Andy Ruiz Jr and Anthony Joshua are under a month away from their heavyweight title rematch in Saudi Arabia, which will be one of the biggest fights of 2019.
But the winner of that fight has mandatory obligations to deal with in 2020 — two, in fact, in IBF mandatory Kubrat Pulev and WBO mandatory Oleksandr Usyk.
Top Rank and the IBF agree, not surprisingly, that Pulev (28-1, 14 KO) should get the first shot. He’s longer been in his mandatory slot, after all. Back in 2017, he was scheduled to fight Joshua, but Pulev pulled out of the fight with an injury. A year later, he beat Hughie Fury in an eliminator to secure his mandatory position.
The WBO, meanwhile, have Usyk (17-0, 13 KO), the former undisputed cruiserweight champion who was named their mandatory challenger after moving up in weight this year. In fact, he was given the mandatory slot before even officially making his heavyweight debut, which was a mildly controversial decision, but is what it is.
The problem(s) will be figured out soon enough. If everyone can agree on some sort of schedule, everything could be fine. But it’s boxing, and there are a lot of parties involved here — the fighters, of course, but arguably even more important the sanctioning bodies and the promoters, who are the people who have to actually sign off on everything, and will have their reasons to make any number of decisions that could lead to one or both of those belts becoming vacant by the end of 2019.
The IBF Mandatory
Let’s take the case of Pulev first. The Bulgarian is promoted by Top Rank, who do work with Matchroom and Eddie Hearn when the deal is right. Matchroom promote Anthony Joshua, so if Joshua wins on Dec. 7, Joshua-Pulev could possibly get done. However, Top Rank don’t so easily work with Premier Boxing Champions or Al Haymon, with whom Andy Ruiz Jr has a deal. So if Ruiz wins, you’ve got a potential big roadblock there.
That roadblock could easily lead to the IBF stripping Ruiz of their title after Dec. 7 for failing to take on his mandatory challenger. If you’re new to boxing and think it seems unlikely that the sanctioning body would strip a major money name fighter for the sake of Kubrat Pulev, there are two pretty recent situations quite similar to this one.
Back in Nov. 2015, Tyson Fury went to Germany and upset Wladimir Klitschko to win the IBF, WBA, and WBO heavyweight titles. Because he’d agreed to a contractual rematch against Klitschko, who exercised that option, he couldn’t make an IBF mandatory defense against Vyacheslav Glazkov.
It didn’t take long for the IBF to move. By Dec. 9, 2015, Fury was out as IBF titleholder, and the vacant belt was put up for grabs between Glazkov and Charles Martin. Glazkov wasn’t even as big a name as Pulev, and didn’t have as powerful a promoter. Martin wound up winning the belt in Jan. 2016, then dropped it to Anthony Joshua, the rising money man, less than three months later. It’s frankly not hard to see the bigger picture everyone had in mind. It was really never so much about Glazkov.
We also saw a situation just a few months ago where Canelo Alvarez was mandated to defend his IBF middleweight title against Sergiy Derevyanchenko, negotiations took place, and ultimately Alvarez, boxing’s biggest star, wound up stripped of the title. Golden Boy alleged Derevyanchenko’s team did not negotiate in good faith, and that their goal was simply to get Canelo stripped and fight for the vacant title, which they did against Gennadiy Golovkin in October.
In this case, the IBF and Top Rank could full-on have a plan in place if a potential Ruiz-Pulev (or Joshua-Pulev) deal just isn’t going to happen for whatever reason. This scenario would see Ruiz or Joshua stripped and Pulev fighting for the vacant title, and there are some clear options here.
One is Pulev facing Agit Kabayel, who is currently ranked No. 4 by the IBF. The sanctioning body would look for the “next available” contender to face Pulev, and Kabayel would likely be it. (Currently, Pulev is No. 1, No. 2 is vacant, No. 3 is PBC’s Adam Kownacki, and No. 4 is Kabayel.)
And if Kabayel didn’t take the fight, guess whose name would pop up next? No. 5 is Anthony Joshua, but obviously he would have lost to Ruiz again in this scenario so he’d be out of that slot. No. 6 is currently Top Rank star Tyson Fury.
The involvement of Fury (29-0-1, 20 KO) is intriguing and potentially complicates matters. For marketing purposes, getting one of the four major titles back on Fury would be a wise move by Top Rank. ESPN can have their commentators and writers scream “LINEAL!!!!!!” until they’re blue in the face, and make little graphics to try and explain it all, but the fact of the matter is that the average person doesn’t see him with a belt, and champions have belts. It would help a fair bit visually for people to see him with one of the stupid belts, for his press conferences to have the visual of the belt being held up in photos and all that.
But Fury is a true rarity in that he seems to genuinely not give much of a damn about the titles, which may well owe to the fact that after fighting his whole career and beating the odds to attain three of them with a win over a guy who had long ruled the division, he was immediately stripped of one of the three for something he couldn’t control.
And the belt he was stripped of happens to be the one in question here, the IBF title. He might not be keen to pay their sanctioning fees or wear their strap. Fury’s fought for some belts since returning to the sport after a long absence last year, so it’s not just that he’s entirely opposed to title belts. He fought for the WBC title against Deontay Wilder in Dec. 2018, of course, and for the WBO Intercontinental title in June of this year against Tom Schwarz. (He vacated the WBO IC title after the win over Schwarz.)
