Joshua, Fury, Inoue, Canelo - guide to the big fights in first half of 2024

After a slow start, the boxing schedule is looking stacked in the run-up to summer

Anthony Joshua, left, faces Francis Ngannou in Riyadh on March 8. PA
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If the last week in boxing felt incomplete, that's because it was. About now we should be reflecting on either Tyson Fury or Oleksandr Usyk claiming the undisputed heavyweight title in Riyadh this past Saturday night.

However, an injury to Fury, namely a cut sustained in sparring, caused the February 17 'Ring of Fire' card to be aborted and left a rather sizeable hole in the boxing schedule.

Granted we've seen Artur Beterbiev bludgeon Callum Smith, Jaime Munguia take out John Ryder and Teofimo Lopez edge past Jamaine Ortiz, but given we are almost into March, it's been an underwhelming start to 2024.

But things are certainly looking up. The schedule is finally starting to take shape as promoters and networks finalise their plans for the first half of the year with several intriguing fights on the horizon.

Below is a guide to some of the highlights fight fans can look forward to in the coming months.

Anthony Joshua v Francis Ngannou, March 8

The next big fight from Saudi Arabia is now only a few weeks away as Joshua faces MMA import Ngannou at Kingdom Arena in Riyadh. Joshua (27-3, 24 KOs) looked as good as he has done in years in putting away Sweden's Otto Wallin in five rounds at the same venue in December.

The 34-year-old Briton was measured and spiteful in a hugely promising first display with new trainer Ben Davison. That relationship remains in place ahead of this showdown with the hulking Ngannou, who excelled on his boxing debut against a pitifully out of shape Fury last October.

Another emphatic showing from "AJ" would position him to face the winner of Fury/Usyk, while Ngannou, 37, will hope to show his last outing was no fluke.

As an added bonus, this card also boasts an excellent heavyweight co-feature with New Zealand's Joseph Parker, fresh from his victory over Deontay Wilder, slated to face Chinese giant Zhilei Zhang. Throw in Britain's unbeaten Nick Ball challenging Rey Vargas for the WBC featherweight title and it's starting to look like another stacked card in the kingdom.

Dalton Smith v Jose Zepeda, March 23

This fascinating piece of matchmaking sees talented up-and-comer Smith dip his toe in the water at world level against three-time title challenger Zepeda.

Smith, unbeaten in 15, is highly regarded by promoters Matchroom and the Sheffield Wednesday-supporting 27-year-old has his heart set on a stadium fight at the Owls' Hillsborough home.

Before he even thinks about that, or a potential domestic light-welterweight showdown with another rising star in Adam Azim, he must get past Zepeda, who has 37 wins in 43 fights.

The 34-year-old has lost two of his last three but still represents a huge step up in quality for Smith. Zepeda, who is probably best remembered for his epic win over Ivan Baranchyk – both fighters were down four times in just five rounds – tends to only lose at the highest level.

Tim Tszyu v Keith Thurman, March 30

As the main event to launch the PBC's new partnership with Amazon Prime, this is a curious choice. That said, what an amazing opportunity for Tszyu to shine in front of a large US audience.

The Australian, son of the legendary Kostya Tszyu, has been busy establishing himself as the leading man in the light-middleweight division. The 29-year-old was denied a shot at champion Jermell Charlo so instead set about feasting on contenders like Tony Harrison, Brian Mendoza and Terrell Gausha. With Charlo now in hibernation following a feeble effort at super-middleweight against Saul "Canelo" Alvarez, few would dispute Tszyu's status as No 1 in the division.

Tszyu (24-0, 17 KOs) has an aggressive fan-friendly style and will be heavily favoured to run through Thurman, a career welterweight who is at best a part-time fighter these days. The 35-year-old has fought just once in almost five years. Rolly Romero v Isaac Cruz at light-welterweight should be an entertaining co-feature.

Fabio Wardley v Frazer Clarke, March 31

While certainly not a bout with consequences at the very top of the heavyweight division, this feels like a fight that will deliver. British fans will tell you there's not much like a well-matched domestic rivalry, and this has the makings of one.

Wardley, 29, is the British and Commonwealth champion with a 17-0 (16 KOs) record, while the 32-year-old Clarke (8-0, 6 KOs) is an Olympic bronze medallist hoping to get on the fast-track to world level. With this being a big event for Boxxer on Sky in the UK, expect a decent undercard, including another OIympian in Ben Whittaker, who has been dividing opinion with some extreme showboating in recent outings.

Devin Haney v Ryan Garcia, April 20

The great Marvin Hagler refused to speak to his sparring partners as he thought it might deter him from hurting them as much as he might like to. Meanwhile, fighters in 2024 entertain themselves by saying mean things about each other on Tiktok. You get the impression Hagler wouldn't have had much time for this new generation of American fighters, but the likes of Haney (31-0, 15 KOs) and Garcia (24-1, 20 KOs) are now at world level and there will be a lot of eyes on this April 20 showdown.

The two fighters have a rivalry that dates back to their amateur careers with both happy to accept the score is tied at three wins apiece. However, Haney has flourished in the pro ranks while Garcia looked out of his depth when knocked out by Gervonta Davis last year. That said, he may feel more comfortable in there with Haney, an opponent he knows well and, while technically gifted, is far from heavy handed.

