The early returns from last weekend’s heavyweight championship tilt between Tyson Fury and Deontay Wilder have suggested a money-spinning success commensurate to the breathless promotional heft behind it.
Fury’s shocking beatdown of the unbeaten American, which saw him both capture the World Boxing Council’s heavyweight title and reduce the sport’s most feared bogeyman to a lamentable puddle of excuses, reportedly generated between 800,000 and 850,000 pay-per-view buys at $75 a pop (even accounting for the extraordinarily high piracy rate) and surpassed the 1999 rematch between Lennox Lewis and Evander Holyfield as the richest ever live gate for a heavyweight fight in Nevada.
It was boxing’s biggest night in years and Fury was the star, assuming his place as sport’s alpha dog and the last unbeaten standing of the division’s Big Three – a scenario that would have been unthinkable three years ago during a 31-month layoff that saw him swell to nearly 28st amid public battles with addiction and bipolar disorder. Now? Not long after it seemed the parade had moved on from Fury entirely, it’s hard to imagine who in the current landscape could beat him, at least the version who boxed and mauled Wilder into submission on Saturday at the MGM Grand Garden Arena.
Since the 31-year-old from Manchester signed a reported nine-figure co-promotional deal with Top Rank in the weeks after his gripping first encounter with Wilder in December 2018, he has been openly driven by the challenge of conquering the American market. He spoke at length during the run-up to last weekend’s rematch about his plan to finish his career with three more fights in the United States, noting on multiple occasions that he is no longer even in possession of a British Boxing Board of Control license.
On one hand it makes sense that Fury, a natural showman, has been taken by the peculiar allure of Vegas. For decades the desert city has represented boxing’s most aspirational platform and sophisticated money-churning machine: where the world’s best prizefighters have traditionally contested for the richest purses before the broadest audiences. As a romantic, he is transparently geeked by the idea of surmounting the same frontiers as the heavyweight titans of his childhood, not least his namesake.
On the other, it’s not immediately clear that Fury is a standalone attraction in the United States. According to Nevada’s state athletic commission, Fury’s bout with Tom Schwarz in June sold 5,489 tickets at the scaled-down MGM Grand followed by a September date with Otto Wallin that sold only 3,577 at the nearby T-Mobile Arena. Granted those fights were de facto infomercials for a return meeting with Wilder that had already been agreed to in principle (even if someone forgot to tell Wallin) and came before Saturday’s brand-boosting win, but the anemic sales lay bare an inconvenient truth: for whatever reason, European fighters will always struggle to connect in the US when there’s not an American in the frame.
Say what you want about Wladimir Klitschko’s style, but he was the heavyweight champion for an entire decade and couldn’t build enough of a following to anchor a single pay-per-view fight stateside. Even Gennady Golovkin, a come-forward knockout merchant who at his peak was the closest thing we’ve seen to Mike Tyson since Tyson himself, was never able to draw a huge US audience until he shared the bill with an established superstar.
There are exceptions, but a foreign-born boxer needs a special truly something to cross over into the US cultural mainstream, whether it’s a hyperkinetic, made-for-YouTube style like Manny Pacquiao or a built-in fan base like Canelo Álvarez. Even Vasiliy Lomachenko, likely the best fighter on the planet regardless of weight today and no shrinking violet stylistically, is all but anonymous to the average man on the street.
None of this is the fault of Fury, a fistic savant who once made headlines for his archaic views on women and homosexuals but has since become an improbable champion for mental illness, the sort of redemptive underpinnings that have broadened his appeal at home. He is clearly an effective fighter, technical but not mechanical, though doesn’t fit into the traditional framework of how Americans understand heavyweights, with a style that does not wow you in any single facet like power or speed. Which leaves him in an interesting place moving forward.
Late Friday night, Wilder gave the most explicit indication yet that he intends to exercise his contracted option for an immediate rematch. After the robust business of last weekend’s second instalment, it makes perfect sense to run it back in Vegas – most likely at the new 72,000-seat NFL stadium presently under construction along the strip. But should Fury win again (as he will be expected to), his American journey may well have run its course.
Anthony Joshua’s run of stadium sellouts in the UK, say nothing of last winter’s Saudi sojourn, have put forth a compelling alternative to Vegas glitz, teasing an eastward shift in the sport’s center of gravity. An all-British four-belt unification fight between Fury and Joshua, who holds the WBA, WBO and IBF straps, to crown the first undisputed world heavyweight champion in two decades would sell out Wembley in minutes.
The sport’s flagship division has long served as a bellwether for the popularity of fighting at large. As the heavyweights go, they say, so does boxing. Six months ago, the long-fractured heavyweight championship was owned by an Alabaman and a Californian. Now those four belts are owned by two Britons and boxing’s centre of gravity has crossed the pond. America may no longer be the backdrop Fury envisioned at the outset of his sensational second act. Fortunately, he doesn’t need it to be.