It all started on a bright April morning in 1860, in a paddock near the English village of Farnborough, where British bare-knuckle champion Tom Sayers fought American John C. Heenan in what is considered boxing's first world championship.
The site was remote because prizefighting was illegal, but the mill was major news on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean, the sensation of its day. Arguable boxing's first "Fight of the Century."
Beside the usual rowdy mob of misfits and sportsmen, the fight attracted members of both Houses of Parliament, authors, poets, painters, soldiers and even clergymen. A poem attributed to William Makepeace Thackeray was published in Punch, a popular weekly magazine of humor and satire. There was even a rumor that Queen Victoria demanded immediate news of the fight's result.
It was an extraordinarily brutal affair that lasted two hours and 20 minutes and ended in a draw when the ropes were cut and the police intervened. By then the fighters were lucky to be alive, unable to stand unsupported, their faces hideously disfigured.
The Sayers-Heenan fight was the beginning of a rivalry between the mother country and its former colony that is still relevant today. True, you would be hard-pressed to find a modern heavyweight who has heard of England's "Napoleon of the Prize Ring" or America's "Benicia Boy." But they labor in the shadow of a tradition born that spring morning, nonetheless.
Even more significant than the fight was the realization that the heavyweight championship of the world was no longer the exclusive purview of the British Isles.
Hopefully the next chapter of the rivalry will be the much-anticipated Anthony Joshua-Deontay Wilder showdown -- an Englishman and an American, respectively, in the hottest fight the division can offer. Best of all, it has all the earmarks of a memorable fight, two large, aggressive punchers vying for the heavyweight championship. It's as close to a sure thing as you get in boxing. It might not last long, but it promises to be explosive.
Joshua has stopped all 20 of his professional adversaries, and Wilder has ended 38 of his 39 inside the distance. If you want to capture the casuals and the curious there's no better recipe than a couple of heavyweight knockout artists.
As is usually the case when tens of millions of dollars are at stake, it's going to take longer to make this fight than we'd like. But boxing can't afford to blow this one. The immediate future the heavyweight division rests squarely on Joshua's and Wilder's shoulders.
But instead of Joshua and Wilder fighting each other, Wilder is first defending the WBC title against Luis "King Kong" Ortiz on Saturday at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn (Showtime, 9 p.m. ET). Joshua, who holds the WBA and IBF belts, is scheduled to face WBO titleholder Joseph Parker on March 31 at Principality Stadium in Cardiff, Wales.
It's risky business. Should Joshua, Wilder or both lose, it would be a disaster. Not for the winner, of course, but for the tidy framework that was supposed to lead to the biggest heavyweight championship fight since Lennox Lewis clobbered Mike Tyson in 2002.
Ortiz (28-0, 24 KOs) was supposed to fight Wilder on Nov. 4, 2017 but failed a VADA drug test before the fight and was forced to withdraw. Now he gets another chance. Don't ask me why. It's all part of the testing merry-go-round that seems to have accomplished little, judging by the number of boxers who continue to test positive for forbidden substances.
Ortiz is a product the acclaimed Cuban amateur program, a well-schooled boxer with knockout power, but he's a bit of a plodder and often seems poorly condition and uninterested. Still, if "King Kong" is ever going to get up for a fight, it's going to be this one.
Unlike the vast majority of Wilder's targets, Ortiz's numbing power gives him a legitimate chance. But will he take the risk involved to give it a go? The hunch here is that Ortiz will wait and wait, looking for the perfect shot that never comes. Meanwhile, Wilder will be busy winning the fight.
Parker will present an entirely different kind of challenge. Joshua basically fights the same way every time. He's light on his feet for a man of his size and advances behind the jab looking to take the other guy's head off. It's a thrilling, fan-friendly style that has made him a national hero capable of stuffing huge soccer and rugby stadiums to capacity.
If Parker (24-0, 18 KOs) has studied Joshua's tendencies, he's probably going to try to find a way to disrupt the Englishman's rhythm and force him out of his comfort zone. This approach might succeed in making "AJ" look bad at times, but there's a huge difference between making your opponent look bad and winning. Besides, Parker would have to win nearly every round to get the decision in the U.K.
There's no question that the best outcome for the boxing industry would be overpowering victories for Wilder and Joshua. With all due respect to Ortiz, there hasn't been a Cuban pro capable of attracting a large crowd in more than 50 years. And while Parker is a star back home in New Zealand, it's difficult to imagine him catching on big-time anywhere else.
Let's assume for discussion's sake that Joshua and Wilder emerge triumphant and unscathed from the Parker and Ortiz fights. In a perfect world they would fight each other next. But don't be surprised if one or both of them hide behind mandatory alphabet obligations and milk another relatively safe payday (maybe two) before getting down to serious business.
Even so, both know they must beat the other to achieve universal recognition as heavyweight champion. Perhaps pride and a sense of purpose, along with an obscene amount of money, will help bring them together sooner than later. It would certainly be a win-win for all concerned, particularly the sport itself.
Joshua is already the biggest attraction in boxing and a victory would only enhance his status worldwide. He's media savvy and has cultivated a smooth, easy-going persona that has gone over well with the British public.
Wilder comes off as a bit of flake with all the yelling, animated facial gestures and funky dance steps after racking up a knockout. But underneath it all he seems a fun-loving, down-to-earth guy who just happens to be 6-foot-7 and 250 pounds, and has a right hand that could KO a pickup truck.
Heavyweight boxing would stumble on without a Joshua-Wilder fight but not in a healthy way.
There is, of course, one wild card that might change the dynamic. Tyson Fury is embarking on a comeback, but the "Gypsy King" hasn't fought since November 2015 and it's going to be a while before we know where he fits in the heavyweight picture.
When Sayers and Heenan came to scratch more than 150 years ago, it seemed as if they held the future of boxing in their brine-soaked hands, but it was not to be. Sayers never fought again and Heenan had only one more bout, losing to Tom King, another Englishman, in 1863.
For decades afterward, the U.S. dominated the rivalry to such an extent that even Brits joked about their beloved horizontal heavyweights. Like turkeys on the chopping block, John Bull's finest were dispatched with alarming efficiency. From Don Cockell and Brian London to Henry Cooper and Frank Bruno, it was pretty much a rout.
Since the advent of the gloved era, the British have had to be satisfied with an occasional moral victory, such as Tommy Farr going the distance with Joe Louis and Cooper knocking down Muhammad Ali.
Then along came Lewis, who practically evened the score all by himself.
The biggest question going into the Ortiz and Parker fights is whether Wilder-Joshua will still be the hottest heavyweight fight come the first of April?
The smart money says yes, and regardless of who prevails, hopefully the American and the Englishman can measure up to a passage published in Bell's Life in the immediate aftermath the trailblazing Sayers-Heenan melee.
"On the question of nationality, the only point that has been decided, and the only point in our opinion requiring decision, is that both England and America possess brave sons, and each country had reason to be proud of the champion she has selected."