THE YEAR 2023 should be a huge one for the heavyweight division. At the very top, we hope it’s when we get the most important showdown since Lennox Lewis and Evander Holyfield fought twice in 1999, with Tyson Fury and Oleksandr Usyk in negotiations to meet in a contest that will decide the first universally recognised number one since Lewis retired. Just below them, former belt-holders Deontay Wilder and Andy Ruiz Jnr are set to collide in an intriguing eliminator and Anthony Joshua hopes to restore the kind of confidence that fuelled his all-conquering arrival a decade ago.
Whispers surrounding Joshua’s opponent continued as we went to press, with the unproven Demsey McKean (22-0), suddenly the unlikely frontrunner. Predictably, McKean’s name was met with widespread dismay on social media given the 32-year-old’s obvious lack of experience at anything like the highest level. McKean has not defeated anyone of note and, from an independent standpoint, is barely a top 50 heavyweight. But even though McKean, we’re now told, will not be Joshua’s opponent (and is, in fact, just the latest in long line of boxing red herrings), one can certainly understand exactly why he might have been the perfect opponent.
It is every inch a mismatch but following two consecutive losses to Usyk, an ‘easy’ fight is likely just what Joshua’s doctor ordered. “AJ” hasn’t fought at this level since he caramelised Gary Cornish, then 21-0, in September 2015 and has earned the right to ease himself back into contention, particularly if this is indeed the first of three planned outings for the year. It’s the kind of comeback numerous belt-holders and champions of the past came through before attempting to regain titles. Joshua’s managers (258), promoters (Matchroom) and broadcaster (DAZN), should brace themselves for the prickliest of criticism, however, should they opt to stage Joshua versus McKean or someone like him on a pay-per-view platform.
Mike Tyson, for example, followed his humbling 1990 loss to Buster Douglas with a predictable, borderline farcical, thrashing of blown-up cruiserweight, Henry Tillman on a (non-PPV) HBO double-header alongside George Foreman-Adilson Rodrigues from a separate bill. Tyson’s bombing of Tillman (selected largely because him beating Mike in the amateur ranks provided some semblance of a storyline) is now largely forgotten but it did the job: Tyson looked spectacular again, he felt indestructible again, and more worthwhile tests against Alex Stewart and Razor Ruddock soon followed. In short, whomever Joshua takes on at this juncture is not the point, it’s what it leads to.
Similarly, the debut opponent of new Queensberry signing, Moses Itauma, will merely be an exercise to get the ball rolling. Yet Itauma, who turned 18 on December 29, is another heavyweight looking to borrow a line or two from the Mike Tyson hymn sheet.
Unveiled by his promoters today (Tuesday, January 10) as the starriest prospect in British boxing, Itauma is in a hurry to break Tyson’s record as the youngest heavyweight belt-holder in history. Talented in the extreme, Chatham’s Itauma has already built a fearsome reputation by more than holding his own with some of the best heavyweights in the world in sparring sessions. BN has heard first-hand tales from coaches and boxers who have witnessed, and faced, Itauma’s prowess in the gym. One accomplished amateur even vowed never to face the heavy-handed youngster again after taking a shellacking behind closed doors, only for his heart to sink when he realised the sparring he’d been booked for a year later was against Itauma. It’s not just his power that makes the hefty teenager such a hellacious proposition, he seems to have patience, intelligence and spite in abundance, too.
Regardless of his reputation and obvious skillset, it’s still an almighty ask for the southpaw to go from revered amateur at school, junior and youth level to established heavyweight champion in the professional ranks within two years. When Tyson defeated Trevor Berbick to lift the WBC belt in November 1986, he was eight days shy of 20 years and five months old, which means that by April/May 2024, Itauma needs to be challenging the leaders if he’s to break what for many years has been deemed an unbreakable record.
Tyson, of course, emerged in a different era when the hype-churning, pressure-inducing world of social media did not exist, and without the fanfare of a world-renowned promoter behind him. He turned professional in March 1985, three months before his 19th birthday. By the time the year came to a close, Tyson – guided impeccably by managers Bill Cayton and Jim Jacobs on the shows of various promoters – was an astonishing 15-0 (15). But it was his form in 1986 that highlights the size of the mountain Itauma must conquer if he’s to reach similar heights in a similar timeframe.
In February 1986, in his first nationally televised bout, he trounced fringe contender Jesse Ferguson in a bout that alerted the world at large to his ability. Had “Iron” Mike been active today, there is no way he could have been kept a secret for as long. In May 1986, Tyson went 10 rounds twice, against the seasoned James “Quick” Tillis and Mitch Green, before blasting out Marvis Frazier, Jose Ribalta and Alfonzo Ratliff in consecutive months to secure his first crack at a major belt. Different times in the extreme.
None of that is to say that Itauma won’t go on to achieve great things in the heavyweight division. It’s merely a respectful note of caution to not get too carried away and, more importantly, not allow the stresses of professional boxing – or the exposure that comes with success in 2023 – to weigh too heavy on a young and talented fighter’s shoulders.
Sooner or later, that pressure becomes a burden. The kind that Anthony Joshua feels too keenly today, and Tyson felt the moment he turned Trevor Berbick’s legs to mush.