Big Joe Joyce against Dynamite Daniel Dubois for the British, European and Commonwealth heavyweight titles in Westminster on Saturday night deserves three ropes, smoke and men in filthy Fedoras at ringside.
Instead, the pair are thoroughly modern fighters, both unbeaten, both promoted slickly and both expected, in the modern way, to keep winning and eventually get a shot at the title. Sure, they knew when they turned professional that there would be, at some point, a real fight to determine how much further they progress on the heavyweight road. However, the modern boxing mantra is one that encourages protectionism: “Stay unbeaten, get your shot.” This fight goes against the modern axiom and is one of the rarest meetings in modern sport, a fight with risks that easily outweigh the rewards.
In the old days the two heavyweights in a main event like this would have lost a few fights, had a few wars, gained their fans the hard way and eventually climbed through the ropes at Harringay Arena, the Royal Albert Hall or the Empire Pool, Wembley. They would have had scars, aches, pains and tiny semis in the suburbs. Boy, boxing was innocent once upon a time.
In perhaps the most famous showdown for the British heavyweight title – Dubois will enter the ring as the champion, Joyce holds the Commonwealth and the European is vacant – Joe Bugner had just turned 21, had lost twice and Henry Cooper lost for the 14th and last time that night at the Empire Pool. It was 1971, all three belts were on the line, there were three ropes in the ancient ring and cigar smoke obscured most of the hall. It was 15 torrid rounds, emotional stuff. Dubois and Joyce is optimistically scheduled for 12 rounds.
Daniel Dubois and Joe Joyce go head-to-head
Cooper had little to lose that night, his reputation and the love of a nation was secure; Bugner, meanwhile, regrets ever taking the fight, beating the idol and becoming a figure of hate with the British public. Still, it did make Bugner a better fighter.
In 1991, again in the Wembley ring, Gary Mason lost to Lennox Lewis in a fight that only made sense to Mason's shrewd but stubborn promoter, Mickey Duff. Mason was unbeaten in 35, the British champion, ranked high and should have fought for a world title. Lewis was just 25, unbeaten in 14 and mismanaged, according to Duff, by Frank Maloney. It was a great fight on the night, a tough watch from six-feet away at ringside. Lewis won when Mason was stopped on his feet, blinded in one eye in round seven; Lewis won the WBC title the following year. Mason suffered an eye injury in the fight, was refused a British licence and fought twice more in America before vanishing. Duff lost a fortune, the fight made Lewis a better boxer and set Maloney up for life.
Anthony Joshua defeats Dillian Whyte in a high-risk fight in 2015
Losing big heavyweight showdowns is a dangerous game, trust me.
Joyce and Dubois are genuine leading contenders in a packed arena of unbeaten young pretenders. They have all been biffing and bashing away, feeding on the fallen names and getting ready for the day and night when Tyson Fury, Joshua and the other solid, aged heavyweights are ready to tumble. There will be a slow coup in heavyweight boxing over the next few years, that is for sure and when the giants start to topple, the winner of Dubois and Joyce will be part of the chasing pack.
The winner on Saturday gets a WBO title fight, a belt Joshua defends in December. The WBO want Oleksandr Usyk against Joshua, but would accept Dubois as a substitute. “I will make Daniel against Usyk if Joshua relinquishes his belt,” insists Frank Warren, Saturday's promoter.
Joshua, remember, has two fights signed and sealed with Fury next year - well, that's the plan. However, Fury still has some complications with a scheduled, abandoned and now resurfaced third fight with Wilder. This type of mess is not new to the heavyweight division, but it is certainly more complex now than ever before with legal teams, rival television, controversial fringe players exerting their influence and Bob Arum, nearly 90, still calling the shots. There will also be lies, lies and more lies shaping the endless dialogue as fights collapse and spurious reasons given. However, it is a relief that the two leading boxers are instantly recognisable: Fury and Joshua must fight.
When the division does open up, when Fury and Joshua have fought, when the unbeaten pack finds its voice, there will be a lot of fun with Tony Yoka, Efe Ajagba, Joyce, Dubois, Filip Hrgovic and about a five others all demanding fights. Wilder will be a player for a long time, so will Whyte and Povetkin. And Usyk is not going away anytime soon; the heavyweight division is exceptional at the moment, deep with talent.
Dubois and Joyce have taken the risk, they have stepped forward during the lockdown when their fight had three dates, to keep their dreams alive, to support their bold claims and to fill a ring with the type of sport that we live for. It's a fight of opinions, of harsh assessments and endless fun. The loser really loses, forget the hype and talk about “nobody loses” – this is the brutal end of the heavyweight division. The winner on Saturday moves closer and closer to the promised land of heavyweight glory and riches. The loser has to empty his locker and begin a slow road back.
That is the real risk of fights likes this, the unspoken truth if you like; the British, European and Commonwealth belts are dressing, just splendid extras on a remarkable night.