In boxing context has always been king. For although one can recall countless undercard skirmishes that contained more in the way of pure drama than the high intensity hostilities that so gripped us last Saturday night, it is always the El Clàsico match-ups which define the sport. Such was the case during an evening that left me hoarse and had my neighbours hammering on the wall.
Of course, in a purist sense it should have been Britain’s wayward heterodox Tyson Fury standing in the opposite corner to Anthony Joshua that night. But events, as we all know, gave us the next best thing: a meeting of the ages which sought and provided the answers to questions that needed to be answered in order to construct the next epoch in heavyweight folklore.
One of the first things we were to witness to during Saturday’s quite momentous heavyweight clash was the true nature of Wladimir Klitschko. So often accused of a safety first approach that resulted in anaemic defences of the heavyweight crown that he held for the best part of fifteen years, the Ukrainian revealed that when required he was capable of digging as deeply as the best of them. And in his measured, dignified reactions to a defeat that he fought tooth and nail to avoid, Klitschko endowed the sport with a degree of class that is all too often absent from proceedings.The fight, now that the dust has begun to settle, was in effect a game of three thirds. In the first we got what we expected: namely the sight of the youthful Anthony Joshua using his superior strength and vigour to stretch his 41-year-old opponent to the absolute limit. But what a forty-one-year-old. Although we live in an age in which boxers seem to routinely lengthen their careers in the way that some of us lengthen our overdrafts it was more than impressive to watch a rejuvenated Klitschko turn back the years.
The level of concentration in the challenger’s eyes as he sought to find an opening for his spearing left hooks and right crosses was something that we thought we might never again witness. And when he finally connected with one of those shots at the beginning of the fourth there was a sense that this fight was not going to be the cakewalk the many of the partisan crowd were expecting.
In a widely seesawing contest this assumption seemed to be blown away early in the fifth when Joshua finally got through with one of his own pile-drivers and the older man sank to the floor, more, it seemed to me, in resignation than through necessity. However, a second tumble to the canvas saw Klitschko in real trouble but as the pendulum swung it was Joshua who was suddenly looking like the older man.
Many watching — myself included — found themselves haunted by visions of a British hero from a bygone era as Klitschko suddenly found his range and accuracy, continually jarring the younger man’s head back. The sight of Anthony Joshua leaning against the ropes as Klitschko took potshots at his statuesque frame took one back to Frank Bruno and the manner in which he capitulated back in the 1980s against the likes of ‘Bonecrusher’ Smith and Tim Witherspoon. Aside from a left hook delivered by Dillian Whyte a few fights back it was the first time that we’d seen Joshua under any kind of pressure. His reaction was worrying to say the least.
This feeling was further exacerbated in round six when the defending champion was hit by a savage right hand that sent him sagging to the floor. From my vantage point on the living room sofa it seemed impossible that Joshua could possible recover from this blow. And with more than two minutes left in the round Klitschko had ample opportunity to use his experience to apply the finishing touches.
In future years we may find ourselves remembering that this was the moment when Anthony Joshua because a real boxer, a genuine fighter no less. It was was here we learned that the 27-year-old had it inside of him to deal with real adversity; that there was more to him than the one man wrecking crew we had witnessed ploughing through 18 overmatched opponents.
Very few of the greats have managed to get through a career without a taste of what Klitschko gave to Joshua during that torrid sixth round: before Ali cemented his legacy he had to get up off the floor against Doug Jones, against Joe Frazier; for Holmes there was Shavers; for Leonard there was Lalonde and Howard; for Marciano there was Walcott. The list goes on.
In the post-fight interview Wladimir Klitschko regretted not doing more to put Joshua away at that moment. Of course he did. But in truth the Ukrainian did all that he could. The survival instinct of a bedraggled Anthony Joshua proved stronger than his opponent’s desire for blood. In managing to find a way to get through the round Anthony Joshua comprehensively swept away all those comparisons with Bruno. Here, it seemed, we had a fighter who was prepared to use any measure to avoid defeat.
Skip to the third part of the fight and we saw the scales realign themselves once more. Almost imperceptibly Klitschko was losing something while Joshua was gaining. Nevertheless it was still a surprise when Joshua came out for the eleventh round suddenly looking as fresh as he did for the first. The punches were the same as they had always been but now Klitschko was ready to wilt.
For the record I, like most people I’ve spoken to, had the Ukrainian ahead on the cards up to that point. But even though two of the judges had their own opinions, a points loss for Klitschko, while harsh, would not have been a travesty on the scale of a Bradley-Pacquaio.
And so now Britain and the heavyweight division has a genuine star. But already there is some cleaning up to do. Joshua may hold the silverware but it is another Briton, Tyson Fury, who has history on his side. Until the pair meet to settle their differences there will always be those who refuse to acknowledge Joshua’s dramatic coronation in the same way there was were many who saw Michael Spinks as the legitimate champion and Mike Tyson the pretender all those years ago.
There is also money to be made from a match-up with IBF champion Deontay Wilder. A unification battle with the 6’ 7” American would see certainly provide another seven-figure pay day for Anthony Joshua. Who knows, there might even be a slice of the pie available for the likes of David Haye and Tony Bellew.
For now it’s time to catch our breath. Some commentators are already labelling the events of last night as ‘The greatest heavyweight fight of all time’. I’m not so sure about that. What we can say, however, is that it’s certainly the latest greatest heavyweight fight of all time.