If you hail from the United Kingdom, you learn to suffer with your heavyweights.
Bob Fitzsimmons abandoned these shores so young that we can point to him, perhaps, as proof of the British heart and fighting stock even if we must admit that it was not our fighting culture that birthed him. Lennox Lewis was a great, great heavyweight and we clutched him to our collective bosom with a hunger that spoke of the hurt that lay between he and Fitzsimmons, and we still do – but his nationality is a complex issue, a fact betrayed by his accent, his dual British and Canadian nationality, the fact he boxed for the latter as an amateur and his persistent and understandable hailing of his Jamaican roots. Whatever we have to say to one another about the great Lewis now, it is a fact that we at no time counted him a hero in the same way that we did Frank Bruno, not while he was fighting.
Frank Bruno, big Frank, sometime pantomime dame and perennial contender, was a legitimate cross-over star in Britain. Beloved by all, he was brutalised into semi-consciousness while still standing by Lewis, “The Lion” preposterously interrupted in the middle of this ritual slaughter by referee Mickey Vann, who warned Lewis about heeling before letting him lose once more on a Bruno completely incapable of defending himself. Perhaps Vann, like the rest of us, had become used to the site of Frank being harpooned on the ropes by a venomous Pequod, having previously watched Tim Witherspoon, James Smith and most deadly of, Mike Tyson, brutalise him in a similar fashion. It would be hard, hard to call Bruno a failure, especially as he eventually raised a strap, if not the legitimate championship, but it is fair to say he did not do what we expected of him while we pretended to box his opponents in the school playground. Perhaps “glorious failure” is the best way to say it; a man who had the balls to try, try and try again despite his shortcomings.
In fact, by the time Bruno turned professional the glorious failure was the great tradition of the British heavyweight. Think of Welshman Tommy Farr and his spectacular effort versus Joe Louis, the only man to take the Bomber the distance in his first nine title fights. Beaten over the distance, Farr was lauded for his loss in Britain, just as Londoner Don Cockell was eighteen years later for his effort versus Rocky Marciano. Henry Cooper became the king of the glorious failures when he successfully dropped Muhammad Ali with a steaming left-hook before bursting all over him in a bloody geyser, his face torn to a mask of gore not once, but twice, by the man they call The Greatest. These men exceeded our low expectations against great champions.
Since Lewis, the exceeding of expectations is a distant and wondrous dream.
We were burned most badly by Audley Harrison. A six-foot-five Olympic gold-medal winning southpaw with an 86” reach and a line in patter which would have persuaded even the 1940s New York fight press of his credentials as a future world champion, Harrison first destroyed boxing in Britain on free-to-air TV by accepting millions from the publicly funded BBC and then proceeding to fight a series of what can only be described, politely, as total bums, before also undermining pay-per-view with a bizarre non-effort against David Haye on Sky Box Office. Harrison landed literally one punch in that fight. He was paid £1.5m.
Speaking of bizarre non-efforts, David Haye’s against Wladimir Klitschko was one of the more embarrassing of recent times. Haye could have just slinked off shamefaced after that fight, offering his physical and technical inferiority as an excuse for the most one-sided loss in HW boxing since Haye-Harrison a few months earlier, but instead he elected to stand on the post-fight press-conference table and display what can only be described as a mildly bruised pinky-toe – the real reason for the loss. Haye was a good fighter, but his confounding attempt at Klitschko failed even to reach the minimum standard of glorious failure during a world-title shot. In combination with Harrison’s mad antics it summarised a bleak time for British boxing.
Fortunately, a healing balm was warring its way through the British ranks in Liverpool: 6’8 scouser David Price weighed in at 250lbs and rescued us from Harrison with a first round knockout of that fraud in 2012. A confession: I never bought Harrison, but I bought Price. Massive like bridges are big, Price seemed to loom over the heavyweight division and this laid the scales across my eyes. When he was obliterated twice in back-to-back fights by evergreen veteran Tony Thompson, who stopped him first in two rounds and then in five, it came as quite a shock. When his promoter, Frank Maloney, later announced that he wanted to live as a woman and was to be referred to from then on as Kellie Maloney, I saw it as representative of the affect this final and most humiliating failure by a British heavyweight upon the British boxing establishment. It was enough to make me want to don a dress myself.
With all my hopes pegged upon Tyson Fury I at first refused to believe that Anthony Joshua would be anything other than the latest in a long line of disappointments.
I hope the reader will forgive the late arrival of Anthony Joshua into an article which purports to be about him, but I think a little context is warranted. Further to that, consider this: in no way is the competition matched by Anthony Joshua at this point better than the competition matched by David Price before he was destroyed by Tony Thompson. The creaking Russian Denis Bakhtov (38-9 going in) is his best opponent up until this point, although certainly he looked less than a world beater beating up poor old Danny Williams – another brave British heavyweight who was brutally annihilated in a tilt at a strap against Vitali Klitschko but who nevertheless likely falls into the “glorious failure” category for his one-armed efforts against Mark Potter, and the wonderful night he stopped Mike Tyson.
