Showtime Signs Anthony Joshua – Times clearly have changed for British heavyweights over these past 23-plus years. For American heavyweights, too, it would seem.
Wednesday’s announcement that Showtime had signed England’s recently crowned IBF heavyweight champion Anthony Joshua to a multi-fight contract is the latest indication that the British Empire, or at least its boxing subdivision, has risen to its loftiest level since … well, maybe ever. But Sir Isaac Newton’s Third Law of Physics holds that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction, and the emergence of the United Kingdom as boxing’s foremost boxing power neatly coincides with the United States’ gradual, grudging abdication of the position it held for so long it must have seemed that the U.S. had taken up permanent residence atop Mount Pugilism.
And while there will be the standard hype that the first title defense made by Joshua under the terms of his new agreement with the American premium-cable outfit is going to be exciting and competitive, the likelihood is that quarterback-turned-boxer Dominic Breazeale (17-0, 15 KOs), on June 25 at the O2 Arena in London, will be as brief and one-sided as was Joshua’s two-round dethronement of Charles Martin, another U.S. fighter with an impressive record (23-0-1 with 21 knockouts beforehand) and thin credentials.
In the new world order, with the notable exception of Alabama-born WBC heavyweight champion Deontay Wilder (36-0, 35 KOs), the country that once produced such legendary big men as Jack Johnson, Jack Dempsey, Joe Louis, Rocky Marciano, Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier, George Foreman, Mike Tyson and Evander Holyfield has become a second-rate power, or something akin to it. The British sports books have established the 26-year-old Joshua, the super heavyweight gold medalist at the 2012 London Olympics, as anywhere from an 18-1 to a 50-1 favorite over Breazeale, who represented the U.S. at the same Olympiad and lost his opening-round match. Great Britain now boasts 12 reigning world champions in the ring, more than any other country, with the possibility of adding two more in the near future if Brit challengers come through.
But it is not how inept Martin was, or how long a longshot Breazeale is, that is at issue here. The most pressing question, the answer to which has yet to be determined, is whether the 26-year-old Joshua has the goods to become another Lennox Lewis, a fellow Brit who also used his Olympic super heavyweight gold medal in 1988 as a launching pad to induction into the International Boxing Hall of Fame, or another Audley Harrison, a far less-gifted Englishman whose 2000 Olympic super heavyweight gold proved to be iron pyrite (fool’s gold) in the professional ranks.
Even Eddie Hearn, president of UK-based Matchroom Sport, which promotes Joshua, admits that Showtime’s long-term investment (the length and terms of which were not disclosed) in his fighter is a bit speculative for now, like taking a plunge in the stock market or forking over big bucks at a yearling sale for the offspring of a prize stallion and a highly regarded broodmare.
“When you look at the market for any business, whether you’re backing a horse or a stock, you have to look at the pedigree,” Hearn said. “In Anthony Joshua, you have probably the most perfect stock that you can buy, or the most perfect thoroughbred if you were buying a racehorse.
“The financials of the deal are important to us, of course, but more important is for a (U.S.) broadcaster to share the vision that we have for Anthony Joshua, who we believe will be the biggest star in world boxing … We want to make Anthony Joshua a global star, and that includes fighting in America.”
Under previous regimes, Showtime’s mantra was “good fights, not rights,” a dig at archrival HBO’s policy of signing big-name fighters to exclusive TV deals which paid them well even if they weren’t always amenable to testing themselves against the best available opponents. The Joshua deal may or may not signal a shift in direction for Showtime, but special fighters sometimes make for special circumstances and Showtime clearly believes it has just such a growth property in Joshua.
“We don’t know the future,” said Stephen Espinoza, executive vice president and general manager of Showtime Sports and Event Programming. “But (Joshua) has all the potential in the world. I’m not a huge fan of multi-fight deals, but when you have a promoter and a boxer who are committed to taking the best fights available, that brings a lot of comfort to the network in doing this type of deal. From that perspective, it was a no-brainer.
“Anthony has been moved very quickly and he is willing to continue to be moved very quickly. Knowing the level of the competition he’s faced thus far, and knowing the level of his skills, we believe this is someone U.S. audiences will find to be very interesting. Whether he turns out to be an all-time great remains to be seen, but he certainly is one of the most interesting athletes in the world today. We’re looking at (the contractual arrangement) as just the first building block, the first step forward, hopefully, to a long relationship with someone we expect is going to have a fantastic career.”
Joshua’s evolution as a breakthrough star, as well as that of another UK heavyweight, Tyson Fury, who holds the WBA, WBO, IBO and lineal heavyweight titles, is almost enough to make you think Paul Revere should be galloping through the streets of America on horseback shouting “The British are coming! The British are coming!” But ol’ Paul’s midnight ride would be just a bit late; the redcoats are already here.