Fury could fight Pulev for the IBF title, either right off or after Pulev fights and, in theory, beats someone else. Fury is reportedly set to face Deontay Wilder for the WBC title in February, but that’s one of those situations where until they’ve at least done a presser to officially announce the thing, there are a lot of doubts.
Even if Wilder-Fury 2 doesn’t come off, Fury also just might not be interested in the IBF belt due to his history with them. You never really know with Tyson. He’s one of the few people in modern boxing who is legitimately unpredictable, and he really doesn’t like being told what to do. But a possible Fury-Pulev LINEAL!!! and IBF title fight would be a real get for ESPN and Top Rank in 2020.
If Joshua beats Ruiz, sure, Top Rank and Matchroom could make a deal for Joshua-Pulev, but it’s certainly far from a guarantee they’d get it done. It’s more likely than Ruiz-Pulev, but that’s not saying much. Top Rank could have good reasons to not agree to any deal on the table, push for the title to be vacated, and find whatever fight for Pulev, whether it’s Kabayel or Fury right away (this would be increasingly attractive if Wilder-Fury 2 doesn’t come off), or you go down the list and get, uh, Tom Schwarz or Otto Wallin in there.
Top Rank — as the boxing brand of ESPN — having one of the four major heavyweight titles in-house would be big. Even if it’s just one-quarter of the pie, you have a hold somewhere in what will frankly always be boxing’s glamour division, the one easiest to convince casual fans to tune in to see if you have the right names involved. There are a lot of political and business reasons for them to push to get a vacant title within their grasp.
The WBO Mandatory
Usyk’s mandatory slot ruffled some feathers, but it’s done. Dillian Whyte had some problems with the decision to make Usyk mandatory challenger, but Whyte has largely been focused on his impossible dream with the WBC, and he’s got other problems to deal with right now, anyway.
Usyk is working with Matchroom, who also promote Joshua, so a Joshua win on Dec. 7 would be big for everyone there, as Joshua-Usyk would be pretty easy to put together, and Usyk and his team could even agree to wait a bit — they sound ready to go ASAP, but he probably could be convinced to not press the situation.
If it’s Ruiz who wins on Dec. 7, you have the Ruiz-Usyk idea. Now, to me, that sounds like a hell of an interesting fight stylistically. Andy’s a heavy dude, but at 6’2” with a 74” reach, he’s actually a little shorter than the 6’3” Usyk, and the Ukrainian would have a four-inch reach advantage. For heavyweight title fights, Usyk couldn’t ask for any more equal a physical matchup than Ruiz, at least as far as height/reach goes. He’s going to be outweighed considerably by most guys, except Wilder, but Wilder is also 6’7” with an 83” reach so the weight thing kinda gets canceled out there.
But Ruiz, again, is with PBC. They kind of loaned him out for good money to fight Joshua in June on short notice, and the rematch got done after Andy pulled the shocker. But if he beats AJ again, you know PBC wants to bring Andy Ruiz Jr back to their TV stable. This is a guy who would be a buzzworthy headliner on FOX or pay-per-view. So unless Matchroom wanted to send Usyk over to them for a title shot, Ruiz-Usyk doesn’t seem really likely.
If the WBO belt goes vacant, Usyk is of course the No. 1 contender, and the next four at the moment are Tyson Fury, Anthony Joshua, Joseph Parker, and Adam Kownacki. Kownacki is a PBC guy, so he and Fury are both unlikely as Usyk opponents. Parker is a Matchroom fighter, that could be easy enough to get done, and it would also be easy enough to have the winner fight Anthony Joshua later in 2020, because unless Joshua goes off the rails and retires, even a second straight loss to Ruiz wouldn’t have Matchroom giving up on the guy or anything like that.
In the same way that Top Rank and ESPN would surely push to get a possibly vacated IBF title into their stable for the foreseeable future, Matchroom and DAZN would want to do the same with a possibly vacated WBO title. They have the mandatory challenger, and the ball would be in their court. No content provider or promoter wants to be shut out of big heavyweight title fights.
The Bottom Line
The dream for Premier Boxing Champions would be for Ruiz to retain on Dec. 7, not be stripped of any of his titles, and fight Deontay Wilder for the undisputed heavyweight championship of the world in 2020. That’s a pay-per-view that sells itself.
But that’s just not likely. It would require the cooperation of all the sanctioning bodies, and you’d have two pissed off mandatory challengers and their promoters — it’s just a huge headache. There’s a reason we almost never see undisputed champions in the four-belt era, and even if we get one, it tends to not last too long. I mean, again, we just saw Canelo Alvarez collect three belts at middleweight. He now has one, and he didn’t actually lose any of them. If Canelo Alvarez can’t manage to get it done right now, who can? It’s most likely only going to happen anymore in divisions where there aren’t a lot of money fights. That’s how we saw Oleksandr Usyk do it at cruiserweight, and Terence Crawford at junior welterweight a couple years ago.
So don’t expect all three titles that are on the line next month to stay with the winner of Ruiz-Joshua 2 for too long. It’s not impossible, but with the way boxing works, it’s just incredibly unlikely. One or even both of the IBF and WBO belts could be back on the market in pretty short order. If Joshua wins, the IBF probably winds up going vacant. If Ruiz wins, either could go vacant. Ruiz would still have the WBA belt in that case, still have his claim, and still be one of the hottest fighters in boxing. Wilder-Ruiz would still be a huge fight for PBC to make next year.