FOR a moment, Anthony Joshua was just like all the others. The wheels on the hype train rattled and wobbled, youth acted its age, and destiny switched its allegiance to Wladimir Klitschko. The king in waiting had blown his chance, it seemed, his wildly premature roar of victory – after bludgeoning the old man to the deck in a stunning round five – emptied his reserves and Joshua, when carelessly walking into a chopping left hook, was just another pretender to the throne.
The Ukrainian veteran swarmed all over the 27-year-old who found himself up to his eyeballs in exhaustion and panic as Klitschko silenced the 90,000 in attendance at Wembley Stadium, hurled his power punches of old, and underlined his status as one of the finest champions in heavyweight history.
A violent right hand clattered off the knackered Englishman in the next session, and he grimaced in pain before the weight of the blow took his legs from under him. Order had been restored. Klitschko had flattened another opponent and proved – just like he had told us all along – that the 2015 loss to Tyson Fury was a mere aberration.
And then it happened. Joshua got up. His legs were unsteady and his head undoubtedly foggy, but his face exhibited a determination alien to the vast majority. At a point when so many of Klitschko’s previous opponents have succumbed, and decided that beating the count was a complete waste of time, Joshua decided he was going to try and win. That victory was in the balance for a little while longer as Klitschko rolled back the years, boxed superbly until, in round 11, Joshua uncorked a fizzing uppercut that triggered glory in one of the most stomach-churning and exciting fights the United Kingdom has ever seen. And just like that, destiny was calling Anthony Joshua’s name again.
While certain critics will never be happy – particularly those who bemoan this era’s hype and indulgence while craving the past – the biggest success here was that boxing, while drawing on its primal thirst for violence and showing off to record audiences, delivered at the highest level. And surely that’s the point of events like this – to please the paying public, seduce new fans and ensure boxing keeps pace with an ever-changing sporting landscape. After Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao put the world to sleep in 2015, Joshua and Klitschko must take a bow, because their bravery and spirit produced a war of the ages – a blazing bruising bloody slugfest, and an instant classic – which showed all watching why our sport can engross like nothing else.
Certainly, we can expect Joshua’s already humongous profile to go stratospheric. He has been British boxing’s unofficial leader for around two years, but it’s only now we know for sure that he has what it takes to rule. Now, after the manner in which he won, and the way he stayed in the ring for almost two hours afterwards – signing autographs and talking to fans – the Englishman is the sport’s biggest, brightest, shiniest star. Make no mistake about it, the catastrophe facing the Watford man during the middle rounds, right up until he pulled victory out of the bag in such spectacular fashion, would have ruined the vast majority of heavyweights. Now we know things about Joshua that he might say he knew all along; he can stop the best fighters in the world, he can take punishment and not crumble, he can come back from adversity and he can find the right punches to close shop at any point of a 12-rounder. But even though Joshua can claim these ticked boxes are nothing new to him, the fact he now has bona-fide evidence to take into future warfare will only make him even stronger. Joshua is far from perfect – and please, hold off on any mythical matchups with greats of the past for now – but what we have in our midst, at long last, is a heavyweight capable of restoring glory to the sport’s banner division. Indeed, the revolution is here and impossible to ignore.
While loath to criticise, particularly after such a magnificent effort, Joshua’s imperfections shouldn’t be ignored either. And certainly both he and esteemed trainer Rob McCracken, who deserves immense kudos for guiding his charge through the crisis, must have been concerned with the speed he went from predator to the hunted in round five. Joshua’s stamina has always been a question mark; perhaps the problem stemmed from the strain of his gargantuan physique, or maybe it was the stress of the grand occasion – which began for the IBF and new WBA king with a lavish, garish ring walk – coupled with a genuine belief that the job was done when Klitschko fell at his feet. More likely it was the left hook, Klitschko’s honey punch that he was loading up all night, which sapped his strength. For now, no matter, because Joshua had regrouped by the eighth and throughout the contest he proved his mettle by standing up to some serious punishment.
Comparisons to the worst of Frank Bruno, whose capitulations were infamous due to the manner in which he froze under pressure, should stop now because even when “AJ” was hurt, and desperately gulping back the brisk night air, he displayed a savviness beyond his years to not only survive, but also remain dangerous.
Klitschko too answered questions. When he does eventually retire he may rue that it took this long for an opponent to come along and bring out the best of him. On his toes from the start, and right up until he was taken off them in the 11th, he was the sprightliest 41-year-old the sport has ever seen. Not only that, he was aggressive too, and in a curious way became the Klitschko the world hasn’t witnessed – but desperately craved – since he burst onto the scene as an exciting destroyer at the turn of the century. But, incredibly, he was even better than the younger version. Indelibly yet unfairly labelled as ‘chinny’, Klitschko was as strong as an ox and his ring craft, the product of many years at the top, was a joy to behold and it taught Joshua plenty. In overcoming Klitschko, the new leader learned more than from all of his previous 18 bouts put together.
The veteran’s age may well have played a part in his eventual defeat, he was certainly tired by the 10th, but Joshua can be content he defeated the version of Klitschko that will be remembered most fondly. He started confidently, dabbing out his lead and trying to find room to land his booming right. Joshua, tentative but in control, resisted the trick through the first quarter – even landing a meaty right of his own in the third – before the old master jumped on the champion’s carelessness at the beginning of the fourth. Always in ring centre waiting for his opponent before the bell rang (a psychological trick dreamed up by his late coach, Emanuel Steward) Klitschko feinted a left hook before sweeping over with his power arm. The blast landed flush and Joshua felt it. Another one came quickly afterwards and suddenly it was clear that Klitschko’s demise had been greatly exaggerated. Joshua held on. The fight was on.
