ANTHONY JOSHUA and Deontay Wilder negotiating a heavyweight title fight feels a bit like visiting Las Vegas, the so-called fight capital of the world, for the first time.
To fresh, untrained, wide eyes, everything looks close, obtainable, within walking distance. Yet the reality, you soon discover, is quite different. All the alluring, glittery stuff that appeared to be on your doorstep is in fact quite far away and requires either a cab or solid thighs to reach. Worse, by the time you get there you’ll be hungry, exhausted, potentially sunburnt and certainly underwhelmed by half-arsed versions of the Eiffel Tower, the Statue of Liberty and the Sphinx of Giza.
In short, it’s a long way to go for something that was never real – or really interesting – in the first place.
I don’t know the ins and outs or the reasons why – who does? – but it would seem the heavyweight fight the world wants to see, Joshua vs. Wilder, the heavyweight fight we were led to believe was close (“likely to happen next,” they said), won’t be happening any time soon. Not in September, not in October, not in November, all months mentioned during the negotiations, and probably not during the first quarter of 2019, either.
This is seemingly why a lot of people are mad about the situation and madder still that Alexander Povetkin has now entered the fray as Joshua’s opponent for September 22 at Wembley stadium. This fight, we’re told, must happen because of the WBA’s mandatory regulations (Povetkin is Joshua’s number one contender), but still it hurts. Still we sulk. Still it leaves us feeling misled.
Promised so much, we now find ourselves resenting one or both of the heavyweight champions involved as they get their stories straight and do their best to blame the other party. It’s a divorce of the worst kind; awash with animosity, half-truths, and threats of dalliances with others, it will all eventually seem futile as the quarrelling two, should enough money be on the table, inevitably make up and get back together. (“We’re doing it for the kids,” they’ll say.)
That will happen. Give it time. For now, though, we get Povetkin, Joshua’s rebound and our red button option.
Anybody who watched the BBC’s coverage of France’s 2018 World Cup game against Argentina will have noticed in the top right-hand corner of the screen an icon encouraging viewers to hit a button – the red one – on their remote control and switch to ‘Athletics’ if that way inclined. My red button remained untouched, so I can’t tell you much about the athletics, but it did get me thinking, who, in that moment, would rather be watching athletics than (what would become) a seven-goal thriller?
I then had another thought.
If Joshua vs. Wilder is a World Cup match, the final perhaps, then Alexander Povetkin constitutes the red button option that flashes up during the national anthems. It’s a distraction. An option nobody (except the WBA) feels is necessary.
Yet, in isolation, on a day when the red button diverts you not from a World Cup game but some godawful reality show on an island, the option works. Not only that, it’s appealing, most welcome.
Boxing’s World Cup, Joshua vs. Wilder, isn’t going to be coming home this year. Resigned to this, we should therefore be able to accept Joshua vs. Povetkin as a decent warm-up fixture, one that, unlike a pre-tournament England friendly, actually means something, carries a threat level, and won’t be contested at walking pace, interrupted by superfluous substitutions.
No, this is a fight. It might not be the fight anybody wanted to see next but it’s a fight all the same.
Hardly a bad one, either.
Alexander Povetkin has lost just one of 35 professional bouts, against Wladimir Klitschko no less, and was a far more decorated amateur than Joshua (to the tune of gold medals at the European and World Championships and Olympic Games). He’s probably past his best at 38, and, yes, some of his standout wins were aided by performance-enhancing drugs (failed tests for ostarine and meldonium), but, when the time comes for two high-profile boxers to stand in a ring and trade punches, these details amount to small print, the sort of thing you mutter under your breath while turning your head the other way.
Before testers gate-crashed his party, Povetkin was – perhaps still is – a solid, technically sound and aggressive heavyweight, someone heavy-handed enough to knock out durable types like Carlos Takam, Chris Byrd and Manuel Charr. He was undersized against Klitschko in 2013, but so were many before and after him. Moreover, the fact he was once considered Klitschko’s first decent challenge in quite a while is a testament to ‘Sasha’s pedigree and power.
Today, Povetkin moves slower and seems vulnerable, but his March win over Price (the climax of which will soon be replayed ad nauseam) at least showed the Russian is now aware of his limitations – his lack of size, his susceptibility to monster punchers – and finds comfort in the simple strategy of moving his head, rolling under punches, and then swinging wildly with hooks of his own. This, in the context of a fight against Joshua, someone who shifts hands better than feet and head, could mean excitement. Danger, too, from Joshua’s point of view.
Which is why anyone frustrated by the Wilder shenanigans will do well to appreciate the Watford man’s willingness to wander sideways into a hazardous assignment. Because, chances are, Povetkin will be better than Wilder’s next fall guy. And let’s not forget, either, that only three months ago Joshua was taking Joseph Parker’s unbeaten record and WBO title in the first unification fight of his 21-fight pro career.
Say what you want about the Joshua and Wilder grandstanding, but one accusation that can’t be levelled at the 2012 Olympic champion is that he dodges challenges or enjoys being mollycoddled. In fact, Joshua, moved expertly since day one, has taken every fight at just the right time, done all that’s been asked of him in the ring, and is now one of the most marketable stars in the sport. He won’t turn 29 until October and he’s still very much finding his feet as a champion. If, therefore, he delays the biggest test of his career, his Everest moment, that’s fine. Benefit of the doubt should be given – at least temporarily.
Besides, such is the flimsy nature of the heavyweight division, it might pay to put this thing off for a while and hope, during this time, other contenders emerge, and the chasing pack fattens up a bit. Give it 12 months, let’s say, and the division might have something more to offer than a couple of larger-than-life champions and a gaggle of also-rans; leftovers from the Klitschko era and untested novices whose rise owes more to a lack of numbers than any great talent.
The fear is that you press ‘go’ on The Big One, take either Joshua or Wilder out of the equation, and create a god of a relative novice and a shortlist of contenders whose limitations have already been exposed. (Trust me, the world’s not yet ready for Dillian Whyte to declare himself the world’s number two.)
So Povetkin, if nothing else, buys time. He buys time for Joshua and Wilder to sort their numbers out and increase their respective profiles, and he buys time for the heavyweight division to find some shape and quality. A silver lining, of sorts.
Finally, sticking with the Sin City theme, there’s a certain fun to be had from standing back from the table and watching other people – strangers – recklessly gamble their own money in the hope they’ll win a lot more somewhere down the line.
Whether boxers, managers or promoters, these are men with the golden ticket to the chocolate factory who, rather than enter, wait outside for an upgrade (oblivious to the fact that gold is gold). And that’s fine. It’s their money. It’s their decision. But just as we shouldn’t get caught up in the pre-fight chicanery and crossfire, nor should we feel too sympathetic if it all blows up in various faces and the Joshua vs. Wilder fight, for one reason or another, never ends up happening.
These aren’t Valium-fuelled single mums slouching over a slot machine, child hanging from a leg, with an ashtray of crushed dreams, unpaid bills and cigarette butts. They are, instead, big boys, high rollers; blokes in expensive suits who are in it to win it and in it for whatever they can get. They’re playing a high-stakes game. They are fully aware of the rules. Fully in control.
Bystanders, meanwhile, can watch it all unfold, guilt-free, and find excitement in knowing each time Anthony Joshua and Deontay Wilder take a fight in the interim, each time they roll another dice instead of cashing out, they do so acutely aware that everything – everything – could go wrong in an instant.
It’s what makes otherwise vanilla title defences all of a sudden crucial. It’s what makes the likes of Alexander Povetkin more dangerous than you might assume.