From the Rumble in the Jungle to Fury v Usyk, how boxing super-fights can vanish in an instant

George Foreman in training ahead of his life-defining fight against Muhammad Ali in 1974 (Getty)
George Foreman in training ahead of his life-defining fight against Muhammad Ali in 1974 (Getty)

When a big fight gets postponed, there is no guarantee that it will be rescheduled or ever take place.

Last Friday, Tyson Fury was cut on his right eyelid by a wayward elbow, in a routine breakfast sparring session, and his heavyweight unification fight with Oleksandr Usyk was off. There was no debate – it was a deep gash. The $100m (£80m) payday on 17 February was gone.

Fury soon provided proof of the cut and the 11 stitches, but people in the boxing business still doubted its authenticity. There were calls for Fury to quit, to have his WBC belt taken away, and accusations of cowardice. It was a preposterous day; Fury retained his dignity; Usyk held his tongue.

The following day, Turki al-Sheikh, the man behind the Saudi Arabian boxing revolution, announced a new date, still in Riyadh, and insisted that if either boxer withdrew from the 18 May fight, they would be liable for a $10m forfeit. Usyk and Fury both appear to have accepted the challenge.

It was not a typical day in boxing history; it is a troubled history where collapsed fights soon vanish. And they invariably stay vanished.

It happened to Tyson Fury in 2013 when David Haye withdrew twice from their fight. Haye was cut, but the injury was ridiculed by Fury. A new date was found and Haye was injured again, and that fight was off. The abuse Haye got from Fury was relentless and the bad blood remains. The injuries were genuine.

In 2016, Fury, who was in the very middle of a war with his mental health issues, twice withdrew from world title defences against Wladimir Klitschko. It was the start of a deep spiral for Fury, which only ended with a dramatic return to boxing in 2018 when he was several stone heavier. His exile was over, his battle to get back his titles was on. It is still on.

Wladimir Klitschko and Tyson Fury fighting in 2015 (AFP/Getty)
Wladimir Klitschko and Tyson Fury fighting in 2015 (AFP/Getty)

In 2010 and 2011 Klitschko twice withdrew from world title fights with Derek Chisora. It was heartbreak for Chisora, and the rescheduling of the fight was futile; Klitschko had no intention of fighting Chisora. One of the two Klitschko excuses was thin; the truth is that Klitschko never fancied that version of Chisora.

The three examples share an important similarity with the postponed Fury and Usyk fight: many people doubted they would ever take place. The level of cynicism and doubt about Fury v Usyk is quite extraordinary.

One of the most famous fights to vanish after a sparring incident was the November 1989 world middleweight title fight between the challenger, Michael Watson, and Mike McCallum, the champion.

The trade paper Boxing News had gone to print on Wednesday with their preview and pictures of the boxers on the front page; the fight was scheduled a week later. In the last round of the last sparring session on that Wednesday, and with one second left on the clock, a fighter called Ray Webb broke Watson’s nose with a punch. It was, incidentally, the 77th and last round of sparring. The fight was off, it was rescheduled for the following April and Watson lost. He always insisted that he had lost his edge with the break.

Obviously, the most famous sparring cut, and postponement, was in 1974 in Kinshasa when George Foreman picked up a cut from an elbow above his right eye. There was panic and fear and confusion.

The Rumble in the Jungle almost never happened (AP)
The Rumble in the Jungle almost never happened (AP)

The Rumble in the Jungle was off and, according to Muhammad Ali’s business manager, Gene Kilroy, Foreman wanted to leave Africa. “If George had gone,” Kilroy told me, “the fight would have been off for good. He was never coming back and that is why they took his passport.”

The cut happened just eight days before the fight’s original date, 25 September. There were real fears it would take 12 stitches and that Big George would need three months. Instead, Dick Saddler, Foreman’s trainer, went to work on the cut with his Saddler Special, a secret potion to close cuts; the cut needed one stitch and the fight was pushed back five weeks, the boxers stayed in Africa and the party continued.

Foreman’s eye healed quickly, the fight went ahead at the later date, and Foreman probably regrets now not leaving Africa.

Fury will be allowed to fly back from his camp in Saudi Arabia to Morecambe and recuperate with his family. Usyk will take the train back to his family in Ukraine. Their unification fight has been salvaged, the wait continues, but there is a very real feeling that this on-and-off classic might just happen. The date now is 18 May and hopefully that will be the last date for a fight that the sport needs.