Paul Gallen versus Justis Huni is the biggest fight in Australian boxing this year.
It’s not Tim Tszyu versus Michael Zerafa, or even George Kambosos’ tilt at the lineal lightweight crown.
Despite being contested at a lower level, the biggest domestic showpiece will be staged between a 39-year-old retired footballer and a 22-year-old who turned pro eight months ago.
It’s a concept that makes boxing purists a little uneasy.
Over the next two days, across two cities, Gallen and Huni will launch their June 16 heavyweight showdown.
Gallen is 12 fights into his second act as a professional sportsman, boasting an undefeated record (11 wins, 1 draw). Huni is a perfect 3-0, winning the national heavyweight title on debut, and is set to represent Australia at the Tokyo Olympics later this year.
Gallen is understandably a substantial underdog for the fight.
So why should we take Gallen seriously?
Gallen’s objectives in the ring have always been transparent
Whenever Gallen’s name is mentioned in relation to boxing, it evokes some common responses. Casual sports fans see it as a gimmick, a sideshow, and hardcore fight fans perceive him as an outsider.
Gallen’s objectives in the ring have always been transparent. He’s a prize fighter.
He’s there to put on interesting fights and collect the biggest purse, not chase world titles or ranking points.
But he takes the sport seriously and always shows up in shape.
After becoming a household name as a footballer for 20 years, Gallen brought crossover crowds back to boxing.
Cronulla Sharks fans were there to see him win and most other footy fans, there to see him lose. So far, they’re still waiting.
Gallen has headlined some of the most lucrative fight nights in Australia over the past eight years.
Since Jeff Horn’s loss to Zerafa in 2019, Gallen has become the country’s biggest cash cow. He moves more pay-per-views than any other Aussie fighter.
He also uses the platform to showcase some of Australia’s top young fighters to a new audience, including Tszyu earlier in his career, Liam Wilson and the Moloney twins (Andrew and Jason).
So, who has Gallen really fought?
Gallen began his boxing career fighting fellow footballers.
He progressed to fight footballers with a pugilistic link (John Hopoate and Barry Hall), and then an accomplished mixed martial artist (Mark Hunt).
In his last fight, Gallen knocked out Australia’s most decorated heavyweight boxer, Lucas Browne, to score the most significant win of his fistic career.
But Huni is different gravy.
Why would Gallen fight Huni?
As many boxing fans were quick to point out, Browne was old, inactive and out of shape.
Boxing isn’t Gallen’s first profession, nor is he responsible for the condition his opponent shows up in.
But Huni has a deep amateur pedigree and is coming into his physical prime.
So, why would Gallen fight Huni?
Gallen doesn’t need to fight Huni. He could make similar money fighting less risky opponents, such as mixed martial artist Robert Whittaker, or various name-brand footballers.
But Gallen’s drive to test himself against the next level of competition has led him all the way to the Australian champion — despite the fact that he’s completely overmatched in prospect.
Not only is it the next step up for Gallen, but it also provides an opportunity for Huni to take the mantle as Australian boxing’s next star.
Instead of denigrating Gallen’s achievements, Aussie fight fans should be thanking him.
He’s provided extra eyeballs on combat sports that more fighters should capitalise on.
There’s a lesson in it for local boxers that in addition to being highly skilled in the ring, whether you can generate a following matters in the fight game.
In an unusual setup, the promoter’s client has been relegated to second billing.
Dean Lonergan mapped out the career of former welterweight world champion, Jeff Horn, and now partners fellow Queenslander, Huni.
In boxing parlance, the “a-side” of the promotion is always reserved for the bigger draw.
That fighter will be referenced first in the title, positioned on the left-hand side of the poster and generally walk to ring second.
After some posturing, Gallen will take his rightful place as the “a-side” when the fight is officially announced today.
Huni’s long term dream has been to compete at the Olympics, where he’s considered a medal chance in the super-heavyweight division.
But for Huni, there’s no better way to ingratiate himself with casual sports fans than “terminating” Gallen’s boxing career, as promised.