NEW YORK — Anthony Joshua was at a loss Thursday trying to explain why Deontay Wilder—his fellow heavyweight titleholder, chief rival, the man standing in the way of Joshua’s quest to become the undisputed heavyweight champion—would announce plans to fight a rematch with Luis Ortiz in the fall, pushing a Wilder-Joshua showdown into 2020—or beyond.
He’s not the only one.
In the latest example of boxing behaving badly, there’s Wilder, two weeks removed from a devastating knockout win over Dominic Breazeale, declaring, via Twitter, his intentions to rematch Ortiz, the 40-year old contender Wilder dispatched with a crushing 10th-round knockout last year. It’s a fight no one wants, no one asked for and if, as expected, it winds up on pay-per-view, will be a financial disaster.
Even by boxing’s standards, this is an unreal decision. Interest in a Joshua-Wilder showdown has reached a boiling point. Wilder’s knockout of Breazeale was a viral hit, with tens of millions viewing the clip online. Joshua was one of them, admittedly impressed by Wilder’s win, while members of his team whispered that Joshua vowed to be equally impressive on Saturday, when Joshua defends his heavyweight titles against Andy Ruiz (DAZN, 9 p.m. ET). A win in front of a capacity crowd at Madison Square Garden would have fans frothing for what would be the biggest heavyweight fight this century.
Instead, it’s Wilder-Ortiz, with Joshua, if he gets by Ruiz, likely headed for a mandatory title defense against Kubrat Pulev in the UK sometime in the fall. Wilder-Ortiz was expected—Joshua’s promoter, Eddie Hearn, told SI.com last week that in discussions with Ortiz’s camp, he was told that they were headed towards a rematch with Wilder—but until Wilder made it official, there was a sliver of hope that saner minds would prevail. There’s no interest in Wilder-Ortiz, there’s no interest in Wilder vs. anyone not named Joshua or Tyson Fury, who has made it clear he won’t be in the Wilder mix until next year.
This is a business decision by Wilder, engineered by his co-manager, Al Haymon, taking a page out of the Floyd Mayweather playbook. For years, Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao circled each other, with deal after deal falling apart until the two finally met in 2015. The result was a dud in the ring, with Mayweather cruising to a comfortable decision, but a financial windfall out of it, with both Mayweather and Pacquiao clearing nine-figure paydays.
Wilder, it seems, is taking a similar approach. He will be a heavy favorite against Ortiz, who rehabilitated his career after the Wilder loss with three straight wins against low-level competition, and will likely make in excess of $20 million. There are tentative plans early next year to match Wilder with Adam Kownacki, a popular, New York-based heavyweight who Wilder will enter the ring against as a comparable favorite, and collect a comparable payday.
Even the announcement was Mayweather-esque. For years, Mayweather would tease or announce news during a rivals fight week, from Pacquiao—to tweak his former promoter, Bob Arum—to Oscar De La Hoya, who Mayweather has had a nasty rivalry with since Mayweather defeated De La Hoya in 2007. Wilder’s tweet about Ortiz offered no date or venue, but it did serve to take attention from Joshua’s upcoming fight.
In an interview with the LA Times, Wilder declared that he was his own boss (a Mayweather favorite) while slamming Hearn, declaring Hearn an obstacle in the same way Mayweather painted Arum.
But to what end? It’s possible that pushing the Joshua fight into 2020 could swell the paydays. DAZN—which is salivating to make a subscription-driving fight like Joshua-Wilder—offered Wilder $80 million for two fights with Joshua earlier this year. It’s likely Wilder could have squeezed another $5-10 million out of the offer from the fledgling streaming service if he elected to negotiate this summer.
Would a win over Ortiz make a Joshua fight significantly more lucrative for Wilder? Perhaps. Would the fight tanking on pay-per-view weaken his bargaining position? That’s possible, too. It’s a dangerous game for Wilder. He’s banking on Joshua’s thirst for the fight to get stronger. But Joshua can return to the UK, sell out soccer stadiums and collect $20 million paydays fighting lesser opponents. Wilder cannot, with only Fury offering the potential for major money. Joshua, 29, is younger than Wilder, 33, putting time on his side.
Still, Joshua does want the Wilder fight, and the risk that comes with waiting isn’t lost on him, either. “I’m fighting good fighters,” Joshua said. “They are not Wilder, but I’m fighting decent fighters who are giving me problems and they [bring] risks. Why not just fight Wilder, who is going to give me problems and [bring] risk. Even though it’s bubbling, I’m still taking risks. And I’d rather take the risk against someone who brings a massive reward. Beating Ruiz is fine, but it doesn’t [do that]. I’d rather go down that route”
And why not open it up for bidding? Loyalty has a funny place in boxing negotiations. Joshua is aligned with DAZN, but he owes them nothing. Wilder has had his most significant fights on Showtime, but he didn’t swear a blood oath to the network. In what other sport is loyalty placed ahead of an athlete maximizing his money? Three platforms—DAZN, Showtime and FOX—desperately want a Joshua-Wilder fight. Why not tell all three to submit offers, with the fight going to the highest bidder?
What’s more, by pushing the fight into next year, Wilder-Joshua is approaching asterisk territory. Wilder will be 34 in October, and while most of his fights have ended early, the wear and tear of 42 training camps takes a toll. It will be years before Wilder loses that skull–crushing power, but if Wilder loses to Joshua in 2020, the “what would have happened” narrative will inevitably emerge.
On Thursday, Joshua appeared mystified by Wilder’s decision to announce the Ortiz fight. Days earlier, Joshua had declared his desire to sit down with Wilder, to hash out any lingering issues in a private setting. He wondered what the reaction would be if he took a rematch of a fight he clearly won.
“If I rematched [Alexander] Povetkin next, if I went and rematched Povetkin, I don’t know,” Joshua told a small group of reporters. “I’ve got a lot more pressure than most people. So, it is what it is. He makes the decisions that I’m able to make if I wanted to, but I try not to. And if it was me, how would they have dealt with me? So, I just look at it from that point of view.”
Joshua wants the Wilder fight, but he has made it clear it has less to do with Wilder than the title belt Wilder possesses. Joshua is consumed by becoming the undisputed champion. He doesn’t duck mandatory challenges, and likely never will. When asked if he would be disappointed if Ortiz upset Wilder, Joshua said, “It’s not a bad thing.”
“I think Ortiz would be quicker to face me than Wilder,” Joshua said. “It’s impossible for Wilder to stay champion. He’s had close fights with [Eric] Molina, with [Tyson] Fury, with Ortiz. It’s coming close to a time for that belt to change hands. It’s not so much about Wilder. It’s more about what I can achieve. Those titles, for me, mean a lot.”
Joshua’s U.S. debut will be a massive event, with an electric atmosphere and Ruiz—a former world title challenger who accepted the fight on short notice after Jarrell Miller tested positive for multiple banned substances—serving as a credible opponent. But Wilder’s announcement has sapped some of the energy from fight week and the prospect of another mega fight being tabled has enraged boxing loyalists. The heavyweight division is rife with terrific matchups, which won’t matter if fighters are not willing to make them.
Chris Mannix is a senior writer for Sports Illustrated and an on-air boxing analyst and host for DAZN.