Thank the boxing Gods for Anthony Joshua because the heavyweights haven’t had a great 2023.
It all started when we didn’t get the undisputed heavyweight championship fight between Tyson Fury and Oleksandr Usyk. Instead, Usyk fought Daniel Dubois and Tyson Fury chased the bag by fighting MMA heavyweight Francis Ngannou. Both won but neither came out looking great.
Fury, obviously, came out the worse for wear when Ngannou dropped him and narrowly escaped with a decision victory in what could have been one of the biggest upsets in the history of sports. Usyk got the win but a body punch that was controversially ruled a low blow dropped the Ukranian in the eighth round.
The two narratives that emerged were that the best heavyweight boxer in the world was embarrassed by an MMA fighter and the referee saved the unified champion because he couldn’t take a body punch.
There was a glimmer of hope when the “Day of Reckoning” card was announced in Saudi Arabia that featured Anthony Joshua and Deontay Wilder in separate fights, with the expectation that both would win and 2024 would deliver a highly-anticipated showdown five years in the making, between two of the biggest punchers in heavyweight boxing.
And then Deontay Wilder turned in a listless performance where he was dominated for 12 rounds by Joseph Parker, thus blowing up the plans for the megafight.
That left Anthony Joshua as the last heavyweight standing. Had he lost to Otto Wallin, the criticism that this has been the worst generation of heavyweights would have rattled through boxing. And it would have been difficult to argue against it, considering that the four men considered the best heavyweights in the world would have all had underwhelming performances in a calendar year.
But Joshua held it down and looked exceptional against Wallin, forcing the Swedish fighter to retire on the stool at the end of round five. After a rough couple of years for Joshua where he lost in back-to-back fights with Oleksandr Usyk in 2021 and 2022, and skeptics questioning just how good he was to begin with, the former unified champion had a 2023 where he went 3-0 with two knockouts.
He may not be the indestructible force he was several years ago, but this is the closest that Joshua has been since 2018.
He single-handedly saved the heavyweight division from ridicule.
No disrespect to Joseph Parker, Zheli Zhang and Jared Anderson, who all had great years, but the weight of the division’s credibility rested squarely on the shoulders of Fury, Wilder, Usyk and Joshua. And only one of them came out of the year clean.
That’s not to say that Fury and Usyk won’t bounce back in 2024 but this year hasn’t been a memorable one for heavyweight boxing. And it’s magnified when just about every other weight class has delivered exceptional performances and fights that the world wanted to see.
Quite frankly, the division needs some rehab to heal the wounds of 2023. Fortunately, Joshua — who had been written off by many — appears to have reclaimed his credibility with a strong year that saw him defeat Jermaine Franklin, Robert Helenius and Otto Wallin. Granted, he didn’t beat the upper crust of the heavyweight division but he is certainly trending in the right direction.
His performance against Franklin was a little shaky but the brutal knockout of Helenius and his dissection of Wallin reminded us that one of the biggest attractions in boxing still has something left to give.
He remains a global superstar and could once again become a heavyweight champion when it is expected that he’ll face the IBF’s No.1 contender Filip Hrgovic next year. No, it’s not the megafight with Wilder that we desired but it will have to do.
Hopefully, Fury and Usyk can renew hope in the heavyweight division when they meet to determine an undisputed heavyweight champion early next year. It will be necessary to make us forget an underwhelming 2023.
Who knows what the future holds for Deontay Wilder? He says that he will continue his career but the 38-year-old could reconsider once the loss to Parker settles in.
The critics will have their say but Anthony Joshua has proven to be the only thing consistent about heavyweight boxing in 2023.