Fighting Words: The Heavyweight Division’s Overlapping Games of Thrones

The sharks smell blood in the water. The vultures are circling. Pick your preferred metaphor for the situation at hand.

The three big names that long ruled at heavyweight – Tyson Fury, Anthony Joshua and Deontay Wilder – aren’t all ruling it anymore. Fury is the last big man standing, and even his footing has seemed less steady of late.

This is a division in transition.

There are two overlapping Games of Thrones going on:

In one, several heavyweights – current and former titleholders, current and former contenders, and even a mixed martial artist with little experience fighting under the Marquess of Queensberry Rules – are jockeying for the throne, facing each other in battle to determine who is most dominant and deserving.

In the other, those heavyweight fights are being made as a result of the maneuverings of an actual kingdom, which has entered the sport not so much to promote the Sweet Science, but rather to promote itself.

Saudi Arabia is spending huge sums on boxing and several other sports – sums that are not traditional business investments in which the end goal is to make money from the product. Rather, between what analysts believe and what Saudi powerbrokers themselves say, this is a combination of sports-washing to distract from Saudi Arabia’s human rights record; part of an effort to bring more tourism and investment into the country; and also part of an emphasis on colossal entertainment events that can bring enjoyment and increase pride among its citizens.

According to BoxRec.com, Friday’s fight between Joshua and Francis Ngannou, in Riyadh, will be the eighth pro boxing show in the country. All have taken place since 2018.

It began with Callum Smith’s win over George Groves. It continued on with Amir Khan against Billy Dib; the rematch between Joshua and Andy Ruiz Jr.; the rematch between Oleksandr Usyk and Joshua; and a card featuring the sideshow that was Jake Paul and Tommy Fury, plus a legitimate cruiserweight title fight between Badou Jack and Ilunga Makabu.

And it has brought us to this veritable smorgasbord of heavyweight fights.

When Fury fought last October against Ngannou – the MMA star who left the UFC as a standing champion to search for better money – six of the seven bouts on that card involved boxing’s marquee division.

December’s event was headlined by Joshua against Otto Wallin and Wilder against Joseph Parker. Those were two of the six heavyweight matches on an eight-fight card. The other two bouts involved boxing’s top cruiserweight, Jai Opetaia – who dropped his sanctioning body belt because of the amount of money this Saudi card would pay him – winning in one round; and Dmitry Bivol, the No. 2 light heavyweight, defending his title via shutout.

Given both the quality of the names involved and the quantity of fights included, this was a massive spend for a stacked show. And the next two are similarly eventful.

When Joshua faces Ngannou on Friday, it will be the main event of a 10-fight card streaming on DAZN and PPV.com. The other matches include four more heavyweight fights – most notably Parker against Zhilei Zhang – plus a 154-pound title fight between Magomed Kurbanov and Israil Madrimov, and a featherweight title fight featuring Rey Vargas against Nick Ball.

And then, on May 18, the headliner will be Fury against Usyk for the undisputed heavyweight championship.

That’s an eye-popping slate for a period of several months, part of the annual Riyadh Season festival that began in 2019 and runs from October through March. (Fury-Usyk was originally scheduled for February, but it was postponed when Fury suffered a cut in training camp.)

All of this money doesn’t and shouldn’t erase any of the reasons that Saudi Arabia is criticized, including the state-sanctioned abduction and murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Turkey, and the mistreatment of critics, dissidents and migrant workers, as outlined by Amnesty International . These fights aren’t being made solely for a love of the sport or to move the heavyweight division forward.

It is a Game of Thrones outside of boxing that has overlapped with, or even outright driven, the Game of Thrones within the squared circle. It has expedited the heavyweights toward an eventual conclusion, whether that is a complete changing of the guard or a conclusive reaffirmation of control.

This has been a long time coming – a premise with plenty of promise along the way, but not enough progress.

The Wladimir Klitschko era effectively ended more than eight years ago, in late 2015, when Fury outboxed and dethroned the longtime champ. Fury’s next appearance wouldn’t come until 2018, more than two and a half years later; he lost all three of his world titles while sidelined due to a combination of mental health struggles, addiction and suspicions of performance-enhancing drug use.

During that period, Joshua and Wilder moved to the forefront.

Joshua picked up a world title in 2016, added another against Klitschko when the former champ made a brave last stand in 2017, and grabbed a third with a victory over Parker in 2018.

Wilder, who had held the fourth sanctioning body belt since 2015, put together a run of seven straight successful defenses won by knockout, culminating in a back-and-forth battle with Luis Ortiz in 2018.

Fury came back and, depending on your perspective, was either already the claimant to the throne due to his lineage (even in lieu of his world titles), or was returning to re-stake that claim. Joshua and Wilder each had their own cases to make. The only way to truly settle things would be in the ring.

Yet there have been only three fights with a combination of these three potential kings – and each featured Fury and Wilder. (A match between Fury and Joshua had been signed, but Wilder correctly enforced his contractual right to a rematch with Fury – the third fight in their trilogy.)

