Who are the leading contenders chasing down Usyk and Fury?

Sports

After Oleksandr Usyk and Tyson Fury produced a classic in their undisputed world heavyweight title showdown, you were left wondering whether they are in a league of their own.

In a high-quality encounter, Usyk (22-0, 14 KOs) prevailed by split decision after coming close to stopping Fury (34-1-1, 24 KOs) in a tumultuous ninth round Saturday night at the Kingdom Arena in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Fury, who was given a count in Round 9, had his moments and controlled the early rounds.

Former world champion Anthony Joshua is leading the chasing pack behind Fury and Usyk in terms of form, rank and profile, but who are the heavyweight contenders to look out for who could be challenging for titles soon?

Some of the top names in the division have recently suffered setbacks, or looked far from dominant in recent fights. Meanwhile, some up-and-comers are climbing the ranks.

Here’s a look at the fighters in the title hunt, starting with the surging Joshua.


Top contender

Joshua (28-3, 25 KOs) is probably in the best form of any fighter on this list. The 34-year-old has recovered from back-to-back decision losses to Usyk (2021 and 2022), and a stoppage loss to Andy Ruiz Jr. (2019), to put himself in line for what is expected to be a crack at the vacant IBF title on Sept. 21.

Joshua looked cautious and nervous in a unanimous decision win over Jermaine Franklin Jr. following his second defeat to Usyk, but he has progressively improved in each of his past three fights, culminating in the vicious, second-round KO of former UFC heavyweight champion Francis Ngannou in March. Ngannou was a two-fight novice in professional boxing, but he did floor Fury before taking him the distance in a split decision loss last October.

The two-time heavyweight champion is in dangerous form with his confidence seemingly fully restored. The KO of Ngannou was one of the best finishes in his professional career which started following his gold medal triumph at the 2012 Olympics.

And all of the biggest fights in the heavyweight division, outside of a Fury vs. Usyk rematch, include Joshua. Joshua vs. Fury, after previous attempts to match the English rivals failed when they were both champions; Joshua vs. Usyk III, and Joshua against former champ Deontay Wilder.

But Joshua, who ruled as champion from 2016 to 2019 and then from 2019 to 2021, will first focus on winning back a world title before facing one of the bigger names.


Middle of the pack

While Joshua, who was ringside on Saturday, is ascending, others near the front of the line have slipped. Former interim champ Joe Joyce is in the process of rebuilding his career after being stopped in successive fights by Zhilei Zhang (26-2-1, 21 KOs), the Chinese 41-year-old who looked to be on the brink of a world title shot until he plodded to a majority decision loss to Joseph Parker in March.

Zhang is not the most mobile in the ring, but his punches are deceptively damaging as we saw against Joyce. However, he might be an easy target to find for the big-hitting Wilder (43-3-1, 42 KOs), the former WBC champion who insists he has rediscovered his motivation for boxing. Wilder and Zhang meet on June 1, and both need to win to ensure they stay in the frame for big fights and big paydays.

Wilder was atop the heavyweight division for some time during a five-year reign until Fury stopped him in seven rounds in 2020, a rematch of their split draw in December 2018. Fury knocked out Wilder again in 2021 and the 38-year-old American has fought only twice since, obliterating Robert Helenius in a round but then looking awful in a one-sided decision loss against Parker in December.

Like Joshua, Parker (35-3, 23 KOs) has returned to form recently. The 32-year-old New Zealander defused the explosive power of Wilder to win a unanimous decision. That win got Parker, a former WBO champion, back into the mix and as the WBO’s leading contender, he can expect a shot at whoever has the title next year.

Parker, a good friend of Fury’s who trains with the “Gypsy King” in Morecambe, England, has looked great in his past two fights and has now registered five wins in a row. Joshua outpointed Parker in 2018 and a rematch could be on the cards if Joshua vs. Fury doesn’t happen anytime soon.

Agit Kabayel will also play a part in title fights in the next 18 months, after he impressively stopped Frank Sanchez on body shots in the seventh round in an eliminator for the WBC title on the undercard of Fury vs. Usyk.

Kabayel (25-0, 17 KOs), from Germany, dropped Sanchez (24-1, 17 KOs), 31, first with a two-punch body combination, and then a stabbing left jab for the knockout. But Sanchez offered a limited threat, and there are bigger punchers in the division than the 31-year-old Kabayel.

Ruiz (35-2, 22 KOs) and Jarrell “Big Baby” Miller, who meet in a heavyweight encounter on Aug. 3, have also fallen in the rankings lately. Ruiz, a former WBA, IBF and WBO champion, returns from a near two-year layoff after failing to build on his shock stoppage of Joshua five years ago. Miller was stopped by Daniel Dubois in December and has similarly slipped from relevance.

Filip Hrgovic (17-0, 14 KOs), 31, from Zagreb, Croatia, is another fighter who has failed to convince recently. Perhaps he has been treading carefully while waiting as the mandatory challenger for an IBF world title shot. He was involved in a snoozer of a fight last August against Demsey McKean, and then hardly broke a sweat against veteran Mark de Mori. His decision win over Zhang in 2022 was also controversial. But if Hrgovic delivers against Dubois, he could fight Joshua in September and establish himself as one of the main players in the division.


The next generation

Jared Anderson (17-0, 15 KOs), perhaps the best hope of an American next holding a heavyweight world title, has yet to catch fire and demand attention on a wide scale. Anderson, of Toledo, Ohio, is still only 24 years old and has a top-five ranking with three of the four world governing bodies, so a world title shot is no longer in the distant future. A step up against an opponent with a bigger name is likely on the agenda for him over the next year.

Dubois (20-2, 19 KOs) has shown fragility in defeats to Joyce and Usyk, but he has shown dangerous power. The 26-year-old is younger than the likes of Joyce, but he too will lose momentum and status if he is defeated by the more experienced Hrgovic in Saudi Arabia on June 1.

Moses Itauma (9-0, 7 KOs), who was also in action in Riyadh, is one for the distant future. The 19-year-old Englishman brushed aside Ilja Mezencev in two rounds in a heavyweight contest. He has registered six of his nine wins by first round KO and this was another exhibition of his fast hands and power.

English rivals Fabio Wardley (17-0-1, 16 KOs) and Frazer Clarke (8-0-1, 6 KOs) produced a brilliant draw recently, but they are still outside of world title contention. Efe Ajagba (20-1, 14 KOs), from Nigeria but based in Texas, is another fighter still learning his trade and trying to establish himself in a crowded division. He needs more time before challenging for world titles.


The long shot

Dillian Whyte (30-3, 20 KOs) has to make up lost ground as well, and is unlikely to feature in a title fight soon. The Londoner registered an easy win in March, his first bout since clearing his name of doping offenses. He was due to face Joshua in August 2023 but the fight was canceled after the 36-year-old returned “an adverse” finding from a doping test. Whyte, from south London, is out of the top 10 rankings of the four main governing bodies. Fury comfortably stopped Whyte in 2022 and the boxer’s best hope of a big fight might be a rematch with Joshua.

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