Josh Taylor v Jack Catterall 2, April 27

There's no love lost between these two following their controversial first fight in February 2022. Taylor (19-1, 13 KOs) went into that as a heavy favourite but was dropped and outboxed for long stretches. Even though the consensus was that he lost - a razor-thin points decision saw the Scot leave with his hand raised.

Since then, the 33-year-old lost his world title to Teofimo Lopez, while Catterall (28-1, 13 KOs) has treaded water waiting for a rematch. The Englishman used Taylor's aggression against him in the first fight, with his counter-punching style consistently effective. Given the bad blood, this one is certain to draw in a big audience.

Canelo Alvarez v TBA, May 4

Mystery surrounds Canelo's opponent for his customary Cinco de Mayo weekend outing, although it currently seems it won't be the one man he should be fighting: David Benavidez.

Benavidez's team have said they aren't getting the fight, so that leaves Jermall Charlo and Munguia as frontrunners.

Canelo said in a recent interview his opponent would be "an American", around the same time many stories emerged that it would be Charlo on May 4. Jermall, the twin brother of Jermell, who put forward such a weak effort against the Mexican last year, has fought just once in four years because of well-publicised personal problems, leading to an overwhelmingly negative reaction from fans.

Munguia is raw but on current form worthy of a shot, but given the enmity between Canelo and Munguia's promoters Golden Boy, that also seems problematic.

Of course, Canelo should be fighting Benavidez, a dangerous opponent who has separated himself from the competition at super-middleweight, but there has been no hint a deal is in the offing.

Alvarez (60-2, 39 KOs), aside from his defeat to Dmitry Bivol, arguably hasn't taken a truly risky assignment since his first two fights with Gennady Golovkin in 2017 and 2018. Given he usually fights twice per year, in May and September, perhaps the second one will be a treat for the fans.

Naoya Inoue v Luis Nery, May 6

There will be a lot of delighted Japanese boxing fans if Inoue (26-0, 23 KOs), arguably the sport's No 1 pound-for-pound fighter, obliterates the controversial Nery on May 6. There's not much love for the Mexican (35-1, 27 KOs) in the Land of the Rising Sun after he tested positive for a banned substance after a win over Shinsuke Yamanaka in Kyoto in 2017. Nery then rubbed salt in the wounds by flagrantly ignoring the bantamweight limit and coming in heavy for the rematch the following year.

Inoue claimed on social media Nery should be "exiled" from boxing, while the Mexican has little respect for the unified superbantamweight champion. “He’s not a monster,” Nery said. “He’s a little monster. I’m the real monster of 122.”

Vasyl Lomachenko v George Kambosos Jr, May 11

The great Lomachenko (17-3, 11 KOs) was visibly crestfallen after his narrow points loss to Haney last year. Many felt he deserved the nod and given how hard he took defeat, it will be good to see him back in the ring. At lightweight, "Loma" was fighting two divisions above his optimum weight, while Haney, 11 years his junior, has a frame that could see him go all the way up to light-middleweight, should he desire. The fact that Lomachenko, 36, was the consensus victor against a younger and far bigger man shows how much he still has to offer. Kambosos (21-2, 10 KOs), himself twice beaten by Haney, received a gift decision against Britain's Maxi Hughes last July and will start as an underdog on home soil in Perth, Australia.

Tyson Fury v Oleksandr Usyk, May 18

Such has been the stream of delays and frustrations, almost entirely from the Fury side, this is heading into "believe it when you see it" territory. However, with the backing of Saudi Arabia, and the huge purses on offer, you'd think it will still surely come to fruition.

Fury (34-0-1, 24 KOs) looked horrendous in a career-worst performance against Ngannou last October, and after being cut in sparring ahead of the original February 17 date, has a few extra months to get into fighting shape. Usyk (21-0, 14 KOs) seemingly took the delay in his stride and insists he will be ready for the new date.

There's no doubt all of the distractions have killed the buzz for this one, but come May 18, the top two at heavyweight will face off and that's a rare and special thing for the sport.

Artur Beterbiev v Dmitry Bivol, June 1

Certainly in terms of this list, the best has been saved for last.

In fact, this four-belt unification at light-heavyweight is arguably the best fight you could make in all of boxing right now.

Front-foot destroyer Beterbiev (20-0, 20 KOs) has made light work of his divisional rivals, while the ultra-slick Bivol (22-0, 11 KOs) is also unbeaten and hasn't really ever come close to losing.

At 39, Beterbiev is in the home stretch of his career but is yet to show any decline. Bivol, meanwhile, has at times underwhelmed and has a habit of fighting down to the level of his opposition. He did, however, show exactly what he is capable of in dominating Canelo Alvarez and pitching a shutout against Gilberto Ramirez in Abu Dhabi.

Both men are undefeated and together they present a tantalising blend of styles.

This fight is reported to headline the Matchroom v Queensbury show – where five fighters from each promotional stable will face off – meaning June 1 in Saudi Arabia will be one of the best cards of the year.

Updated: February 23, 2024, 9:22 PM