All three Fury-Wilder fights were entertaining for different reasons. In December 2018, Fury boxed well in the first match but was dropped twice by Wilder, then dramatically came off the canvas in the final round. That bout ended as a draw. In February 2020, Fury arrived with a different strategy and pummeled Wilder for a seventh-round technical knockout. And their last meeting, in October 2021, was a war featuring a combined five knockdowns and ended with Fury putting Wilder away in the 11th.

As much damage as Wilder had taken, it was nonetheless premature to write him off. The only person who had beaten him at that point was Fury, the best heavyweight in the world.

Wilder took some time to heal his body and mind, coming back a year later, in October 2022, with a one-round win over Robert Helenius. But he wasn’t active again until this past December, when he fought Parker in Saudi Arabia. Wilder’s reputation actually took a greater hit in his decision defeat against Parker than it did in either of those TKO losses at the hands of Fury. Wilder was unable to adjust to Parker’s use of levels, timing and control of distance, and he was unwilling to let his famously explosive hands go. Parker had little trouble dodging much of what came and absorbing what little landed. Wilder seemed unmotivated during the fight and unbothered by the defeat.

Joshua suffered a demoralizing loss in June 2019, upset in six rounds by Ruiz, and hasn’t looked as confident or comfortable since. He boxed very, very cautiously against a massively overweight Ruiz in their rematch to regain his three world titles, dispatched Kubrat Pulev a year later, in 2020 (a layoff caused by the start of the pandemic), and then stepped in the ring with Usyk in 2021.

Usyk, previously the undisputed champ at cruiserweight, used feints and levels and a surplus of skill to not just outbox Joshua, but also to outland him, hurting him early and late en route to a unanimous decision victory. The scorecards were closer in the fighters’ 2022 rematch, but the result was more or less the same: Usyk winning clearly, if officially by split decision.

Joshua hasn’t regained his titles since, though he has remained an attraction in the United Kingdom. He rebuilt there twice in 2023, against the likes of Jermaine Franklin and Helenius, then finished the year in Saudi Arabia against Wallin.

This fight with Ngannou will either land Joshua a meeting with the winner of a contracted two-fight series between Fury and Usyk – and Joshua is likely hoping it’s Fury who triumphs – or nudge him closer to retirement. There remains a question of how Joshua will deal with being cracked on the chin, especially by someone as big and powerful as Ngannou, and how he will mentally handle the pressure. Or perhaps Ngannou’s style will be easier for Joshua to manage.

As for Fury, he remains undefeated but looked vulnerable himself against Ngannou. Their 10-round match last October was supposed to be a curiosity – good fun while it lasted. It was expected to end with boxing’s experienced heavyweight champ putting away a challenger who, for all of his experience throwing hands in MMA, had barely competed in boxing, never mind at a world-class level.

Fury had failed to show up once before when victory seemed inevitable; he needed nearly four dozen stitches after escaping with a decision win over Wallin in 2019. Fury came in heavy against Ngannou, was dropped by a good counter in the third round, and didn’t seem to have enough stamina to take command or to endure an extended firefight. Instead, Fury chose his moments to land or exchange, and otherwise boxed his way to a 10-round split decision win.

All of which brings us to Friday’s fights at the Kingdom Arena in Riyadh.

Parker will be making his third straight appearance in the country. He has resuscitated his career following that title loss to Joshua in their 2018 unification fight, a decision defeat against Dillian Whyte four months later, and getting knocked out by Joe Joyce in 2022.

Parker faces Zhang, who did what Parker couldn’t do in knocking out Joyce – twice last year. Zhang is 40 years old but recently told Chris Mannix of Sports Illustrated that he thinks he has several years left in the sport.

He will need that to be the case to make the most of any potential opportunity in the division. The winner of Parker-Zhang will have earned a shot at the Fury-Usyk winner. Given that there may be two Fury-Usyk fights – and that Fury or Usyk meeting the Joshua-Ngannou winner afterward is the biggest box office attraction in the wings – it’s no wonder that Zhang’s team is eyeing a fight in his home country of China. He represented China while winning silver in the 2012 Olympics (losing to Joshua in the finale), but he has had only four pro fights there, none since 2018 – and definitely none since he became a true contender.

These past few years have clearly shaken things up in the heavyweight division. There’s so much still that needs shaking out.

These recent months have been akin to a recipe that, at long last, has come together. With some combination of Tyson Fury, Anthony Joshua, Francis Ngannou, Joseph Parker, Oleksandr Usyk, Deontay Wilder and Zhilei Zhang, the ingredients are there to bring this Game of Thrones to its fitting conclusion: a meal fit for a king, whoever he turns out to be.

Follow David Greisman on Twitter @FightingWords2 . His book, “Fighting Words: The Heart and Heartbreak of Boxing ,” is available on Amazon.