Wilder, Joshua jostle as heavyweight scene simmers before Fury-Usyk unification fight

Joshua says he 'here to fight, not party' as he refuses to engage in any trash talk with heavyweight Otto Wallin ahead of Saturday's bout

By AP

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Anthony Joshua, (L) and Sweden's Otto Wallin during the face off. - AP
Anthony Joshua, (L) and Sweden's Otto Wallin during the face off. - AP

Published: Fri 22 Dec 2023, 1:58 AM

Deontay Wilder and Anthony Joshua were once the main characters in heavyweight boxing's soap opera.

Now they are extras.

While Tyson Fury and Oleksandr Usyk continue preparations for a February. 17 unification bout in Saudi Arabia that will determine the division's first undisputed champion this century, Wilder and Joshua are in the kingdom this weekend and fighting simply to stay relevant.

Wilder, the WBC champion from 2015-20, was dethroned by Fury in February 2020 and has fought only twice since. What kind of shape will the 38-year-old American be in when he takes on Joseph Parker, the WBO champion from 2016-18?

After that comes the main event on what has been labeled the “Day of Reckoning” as Joshua, the former WBA, IBF and WBO titleholder, fights Otto Wallin, a New York-based Swedish journeyman. Joshua has underwhelming wins over Jermaine Franklin and Robert Helenius on his record since back-to-back defeats to Usyk that left his career at a crossroads.

Britain's Anthony Joshua (L), lands a blow on Ukraine's Oleksandr Usyk during their world heavyweight title fight at King Abdullah Sports City in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia on August. 21, 2022.- AP
Britain's Anthony Joshua (L), lands a blow on Ukraine's Oleksandr Usyk during their world heavyweight title fight at King Abdullah Sports City in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia on August. 21, 2022.- AP

Whether Wilder and Joshua have the belief after their damaging losses to become heavyweight champion again is open to question.

They are most likely to fight each other next — provided they both win in Jeddah — and the winner of what would be a big-money bout would, in theory, be in position to challenge for a world title.

“It’s the closest that it’s ever been in history,” Wilder said this week of a potential meeting with Joshua that he regards as “the biggest fight in the world.”

Maybe five or six years ago, but surely not anymore.

Not with Wilder having fought only Helenius since completing that trilogy against Fury in October 2021.

And not with Joshua appearing vulnerable and fragile after three losses in a five-fight span from 2019-22, crushing an aura he had built.

“I think he’s lost his confidence and momentum," Wallin said of Joshua ahead of their fight, echoing the thoughts of many in boxing. “You can see the decline ... Joshua looks unsure of himself.”

Joshua, a 34-year-old Brit who has been world champion twice after winning gold at the 2012 Olympics, has twice changed trainers to fuel his career rebuild and has been working with another — Ben Davison, who was once in Fury's corner — for the Wallin fight. A long-time media darling, Joshua has been more tight-lipped since arriving in Saudi Arabia and seems to be all business this time.

“I know where I’m going in my life," Joshua said, “but I’ve got to say, this is a checkpoint. And if I don’t get past this, there is no future so I’m fully locked in to Otto Wallin and doing the job.”

Wallin, a southpaw like Usyk, is not a big puncher like Joshua and has won his last five fights on points. He is on a six-fight winning streak since losing to Fury in September 2019 but none have been against a top heavyweight.

As for Parker, the New Zealander's loss to Joe Joyce of Britain in September last year was a third defeat of his career but he has at least kept busy in the meantime with three straight wins against unheralded opponents.

The same cannot be said of Wilder, around whom there is the most curiosity this week — not least because the “Bronze Bomber” last fought outside the United States in 2014.

“I come to do what I do best, and that’s what the fans want to see," said Wilder, who has a reputation for being arguably the biggest puncher in the division. "No one wants to see a 12-round fight and we are heavyweights and hard hitters. They want to see us fight and then afterward go party. Nowadays my name is called Dr. Sleep.”

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It's the first time he has fought in Saudi Arabia, seemingly the new home of heavyweight boxing because of the lucrative purses the kingdom offers. It's the third time for Joshua — and it'll no doubt be a fourth if he and Wilder win to set up their likely fight in the spring of 2024.


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