By Robert Zak
In 2012, David Price was regarded as the future of the heavyweight division. The towering 6’8 Liverpudlian with a lethal right hand was voted Prospect of the Year by ESPN (perhaps over-generously considering he had only beaten ageing, domestic-level opposition at that point), and was set to fight Tyson Fury for the British and Commonwealth titles. Fury chose to vacate his belts instead of fighting Price, causing many observers to cry “duck”, and root for the humble scouser to take over the division.
Fast forward to today, and Price’s career lies in tatters after he was wiped out in the second round of a European title fight by the fleshy, unknown, but underrated German boxer, Erkan Teper. Fury, meanwhile, is preparing for a lucrative fight against WBA, IBF, WBO, IBO and Ring Champion Wladimir Klitschko. Not many are giving Fury a chance of winning, but whatever happens he’s a frontrunner to pick up a piece of the World title once Klitschko retires.
So how did Price and Fury, two fighters of similar ability (Price beat Fury in the amateurs) whose careers seemed destined to progress parallel to each other – and eventually collide – end up with such brutally contrasting fortunes? How is one staring into the abyss, while the other has world titles in reach?
The answer lies in careful match-making, and a fixation for promoters to ensure that their most marketable prospects maintain their ‘0s’. Looking at the calibre of Price and Fury’s opponents, a case could be made that Fury has never fought anyone who posed as much of a threat as Price’s conquerors. Fury’s best wins were over Kevin Johnson, Dereck Chisora and Steve Cunningham, all of whom are known soft punchers, and of little threat to Fury’s suspect whiskers (natural cruiserweight Cunningham still managed to fell Fury in the second round).
When Price first fought Tony Thompson in 2013, the idea was that this was to be his easy step-up – his Kevin Johnson, as it were. But Price’s promoter at the time, Frank Maloney, made a misjudgement. Thompson was old and had just lost to Klitschko, but he was a wily, experienced fighter with a good knockout streak. In the second round of their second fight, Price seemed seconds away from redemption when he knocked Thompson down, but the veteran recovered top stop Price in the fifth.
That, as they say, is boxing.
But that isn’t boxing for the talented but mollycoddled Fury, who’s barely had to break sweat on his gentle climb – or more a chair-lift – to the top. If Fury had fought Thompson and Price had fought Johnson or Cunningham, could Price be in Fury’s place right now, rather than staring retirement in the face at the age of 32? The Thompson fights destroyed Price, and when he fought Erkan Teper last weekend he already looked like a frightened, elongated shell of a boxer, ready to be obliterated by a hard-hitting up-and-comer who was only too happy to oblige.
Talking about how Fury and Price would’ve fared had their modest resumes been switched round may be the realm of the hypothetical, but it highlights one of boxing’s biggest injustices – over-protective matchmaking and a stigma against defeat. Had Fury fought David Haye in 2013 as planned (his promoters’ over-protective policy being suspended in the face of huge money), then it’s very possible he would’ve been defeated by now. Should this have been counted against him? Absolutely not, because there’s no shame in losing to the best.
But in today’s heavyweight scene, with champions whose rise to the top is fuelled by burning through journeymen (see Deontay Wilder), a couple of defeats to good opposition is enough to send you plummeting into obscurity. How would Wilder fare against Price’s conquerors – arguably better opposition than anyone the WBC Champion has ever faced? For that matter, how would Wilder fare against Price?
We don’t know the answer, but I don’t think I’m the only one to think that these fights would be interesting encounters that could go either way – not the one-way destructions you’d expect champions and contenders like Wilder and Fury to inflict on the now-obsolete Price. This highlights a flaw in the boxing system – a system in which a couple of defeats to solid opposition is exacerbated by the illusory achievements of fighters who took the easiest possible route to the top.
Does all this mean that Price is somehow deserving of a World title shot? No, but based on his resume he’s no less worthy than Fury or Wilder – both of whom are fortunate that their questionable whiskers are yet to be sternly tested.
Right now in the heavyweight division, the best don’t fight the best (Alexander Povetkin, Bryant Jennings and Carlos Takam are exceptions who spring to mind) until a title shot coasts their way. If they did, then a couple of defeats to top rivals wouldn’t be the career-ending catastrophe they are today, because they would be accepted as an inevitability when fighting against fellow contenders. The fans would have better fights, the fighters would have more experience, and
Fury and Wilder have barely broken sweat to reach the top, and now that they’re in that stratosphere, defeats to the likes of Klitschko and Povetkin (both of which I suspect will occur) won’t do much damage to their careers. Being knocked down on the plateau at the top of a mountain isn’t as dangerous as being knocked down while still climbing it.
Maybe David Price was never going to be World Champion, but at least he took a challenging road to become one, allowing us to have an accurate assessment of his limitations. Price rightly took a tough path, and there should be no shame to stumbling on that path. The fact that other fighters took such divergent, easy paths to the top insults the idea of the ‘road to the title’. Price’s fall, Fury’s rise, and Wilder’s cakewalk to a world title demonstrate the injustice of ‘good’ match-making, and its ability to undermine the greatest achievement in boxing – the World Heavyweight Title.