In the fifth, Joshua decided to go for broke for the first time. The next time he tried it, celebrations followed, but on this occasion disaster almost struck. Eyes wild and arms poised, he came storming off his stool with bad intentions, landed a left hook, a trailing right and another left. Klitschko was hurt and he careered backwards in a way that we haven’t seen for over a decade. Joshua was all over him, a huge left rocked back the challenger’s head and Klitschko plundered forwards, trying to grab on to anything and everything as he fell on his face. Joshua bellowed in delight, and threw his arms aloft. But Klitschko was just getting started.
Referee David Fields – who did an impeccable job throughout – dusted off the Ukrainian’s gloves, checked the gash that had opened over his left eye, and motioned for the fight to continue. It was clear almost immediately that the Englishman was dog tired and with discipline ditched he searched for a finisher only to find a wicked left hook in his face. Klitschko – bloodied, reenergised and dangerous – sensed the mother of all turnarounds and poured it on. Several punches landed flush, an expertly delivered uppercut sent the favourite reeling back and, at the bell, Joshua’s smile fooled no one.
McCracken was outraged, the media looked at each other in bewilderment, and Klitschko quickly got off his stool to finish what he’d started. Just over a minute into the sixth, he teed up his right and slung it straight into his prey. Joshua has probably never felt anything like it, and for a second he instinctively dabbed at the impact zone before collapsing to the canvas. It was a heavy fall, the type that ends fights and ruins careers.
But Joshua proved he isn’t like all the rest. The next few rounds were hazardous for the champ, as Klitschko, jabbing beautifully and moving, exhibited wonderful footwork – for too long an underrated feature of his game – to venomously pot shot. But what was needed was more than pot shots; one wonders if Klitschko, when all is said and done, will look back on these rounds and rue his failure to truly unload.
Joshua was having sporadic success with his right but, importantly, he was able to withstand whatever was being thrown at him. In the 10th, his head snapped back as a huge right hand thumped off it; moments such as these should warn any future detractors of his toughness because – as he worked his way back into the contest and through unchartered territory – Joshua made a mockery of claims he cannot take a punch.
As the 11th started, both men were in ring centre waiting for the bell. Klitschko had been slowing down and Joshua sensed it. Where Klitschko had paused for too long with his opponent tiring and in trouble, Joshua went all out when faced with the same opportunity. He started the session by bowling in his right and Klitschko stumbled back, the spring in his step deserting him. AJ stalked and waited for the old man to lean in again. Klitschko would soon be ripe for the surprise Joshua had in store. The warhorse leant forward, trying to hold on, his face was unguarded and Joshua fired a spiteful uppercut that damn near took his head off. Wladimir tried to shake off the pain, but Joshua was all over him and two cuffing punches sent him to the mat. Referee Fields gave Klitschko enough time to regain his balance but he was almost broken, and Joshua’s thunderous power soon zeroed in again. A right and left put Klitschko on his back yet – clear-eyed – he heartily found the strength to rise for the final time. Joshua too was almost spent, but called on the last of his reserves for one final push. Klitschko sought shelter on the ropes and – after his head yoyoed – the epic encounter was halted at 2-25.
Amid the joyous pandemonium, few people realised how dangerously tired the new king was. McCracken refrained from joining in the celebrations because Joshua, leaning on the corner post, was in no state to do so himself. His coach screamed for water, but spoke calmly to his fighter until, a full 90 seconds after the bout had been stopped, Joshua found the strength to stand on the ropes and rejoice. Before long, the two iron men embraced, and reflected on the hell that came before. The war was over, but the Anthony Joshua era is just at the beginning.
THE VERDICT: All that’s left to say is thank you – to these two astonishingly tough warriors – for delivering a show that will never be forgotten.
TALKING POINT: The scores of Don Trella and Nelson Vazquez (96-93 and 95-93) in Joshua’s favour did not appear to match the action. Steve Weisfeld favoured Klitschko, with his 95-93 card closer to Boxing News’ tally of 95-94 for the Ukrainian. But, as Klitschko pointed out afterwards, the scores didn’t matter in end.
“You’ve got to be smart in this game, this is a 12-round fight, this ain’t like an amateur fight. I said to my coach ‘I took a round off to get my breath back and now I’m going to bounce back’. I got through the round and I said to him [Klitschko] ‘You’re in a bad place now’. And I knew I was going to bounce back. [I faded because] I was trying to take him out. I know when I hurt someone, I know I can get them, I know I can, so I was like, [throwing punches], and they were just skimming his face. And it does take a lot of energy out of you to hit them and hurt and them, and I was just too eager, using a lot of energy. What I did then was try and recover, so I could step on the gas in the later rounds. That was the gameplan in my mind. So I was definitely tired, but I knew I could recover and bounce straight back.”Anthony Joshua
“I didn’t think he was going to get up, but he got up, respect. I thought he was out of gas and concentration. But I could have done more. I was pretty sure it was my night so I took my time. I got caught and the blood streamed into my eye. It was hard, I couldn’t see. I have always been a fan of his talent. I think he’s vulnerable, and that is something he will need to work on but you have to respect him today… He’s athletic like no other fighter, he has lots of punching power but not as much speed.”Wladimir Klitschko