We were so close.
How many years has it been since two prime heavyweights battled for the unified heavyweight championship of the world? Anthony Joshua and Wladimir Klitschko submitted a pretty entertaining slugfest in 2017, but Klitschko was in his 40s while Joshua was just hitting his prime. Lennox Lewis and Evander Holyfield battled it out in the late 90s. And we know what Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier did back in their day.
It doesn’t happen often. The heavyweight division has lacked sizzle this century, with the Klitschko brothers dominating everyone in it. But the rise of Joshua, the development of Deontay Wilder and the surprising ascent of Tyson Fury has made the weight class compelling again. Fans everywhere imagined a round-robin style tournament among the three that would restore the division to its former glory.
Were we asking for too much?
The latest example of boxing being maddeningly frustrating came Tuesday, when Wilder announced he would defend his version of the heavyweight title against Dominic Breazeale. This was expected. Breazeale was the mandatory challenger, and in discussions about Wilder's future, this fight was always certain to happen.
It’s what was to happen next that had everyone excited.
Last week, DAZN—the subscription-based streaming service that has been on a combat sports spending spree as it attempts to establish a foothold in the U.S.—met with Wilder. In an effort to sign Wilder, DAZN made him a staggering offer: $20 million for the Breazeale fight, and if he beat Breazeale another $100 million for three fights, two sources familiar with the offer told SI.com. The deal would include two fights with Joshua, who owns three pieces of the heavyweight crown.
On Tuesday, Wilder rejected the offer.
On the surface, the decision seems bonkers. In negotiations, Wilder had been seeking “generational wealth.” Even if he lost the three fights after Breazeale, he would still have been guaranteed $100 million, two sources told SI.com. He wanted an opportunity to be the undisputed heavyweight champion. “One face, one name,” Wilder says often. DAZN was guaranteeing him a shot at Joshua and promised him, win or lose, he would get one more.
On Tuesday, I called Shelly Finkel, Wilder’s co-manager who has been intimately involved in the negotiations. A year ago, Finkel said Wilder was ready to accept $15 million to face Joshua. Why now was he turning down more than $100 million?
“A year ago, we would have accepted $15 million flat to fight Joshua,” Finkel told me. “We felt that at that time, it was a good move. Time has passed since then. We feel that there is a bigger future for Deontay. and we can fight them for a lot more, on more equal terms. The other thing, and I learned this from my music business days, I would never accept an offer unless I knew everything that was there, or else I would be a fool. If I accepted a dollar and later I found out that my opponent was making $4, I would be a fool. We asked what Joshua was getting, and we were not told.”
So, I asked Finkel, if DAZN had disclosed what Joshua would make in a unification fight, would it have made a difference?
“Possibly,” Finkel said. “We don’t want to be beholden to another person or network. We were offered to make a deal with Tyson Fury through Top Rank, and we didn’t want to. We never approached a fight saying ‘we are giving you a shot at the title, we want to force you to give PBC three options.’ That’s just not what we are about. We do the best for Deontay, and so far it has worked.”
Finkel made it clear—if Wilder beats Breazeale, his side will be ready to talk to representatives for Fury and Joshua about making a fight. The belief in Wilder’s camp is that if he was offered $40 million to face Joshua last week, he will be offered at least that, perhaps more, in a few months.
And he may be right. Joshua will defend his titles against undefeated challenger Jarrell Miller on June 1, in a fight that is expected to sell out Madison Square Garden and drive subscriptions for DAZN. After that, though, Joshua’s options are limited. If DAZN is truly motivated to be the home for a Joshua-Wilder unification fight, Wilder may be able to extract more money from them.
Besides—there is nothing that says Joshua-Wilder has to be on DAZN. The deep pocketed streaming service has been willing to offer sizable guarantees, but Showtime flashed its spending power on Tuesday when it announced Wilder-Breazeale would be broadcast on the network, and not pay-per-view. Fox, meanwhile, has had a solid first quarter in boxing, and is expecting strong numbers for last weekend’s pay-per-view event headlined by Errol Spence’s lopsided decision over Mikey Garcia.
Is there reason to be optimistic for a Wilder-Joshua fall showdown? It’s boxing, so optimism is in short supply. There is no love lost between Wilder’s team and Joshua’s promoter, Eddie Hearn, who will assuredly pounce on Wilder’s decision to reject a nine-figure offer and two career-defining fights as proof that Wilder never wanted the showdown with Joshua. And there remains the question of how Al Haymon, Wilder’s co-manager who doubles as the content provider for Fox and Showtime’s boxing programming, balances the two responsibilities.
Finkel, however, insists the lines of communication are open. He says he had a conversation with members of Fury’s team already this week and intends to reach out to DAZN chairman John Skipper later in the week. Wilder wants the big fights, Finkel said, even if Tuesday’s press conference made them feel further away than ever.
“We have more options now,” Finkel said. “Before, we felt we had to beat [Joshua] to be that big. We don’t feel that’s the only route anymore. A lot of people want the Fury rematch more than the Joshua fight. Joshua and his people have to get off their high horse. They said, ‘We are going to fight at Wembley, we don’t need Deontay. Obviously they know that they do. We’re not going to be dictated to. We’re not going to be told we’re going to fight on DAZN. We’re going to do the best thing for Deontay.”