Weekend of high drama in store
Luke G. Williams
After a calendar year in 2016 which was, by general consensus, a disappointment, boxing's dynamite 2017 continues this weekend with two major events - David Haye vs Tony Bellew in the UK, and Keith Thurman vs Danny Garcia in the USA. Luke G. Williams reflects on this weekend's action and some of the hoopla and controversy surrounding it...
As a boxing fan and writer it's all too easy to be down on the sport. However even the most ardent miserabilists must admit that, thus far, 2017 is proving to be an excellent year for pugilistic spectacle.
This weekend sees two further major events on both sides of the Atlantic - Haye vs Bellew and Garcia vs Thurman - which will, hopefully, enable boxing to continue to build the increased profile it has lately enjoyed.
Understandably, the former contest has attracted plenty of headlines and plenty of criticism too.
Although I share the widespread distaste concerning much of the rhetoric that has blighted the build-up to this heavyweight showdown, my views on the matter are not black and white.
While it is true that several lines have been crossed by both fighters, and disciplinary action by the British Boxing Board of Control may prove necessary, there is also a part of me that believes boxing's appeal and character is in some way inexorably tied to the sort of overblown rhetoric and hype that we have been seeing these past few months.
Trash-talking, to some degree, has always been a part of the sport. It may not set a good 'example', but it undoubtedly provides the oxygen of publicity boxing often needs, in turn creating an opportunity for fans and the mainstream media to engage with the sport.
Of course, in an ideal world, the build-up to every major bout would be characterised by the respectful admiration shown recently by Carl Frampton and Leo Santa Cruz ... but wouldn't the sport then lose some of its colour? Some of the perverse entertainment value that draws many of us to it in the first place?
A more serious issue, for me, is the debate surrounding how valid a sporting contest this is - what with cruiser titlist Bellew moving to heavyweight for the first time, and the widespread presumption being that Haye will win by savage KO pretty much whenever he wants to.
This thesis may, indeed, prove the case.
However, and I admit I am probably in the minority here, I view this as an intriguing showdown between two major figures in the sport in the UK which could, conceivably, go either way.
In global terms, and in terms of the current make-up of the heavyweight division, it has been argued that this contest is a sideshow, an irrelevance.
However this is far from the truth.
Whatever your view of Haye, he is what Frank Warren once termed 'box-office' - and if history has taught us anything it is that 'box office' fighters are always in with a chance of landing a major fight. Beat Bellew and he is, in my view, a near shoo-in to face Anthony Joshua at some stage soon, whether Joshua beats - or is beaten by - Wladimir Klitschko.
Another boxing truism, of course, is that 'the last thing a fighter loses is his punch'. Haye can undoubtedly punch, and whatever he may have lost in terms of fitness and stamina in the past few years, put him in a ring with any heavyweight in the world and he has the potential to halt them.
Of course, in order to keep hold of a potential winning ticket in the Joshua sweepstakes, Haye cannot afford to lose to Bellew - which is where things get really intriguing, because I really do believe Bellew has a chance of springing an upset - particularly if he makes it past, say, round five. To me, these factors make Haye vs Bellew a fascinating grudge match with the potential for excitement. What's not to like about that?
Even though I am looking forward to Haye vs Bellew though, Thurman vs Garcia is without doubt the signature contest of the weekend, if not the year so far. With a combined record of 60-0, this is a bout resonating with significance. The phrase 'career defining' is often bandied about somewhat liberally, but here it is an apt moniker.
Garcia is arguably one of the most under-rated boxers in the business - having emerged from battles against Erik Morales, Amir Khan, Zab Judah, Lucas Matthysse, Lamont Petersen, Paulie Malignaggi and Robert Guerrero without suffering a single reverse.
Thurman's list of victims is not quite as illustrious, but the Florida man is a fascinating figure in his own right - away from the ring he is a thoughtful, self-taught man with a hearteningly free spirit, while within the ring there is often something of the assassin about him.
Both men are at their peaks and have much to prove - one of their '0's has to go, and the victor has a good case to be recognised as the man to beat at 147lbs, arguably pugilism's most richly talented weight class right now.
Within a wider context, Thurman vs Garcia also assumes yet greater importance by virtue of the fact that it is being broadcast on free-to-air network television in the US, rather than on pay-per-view or cable.
If Haye vs Bellew is boxing's equivalent of fast food - delicious, albeit trashy, disposable and liable to leave the consumer with a touch of indigestion, then here's hoping that Thurman vs Garcia provides us with a Michelin-star quality pugilistic feast.