When Joshua Met Klitschko
By Leonardo Donofrio
On 29th July 2017, in front of ninety thousand feverish fans, the dormant volcano that was the heavyweight division finally roared back into life in an explosion of fire and fury that reminded everyone how thrilling and darkly compelling boxing could be.
Once upon a time the heavyweight champion was the most famous and charismatic athlete in the sporting world. Anthony Joshua hadn’t quite reached that lofty status yet, but with his victory over Wladimir Klitschko, on that epic night in Wembley stadium, he was certainly on his way.
It was a fight for the ages that had all the drama and intrigue that the Mayweather – Pacquaio debacle had so sorely lacked.
Boxing finally had a fight that had lived up to all the hype and anticipation, and for the first time in years the heavyweight champion was on the front and back page of every newspaper.
The former unified heavyweight champion of the world was a bona fide legend of the sport and brought dignity and gravitas to every event he was involved in. He had one of the longest reigns in heavyweight history and almost as many knockouts to his name as Mike Tyson had fights.
Many thought Matchroom were rushing AJ when the fight was announced. Indeed it probably made more sense to wait – AJ was still learning his trade and could only get better whereas every year counted for the aging Klitschko.
But Anthony Joshua and Eddie Hearn were impatient for glory. And so were the fans. Fans had all they could take of the inflated egos and petty politics that had derailed so many great fights over the years.
Despite being champion Joshua was still a 20 fight novice and was largely untested. But Eddie Hearn had promised that once he won the title there would be no turning back. And he was as good as his word.
It was a credit to both Joshua’s ambition and Eddie Hearn’s faith that they were refusing to play the cautious game. They were going to throw the dice and risk it all, and in doing so had created the most eagerly anticipated heavyweight showdown in decades.
An incredible ninety thousand fight fans packed Wembley stadium, a post-war record for a boxing event, and witnessed a classic encounter that put heavyweight boxing firmly back on the map.
If there was any fear or doubt in a fighter’s psychological make-up you could guarantee Wladimir Klitschko was a man who would find it, but there was none: during the introductions, with the fight of his life just moments away, Anthony Joshua looked as calm and collected as a man waiting for a bus.
The first three rounds were tense and evenly fought, with Joshua holding his own for the most part in the battle of the jabs. Klitschko upped his game in the fourth. He distracted AJ with his left at the start of the round and then landed a crunching right hand, and then another, that had Joshua momentarily stunned and holding on.
Klitschko seemed to be growing in confidence and had more rhythm to his work, clearly winning the round. Carl Froch, watching at ringside, said Joshua needed to stamp his authority on the fight. And he did.
In the fifth round he went for broke and suddenly took it to the older man, battering him around the ring with a barrage of punches and finally landing a vicious left hook that had Wladimir reeling. He clung on to Joshua like a drowning man, before slowly sinking to the canvass in a crescendo of roars. He was also cut. Joshua pumped his fists into the air like a conquering hero and acknowledged the crowd.
The round was only 30 seconds old – he must have thought the old champion was done. But he wasn’t. He climbed to his feet and, as the marauding Joshua came in for the kill, he landed a sweeping left hook that rocked AJ to his boots.
Joshua just nodded at him but his mouth was suddenly agape and he looked rooted to the canvass. It was all-out war now. With blood streaming down his face Klitschko landed a crashing right hand that stopped AJ in his tracks followed by two left hooks that had him tottering, and a right uppercut that had him stumbling into the ropes.
It was Joshua’s turn to grab on now, but it appeared as if the fight had suddenly drained out of him. A push had him draped over the ropes like dirty laundry; he seemed to be gasping for air and in desperate trouble. Blows rained down on him. He groped blindly forward, trying to fight back, but it seemed like a lost cause.
Shrieks of shock and disbelief echoed all around him from a Wembley crowd that was on their feet. Klitschko was timing him with uppercuts and rights hands and AJ was one punch away from oblivion. The bell sounded.
AJ started the sixth round looking ragged and shell shocked from the excursions of the fifth. The old champion, in contrast, was bouncing on his toes like it was the first round. It didn’t bode well.
Klitschko seemed to have him tamed now, controlling the fight with his jab and measuring him for the right hand. Joshua was shaking his head and goading him forward, trying to turn it into a street brawl.
And then, for the first time in his professional career, he was suddenly stretched out on the canvas.
It was a crushing Klitschko right hand, fired with all the deadly accuracy of a heat-seeking missile, that had put him on the floor. Joshua froze for a second, and looked like he was going to be able to hold the shot, but the force of the blow seemed to reverberate through him, and his legs finally gave way, sending him toppling over.
There’s no sonar to test the depths of a man’s courage, and, until it happens, a fighter never quite knows how he’s going to react when he finds himself on the canvass – it was the acid test of a fighter’s heart. Anthony Joshua poked out his tongue as if he could barely believe it, and then slowly clambered back to his feet.
Wladimir Klitschko may not have had the menacing persona of a Sonny Liston or Mike Tyson but was proving to everyone that he was as tough a man who had ever held the title. He battered Joshua for the rest of the round and had him staggering around the ring.
The crowd cheered wildly, desperately trying to motivate their man, but, as the bell rang for the end of the sixth, things were looking bleak for AJ.
Pundits had been split leading into the fight. Most experts thought it would be AJ early or Klitschko late. But, with the second half of the fight looming, Klitschko had to be the favourite. AJ had only been passed the sixth round twice in his career, and he was about to enter into uncharted waters with one of the best heavyweights of all time.
But miraculously he fought his way back into the fight. Whether it was due to his age, overconfidence, or simply his cautious and safety-first nature, Klitschko didn’t press his advantages. He was content to take AJ into the later rounds. Clearly he thought he had the fight won and wanted to take him into deep waters.
It proved to be a terrible mistake…
Joshua came out for the 11th like a malevolent force of nature determined to destroy everything in its path. He stalked Klitschko all over the ring and then finally found the punch of his career with a devastating right uppercut that violently rocked Klitschko’s head back on his shoulders and electrified the crowd.
Miraculously, the indestructible Ukrainian was still standing but the left hook that followed finally sent him over. He bravely climbed to his feet but, for the first time in the fight, he suddenly looked his age and there was a battered weariness about the old champion now. A huge right hand sent him to the ropes and then a blisteringly fast uppercut and left hook combination sent him crashing down again.
It was power and precision that had echoes of the glory days of Mike Tyson and should have shattered whatever fight was still left in Klitschko; but his warrior heart just wasn’t going to quit. The man who’d often been accused of having a glass chin clearly had balls of steel and, incredibly, he again made it to his feet.
But this was a night when Anthony Joshua wasn’t going to be denied. He trapped him in a corner and flailed away to the body and head. No clean punches really landed but the great old champion had taken enough. The ref finally waved it over: Anthony Joshua was the IBF, IBO and WBA champion of the world and the biggest star in world boxing.
I am still basking in the glow of that fight. It is without question the best heavyweight fight I have seen in this country by a distance. There’s been some good ones, but nothing like this – Colin Hart on Joshua vs Klitschko