleksandr Usyk and Tyson Fury to crown the king of the division had been expected to feature on the card, if the show came to fruition. However, the Matchroom supremo revealed that will no longer happen as Fury will likely face, former UFC champion, Francis Ngannou in an exhibition bout.

According to Hearn, Usyk will still feature on the card against an unbeaten heavyweight: “It looks like [Usyk will fight] Filip Hrgovic, as he’s the mandatory,” said the promoter.

Saudi Arabian audiences are familiar with Hrgovic as the 2016 Rio Olympic bronze medallist earned his shot at the unified heavyweight champion with a win over Zhang, on the undercard of the rematch between Usyk and Joshua, in Jeddah. 

Despite winning a unanimous decision over ‘The Big Bang,’ the Croatian’s stock dropped as the victory was a controversial one. 

Hrgovic had been the favourite and was expected to win in devastating fashion, but many observers felt that Zhang had done enough to have his hand raised. Given Zhang’s subsequent destruction of Joyce, perhaps Hrgovic’s performance now looks better in hindsight.

Ahead of the potential super-card in Saudia Arabia, the major players are eyeing up fights in the interim. Such bouts are risky as defeat could scupper the plans for December, yet both Wilder and Joshua are pursuing dangerous opponents for a summer showdown. 

‘The Bronze Bomber’ is in negotiations with former unified champion Andy Ruiz, but purse splits are currently proving to be an insurmountable hurdle. Ruiz shocked the world in 2019, halting Joshua in the seventh round to capture WBA, WBO and IBF heavyweight straps

A fight between the two former champions would be very lucrative, but Wilder is demanding a 70-30 split in his favour, while Ruiz believes it should be 50-50. Sadly, the difference of opinion has resulted in a war of words on social media, rather than a war of attrition in the ring. 

Anthony Joshua aims to return to action on 12th August. It will be his second fight under the tutelage of Derrick James, following on from a unanimous decision win over Jermain Franklin, in April. 

Talks between AJ and Dillian Whyte have taken place once more. Discussions between the pair have occurred on several occasions since their first encounter, in 2015, but a deal has never been reached. It appears this time will be no different...

"I still don’t think it will be Dillian Whyte," Hearn added. "We’ve removed what were the issues in the agreement, namely the rematch clause [that] he was very outspoken about, but we still haven’t got that over the line."

While the other major players are searching for their next opponent, Oleksandr Usyk (1/12) will defend the WBA, WBO and IBF titles against 7/1 shot Daniel Dubois, on 26th August, in Poland. 

Dubois had been regarded as one of the best heavyweight prospects until he was emphatically stopped by Joyce in the 10th round, in 2020. The Englishman has since bounced back to capture the WBA ‘Regular’ strap. 

Usyk will be a heavy favourite to retain his titles, but with 18 knockouts in 19 victories, the Ukrainian will have to be wary of Dubois’ power.  

While things are looking promising for the heavyweight division, it is vitally important that major fights become a reality. The big men have spent too long exchanging insults, rather than punches.

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