AS soon as a heavyweight puncher fi-fo-fums onto the landscape, The Question is immediately asked. It’s the one on every fight fan’s lips. OK, so this mighty ogre can hit – but how will his chin hold up when some plucky chap cracks him back?
It becomes the puncher’s keenly awaited acid test. How does this destroyer so expert in dishing out violence feel when the roles are reversed? It’s a sensible question for any fighter, but even more so with a big hitter. After all, their foes are usually so concerned with the incoming fire that they’re reluctant to risk loading up and return fire.
Plus with punchers of the shattering power of Anthony Joshua, in-ring minutes are limited, reducing the time we have to gauge the quality of their chin. After all, Joshua has had 18 professional fights, but completed just 26 full rounds in that time.
With Joshua, the question was semi-answered in his brawl with Dillian Whyte – but to nobody’s satisfaction. AJ optimists could point out that Joshua came through being wobbled in the second round to win in devastating fashion, showing fortitude under fire. The glass-half-empty view is that if Whyte, a hard puncher but not the second coming of Mike Tyson, can stiffen Joshua’s legs, what can a heavyweight with proven power at elite level do?
It’s a fascinating question, it’s the logical question, it’s a worthy question. It might also be the wrong question.
After all, if we look back at the fearsome punching heavyweight champions of the past, a pattern emerges.
Joe Louis – a man who hit so hard that even his jab was described as like having a light bulb smashed into your face – lost his unbeaten pro record due to the cunning of Max Schmeling. The German had noticed a chink in Louis’ armoury (he was open to a counter right hand) and patiently exploited it to inflict a 12th-round stoppage defeat on the man who’d go on to become the longest reigning heavyweight champion of all (gaining brutal retribution over Schmeling along the way).
A generation before Louis, the savagely powerful Jack Dempsey had some early losses on his ledger when he won the heavyweight crown, but the man who took his title was a durable boxer following a wily gameplan in Gene Tunney.
George Foreman, arguably the most dangerous pure puncher of them all, was famously undone by Muhammad Ali’s rope-a-dope tactics. Ali smothered or withstood Big George’s best shots and finished off a weary Foreman in eight rounds. This was a decade after the then Cassius Clay saw off another terrifying destroyer in Sonny Liston, using the swiftness of his feet and fists to inflict a massive upset.
In 1990, Mike Tyson, who wreaked a Liston-like havoc on the division, was undone by James ‘Buster’ Douglas. He outboxed a sluggish Tyson, even recovering from a knockdown to pull off another gigantic upset.
Riddock Bowe, also a renowned puncher, lost his unbeaten record and heavyweight title belts in a close points fight to man he’d already beaten in the form of granite-jawed Evander Holyfield.
Do you see a pattern developing? None of these huge-punching heavyweight champs were undone by a single blow to a fragile chin. The far more consistent kryptonite for these Supermen is coming up against a man who can either take – or has a gameplan to nullify – the blows that have been reducing other mortals to rubble. This is when our hero’s brain can start to short circuit. After all, it can be difficult to develop a ‘Plan B’ when ‘Plan A’ has been so viciously successful.
Of course, the above is a skewed sample. In the interests of fairness, it’s worth pointing out that there are heavyweight punchers who have indeed been undone by one titanic punch that sends them to the canvas. Lennox Lewis is a prime example at elite level.
However the majority of huge punchers face their true test not when they meet someone who can hit them as hard as they’ve been whacking others, but rather when they meet someone who can handle their power and keep on going.
It’s even true of recent heavyweights who have been labelled chinny. Take best buddies Wladimir Klitschko and David Haye. It’s safe to say that neither has a reputation for Oliver McCall-esque durability. However both of their first, at the time shocking, professional defeats follow a similar pattern.
For Klitschko, it came in a 1998 bout against iron-chinned journeyman Ross Puritty. The young Wladimir was dominating the fight until he spectacularly ran out of gas in the later rounds and flopped to the canvas in the 11th.
For Haye, it happened at cruiserweight and in quicker time against Carl Thompson, but the process was similar. Haye threw the kitchen sink and every other household fixture at Thompson, who took it all and came back with his own punches. Haye’s team pulled out their exhausted charge in the fifth round.
All of this leads to April 29th and Klitschko’s fight with one Anthony Joshua. The prevailing wisdom is that in a fight where both men have such imposing knockout numbers, it’s unlikely to go the distance. Also, that it will be very interesting if and when Klitschko lands the power punches than have stopped over 50 pro rivals on Joshua’s jaw.
However an equally interesting question is what if the Brit drills Klitschko with a couple of hard punches and the Ukrainian withstands them and carries on boxing. Of course, this ‘if’ is the size of Godzilla’s posing pouch. Even in his prime Klitschko, as discussed, did not have a reputation for a titanium chin. There’s also little doubt that Joshua’s power is for real.
Yet maybe it isn’t as simple as it first appears. Klitschko hasn’t actually been stopped in 13 years (or 22 heavyweight fights). He hasn’t even been off his feet since his first fight with Samuel Peter in 2005. That may be down to various factors from his safety-first style to the majority of his rivals not being in his league. But it does seem a bit cruel to write off a boxer’s chin entirely when he hasn’t been knocked down in over a decade.
So – while it’s not how Sky Sports will market this fight – what could be really intriguing is if Klitschko can take or nullify Joshua’s power and continue to implement his own strategy.
Whether he has the punch resistance and, at 41 years old, the reflexes to do that is admittedly a big doubt.
However eventually someone will come along who can stand up to Anthony Joshua. It might be Klitschko or it might be someone else in the future. But history tells us – from Louis to Foreman to Tyson – someone eventually does come along who can take those shots.
When that happens and Joshua lands the blows that have been removing other boxers from their senses and the man in front of him just grins and keeps on plugging away – that moment will be the true acid test of Anthony Joshua’s heavyweight career. Frankly, even he may not know how he reacts to such a challenge until we see it happen, under the bright lights and on the biggest stage