Forget YouTube imposters & throwback fights, Fury-Wilder classic proves boxing can shake off its identity crisis

With boxing having been threatened by YouTube stars in its recent history, Saturday night's classic heavyweight title tilt between Tyson Fury and Deontay Wilder has proved that there is more to the sport than 'freak show' fights.

Boxing has suffered from something of an identity crisis so far in 2021. The sport often proudly places itself in a privileged position compared to its combat sports peers, highlighting its so-called 'sweet science' and a storied lineage of pugilists and prizefighters dating back more than a century.

But while the predominant narrative over the years has been centered around the sport's in-built meritocracy, that has incongruously given way to a naked pursuit of pay-per-view buys as boxing hitched itself to social media sensations like Jake Paul, or presented nostalgia-laden callbacks to the careers of Mike Tyson, Roy Jones Jr or Evander Holyfield. 

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A glance at this year's pay-per-view numbers confirms this hypothesis. The exhibition match between Floyd Mayweather and Logan Paul is thought to have generated in excess of 1 million buys – for a fight between a retired champion and a boxing day-tripper who remains without victory in any of his outings in the ring thus far.

Paul's younger brother Jake has similarly tapped into this revenue stream, drawing absurd numbers for a pair of boxing matches against former UFC fighters Ben Askren and Tyron Woodley. These fights, though, weren't characterized in the lead-in by an analysis of their respective skills – but rather by questions as to whether the event's featured characters could box at all. 

The answer, for the record, and as it relates to Jake Paul anyway, is "kinda".

But after this extended period which has arguably seen boxing's glitz eclipse its actual product, Saturday night's classic world title heavyweight fight between Fury and Wilder was another breath of fresh air, and a reminder that there is no substitute for top-level boxing regardless of the promotional narratives hurled towards the sport's followers recently. 

The fight had everything: a testy build-up between two genuine rivals before a back-and-forth battle during which both men kissed the canvas more than once.

In the end it was Fury who was best able to raise his hulking frame from the mat to deliver the fight-ending blow in the eleventh, tilting their three-fight rivalry further in his favor and establishing himself as without question the best heavyweight fighter in the world. 

Fury prevailed in his epic tussle with Wilder. © Reuters

It was a result which the Vegas oddsmakers had predicted would come, but the manner of it is what made it special. Fury's redemption has played out in front of us in real time and found its conclusion with the Gypsy King's coronation in Sin City. 

The danger now is for boxing to once again trip over its own feet. Fury and Oleksander Usyk are now the last two men standing at heavyweight and boxing now finds itself at another crossroads following the crumbling of the now-redundant Fury vs. Anthony Joshua matchup.

Fury vs. Usyk is clearly the fight to make, but the news that Joshua has activated his rematch clause following his defeat the Ukrainian fighter last month – and reports that Fury might be placed into a mandatory defence against compatriot Dillian Whyte – means that nights like we witnessed late on Saturday have become the exception, not the norm. 

It may be some time before we see a true heavyweight unification fight amid the division's musical chairs of mandatories and rematch clauses, allowing the sport further opportunity to scratch its money-making itch by promoting a YouTuber or two, or by throwing an ageing legend back into the ring just to see what would happen. 

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But as much as the likes of Jake Paul and co. can look and play the part, it would take a brave man to say that the YouTuber's boxing career can be anything but a mere facsimile of what boxing can present at its absolute summit.

The danger, though, is that boxing will again revert to type and continue to generate myriad reasons why its top stars are so often kept separate. 

The canny Paul recognized this and has expertly placed himself in a position to take advantage of some of boxing's blind spots (drawing sizeable wealth in the process), but if boxing ultimately fails in its obligation to its fanbase and continues to find excuses why top fighters so often don't meet in their primes, it will necessitate the financial fill-up from 'freak show' fights.

Our loss, you feel, will be Jake Paul's gain. 

By John Balfe

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.

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