On Saturday night in two rings built in different boxing worlds an eternal showman exposed one fighter in Las Vegas and in London the heavyweight that time forgot rumbled on like a ghost from the sport’s glory days.
At the 02 in front of a converted flock, Dillian Whyte moved no closer to what he was first promised in October 2017, which is five often savage fights ago, when he beat Oscar Rivas after 12 rounds. It was another gruelling, risky heavyweight fight for the Brixton everyman, another that came surrounded by so many fake ribbons and empty words. Saturday’s fight was upgraded from the latest colour of merit - gold, silver, baboon orange - to “interim” WBC heavyweight, which was once a refreshing extra added when a champion had a broken hand, jaw or heart and could not fight. Now, interim is used as a balm to soothe irate fighters and their backers when they are struggling for justice and simply can’t get the fight they want.
“I don’t believe anybody when they promise me a title fight ,” Whyte said and he is right. Whyte has been the leading and rightful contender for Deontay Wilder’s WBC heavyweight title since a win against a Finnish fighter called Robert Helenius in October of 2017; Wilder has made four defences since then and has two more planned. Whyte, under the current cowboy rules of mayhem, will not get his chance until October or November of next year. However, there is a rumour that Wilder is injured at the moment.
Whyte was dropped in round nine by Rivas in a fight that was always competitive, but never in doubt. Whyte does foolish and madly entertaining things when he fights, he leads with guts and glory and then often has to solve the problem with an old-fashioned display. Gerry Cooney, one of the best heavyweights not to win the title in the last 50 years, compared Whyte to the great heavyweights of the Seventies. “He just doesn’t care who he fights - every fight is a war,” Cooney said after a bizarre pilgrimage to Whyte’s training camp in Loughborough. Rivas was unbeaten and avoided.
All three judges went for Whyte when it was over on Saturday, comfortable in some ways, but never easy. The only loss on his record was in 2015 when he stood boot-to-boot with Anthony Joshua and was knocked out. They were two heavyweight babies that night and the scrap was good enough for a rematch; Whyte has won 10 since then, Joshua has fought eight times and I’m struggling to remember the last time I heard the rematch discussed seriously. It is just another fight missed by Whyte - another one that was promised - in a career of denials, setbacks and controversies that he refuses to let ruin his ambitions. There was a ban for an over-the -counter recovery drink, a comeback in penniless obscurity, he did once refuse £5m for a second Joshua fight (he argued it was worth more and he is probably right) and since then he has been an annoyance to the people avoiding him. The Whyte paradox is not going away.
On Saturday Whyte had that bit of extra desire, that underdog mentality, the mindset of a man in the fight of his life again and again and again. Whyte will have to gamble that his luck, which has mostly been bad, will not run out before he gets the Wilder gig or the rematch with Joshua. Or, he simply gets beat and then has to start all over again.
A few hours after Whyte, in a ring far, far away, Manny Pacquiao was brilliant over twelve rounds against Keith Thurman at the MGM in Las Vegas. Pacquiao was ten years older, the challenger, he is a full time Senator in the Filipino government and he is also, without any doubt, one of boxing’s living miracles. Thurman had mocked Pacquiao’s tiny arms, laughed at Pacquiao’s movement and predicted a night of short butchery. Pacquiao had put on that familiar pre-fight and hype smile during the endless insults, which is a still grin that either covers a language barrier or conceals hate for what he is hearing.
Thurman was dropped in the first, caught backing off with his own hands low and also hurt in the fifth. The pair put on a memorable fight and Pacquiao, at 40, looked as good as he did a dozen or more years ago when he beat much bigger and younger men. His boxing record, his achievements - he won his first world title in 1998 - and the type of epic fights he has been in will never be repeated in the modern game. Men and women will not have 70 fights, win multiple titles, have careers that last in excess of 20 years and fight at the top until they are 40 or older in the future. The greats from the 1920s, remember, had hundreds of fights.
At the end of twelve rounds it was a split decision win for Pacquiao. Thurman never moaned, calling it a “blessing and a lesson.” Presumably, he means in ring craft and in life. Pacquiao can do that to a man. The Senator is now the full WBA welterweight champion, a tinpot piece of jewellery that only relics in my business attach importance to. Pacquiao entered as the WBA’s regular champion and exited as their super champ; his old regular title is now vacant. How do I explain such chicanery to people when they ask me how my sport works?
One day Pacquiao and Whyte will be gone, two men both with an old understanding of what really matters in the business and sport of boxing. They have been fearless so far, great to watch and decent humans outside the ring. The future for the pair might contain a bit of fantasy, a bit of comedy, some wild promises, unforgettable fights and certainly some uncertainty: Pacquiao might fight Amir Khan in Saudi Arabia, with Aladdin on the undercard and then become President of the Philippines - only one of those things is a fantasy. Whyte, well, he will fight anybody if the price is right.