Bakhtov, at just 5’11, would have slipped neatly alongside the competition that allowed Price to deceive us so. 15-0 puncher Tom Dallas was 6’6 and had knocked out eleven of fifteen victims coming into his dust-up with Price but Price put him away in just two. When Price took on Sam Sexton, he knocked him out much more quickly than the only other man to stop him, Dereck Chisora who had beaten him in six and nine rounds. Chisora, a social cannonball more famous for his freakish February 2012 street-brawl with David Haye (“I will physically shoot you!”) than anything he actually did in the ring, is perhaps another brave British underachiever. A human non-sequitur, nothing Chisora says really makes sense, but he was all heart in the ring, taking his lumps from Vitali Klitschko and Tyson Fury alike. Mooted as a future opponent for Joshua, Chisora is more qualified than the man who is facing Britain’s latest heavyweight hope this Saturday night in London, Kevin Johnson; Chisora beat Johnson in twelve one-sided rounds early last year.
It was a steady, dull pressure that brought Chisora that win over “Kingpin”, as the American did what he did best: survive. Promoters of prospects and comebackers like him because he can’t punch (just fourteen stoppages in thirty-six fights, none of them in the world class) but he provides a good work-out in a distance fight (having never been stopped and the likes of Vitali Klitschko and Tyson Fury have both been successfully negotiated). A flicking, fast jab keeps opponents honest, a dipping, furtive head-movement, often in the direction of the inside where he seeks to smother his opponent’s best work, keeps him from the worst of the enemy’s violent attentions, a cute, mobile guard protects the most tender parts of his anatomy; but he doesn’t actually do much of anything. Sometimes he sends in a short right hand, and he can punch to the body well but in general he avoids risk. Technically sure single shots in nothing like the volume necessary to win rounds against competent opponents is the order of the day.
These shortcomings are the question mark in the title of this article; the body of the piece lies in Johnson’s ability to go the distance.
Joshua looks the part he is to play. Part Calvin Klein underwear model, part tombstone, the 6’6 245lb Joshua has a body carved from granite and has muscles in all the places that Johnson uses to store food. But those muscles burn fuel. They make demands upon Joshua’s intake of oxygen that in turns demands one of two other things: a great engine or an ability to control the pace. So far Joshua shows absolutely nothing of the latter; he is a seek and destroy missile, top tier ballistic offensive weaponry that looks more like it comes straight out of America’s cold war machine rather than a product of the British system.
Against the aforementioned Bakhtov he had only the most cursory of looks before he started dropping hurt. He comes square when he wants to kill something, alarming, but given his reach and speed, perhaps he will continue to get away with it; and oh, he is fast. If I take nothing else from watching him, I take that. His hand-speed is absurd for a man of his size and the speed with which the second punch joins a first is legitimately terrifying. He lands a very hard jab, and then before that message of pain is even absorbed by the opponent’s nervous system, a message of disaster joins it as the right-hand thunders in. Sometimes it’s to the chest – other times it’s to the top of the head. Bless poor Bakhtov, sometimes he eats it directly to the face, an experience that appears to me to be as shattering as any that can be enjoyed in a boxing ring. Obscenely, Joshua sometimes smiles as the opponent gives ground, the sound of the world, I’m sure, a distant echo to him.
Joshua is no choir boy, you see. There are dark strains. He talks openly of death. He was involved as a younger man in drug dealing. He sometimes smiles as he brutalises his opponents. He feints with his feet. This last speaks of artistry, not darkness, but it hints at real hope for fulfilment of what is still, at just 12-0, only potential.
Bakhtov went back to his corner at the end of the first, cut, swollen and in some deep cavern far away from the advice of his trainer. Joshua was on his feet bouncing, eight-pack rippling, before the bell for the second. Bakhtov finished the fight on his feet, but his final minute in the ring was disturbing to watch.
Jason Gavern and Konstantin Airich both managed three rounds against him but that’s as far as it has gone. In many ways, matching him with Johnson is as ambitious as matching Price with Thompson; Price did not have the naturalistic tendencies to deal with Thompson – Joshua clearly does, but does he have the stamina to do twelve?
The other question, of course, is for Johnson: does he fancy spending twelve rounds in the same ring with this animal; and if he does, can he do it?
In that sense, Joshua and his people are onto a win-win. If Johnson lasts the distance, their fighter has twelve rounds under his belt and a big tick in a very important box; if Joshua stops him, a feat beyond Vitali Klitschko, they know they have a legitimate destroyer on their hands. In that sense, yes, this can be seen as a graduation night for the twenty-five year old – as long as he doesn’t gas and fall down.
Of course, Johnson isn’t going to answer the other question, the one about whether our latest “future world champion” can get hit on the chin and keep his feet. That people who should know better are already naming him as such without having either of these questions answered is perhaps a little irresponsible but completely understandable, even if it is a little surprising given the lessons that should have been learned in the past decade. Joshua is not just special, he looks incredible; he looks like a fight-rat’s dream. Everything – everything a heavyweight should have, he has it. Apart from the most important things. Where those are concerned, sadly, we just don’t know yet – and we might get hurt in finding out.
But we British fight fans will chance it. After all, isn’t that what love is? Believing, with all your heart, in something that you just can’t know – until you do, by which point it is too late to get your hands up?
I’ll pick Joshua to stop Johnson in eight.
At which point we’ll know more.
But still not quite enough.