It is a seismic shift from the landscape in late 1992, when Lennox Lewis had yet to win his first world championship as a pro and was carrying the weight of numerous failures by British heavyweights dating back to the 19th century. Before Lewis was awarded the WBC crown in December of that year without having won it in the ring, following American Riddick Bowe’s ill-advised decision to toss the bejeweled green belt into a trash can at a London press conference, no heavyweight by birth or naturalization had held the championship since Bob Fitzsimmons knocked out “Gentleman Jim” Corbett on March 17, 1897, in Carson City, Nev. Fitzsimmons – who left Britain at the age of nine and fought under the Australian flag throughout his pro career – promptly lost in his first defense, on an 11th-round knockout to James J. Jeffries on June 9, 1899, on Coney Island, N.Y. It was the first of 13 consecutive defeats in heavyweight championship bouts by British fighters against Americans, until the London-born Lewis (who, it should be noted, won his Olympic gold medal while representing Canada) ended the drought when he made the first defense of his handed-over WBC title with a unanimous, 12-round decision over Tony Tucker on May 8, 1993, in Las Vegas.
As recently as April 18, 2008, when Joe Calzaghe was training in his native Wales for a bout in Las Vegas against Bernard Hopkins for The Ring magazine light heavyweight title, he bemoaned the fact that the boxing-loving British public was too willing to accept homegrown fighters who gave their best but too often came up short when world titles were on the line.
“They love a loser in (the UK),” Calzaghe noted. “They hated (Chris) Eubank when he was champion. He goes out and loses and they love him. I don’t know. It’s ridiculous.”
“We were privileged to have (Scott) Quigg vs. (Carl) Frampton on Showtime and Andy Lee vs. Billy Joe Saunders on Showtime recently,” Hearn said. “(Showtime is) picking up the biggest fights in world boxing in many different territories. For us, this is a groundbreaking day, for a UK promoter and a UK fighter to sign a multi-agreement with Showtime. It’s a groundbreaking day for British boxing as well. I think we’re on fire at the moment. We’ve got 12 world champions. James DeGale just defended his (IBF super middleweight) world title on Showtime last weekend. We’ve got another world championship fight this weekend with (WBA lightweight titlist Anthony) Crolla (vs. Ismael Barrosso, in Manchester, England). We got Ricky Burns (who takes on Michele Di Rocco for the vacant WBA super lightweight belt on May 28) and Tony Bellew both fighting for world titles to become the 13th and 14th Brits to win world titles.”
Hearn conveniently neglected to mention this weekend’s pay-for-view bout in Vegas in which England’s Amir Khan seeks to unseat WBC middleweight champ Canelo Alvarez, but he has understands the rules of engagement on this side of the pond well enough that when you’re talking up a lucrative new Showtime deal for your guy, you don’t bring up HBO fights and fighters.
Standard boxing politics aside, it would be a good thing for the sport if Joshua, or maybe New Zealand’s Joseph Parker (18-0, 16 KOs), who has yet to snag a TV deal with an American premium-cable outfit, emerges as the kind of must-see attraction that the heavyweight division hasn’t really been able to market in the U.S. since the 1980s and ’90s glorious heyday of Lewis, Bowe, Tyson and Holyfield. Oh, sure, the Klitschko brothers, Vitali and Wladimir, had long and successful runs as champions, but they fought mostly in Europe and, their high knockout ratios notwithstanding, had styles about as exciting as bingo games at a senior-citizens’ center.
Should he get past Breazeale as expected, next up for Joshua could be a unification showdown with Wilder, possibly later this year and possibly in the U.S., should Wilder emerge victorious in his May 21 defense against Russia’s Alexander Povetkin (30-1, 22 KOs). That outcome is hardly a gimme as Povetkin is by far the most imposing opponent Wilder will have encountered to date and, besides that, the fight is in Moscow. But Showtime holds paper on Wilder as well as Joshua, so that intriguing matchup should be made rather easily if and when negotiations ever get around to being made. And how much interest would there be in a pairing of two slugging heavyweights who, to this point, are a collective 52-0 with 51 wins inside the distance?
“Stylistically,” Hearn said, “Anthony Joshua vs. Deontay Wilder is a fight that would light the world up.”
Like Calzaghe, who opined that “Brits, in order to prove themselves, always have to go over to America,” Joshua – who has never fought anywhere but the UK as a pro – is ready to make his mark on the other side of the Atlantic.
“You know how it is. You’re not the real deal until you fight in the States,” he said, adding that the Showtime deal will allow him “to build a wider audience. If we keep building and growing organically, by the time I come over there it’ll be unbelievable.”