The narrative surrounding Anthony Joshua is the most familiar in all of boxing. Here is a young man caught up in the endless cycle of drugs and gangs that afflicts every major city in the world. A young man who hit the weights so he would continue to command the respect of his peers and who wound up in a boxing gym for similar reasons; a man whose own mother speculates darkly as to the path he would have chosen had he not found his way into the fight game. An advertisement, if you will, in defense of a sport which finds itself in need of defending on an annual basis.
That narrative is perpetuated once more in the interviews and articles churning up boxing’s deep water as the industry prepares itself for the biggest fight of the year: the showdown between beltholder Anthony Joshua and Wladimir Klitschko, a man who finds himself in the unfamiliar role of challenger.
This has been the overwhelming angle of exploitation surrounding Wladimir; is the old man hungry enough? Wladimir has been happy to play that part, speaking of his new-found determination upon finding himself in this unexpected position, comparing himself to Mount Everest, eternal, implacable, still there at the end of the narrow window during which this natural phenomenon allows itself to be climbed, ready to take lives once more the following year.
These are stern words, hard words – almost thoughtless. The discomfort fighters engender in thinking fans when they speak of taking the lives of their opponents, even by way of elegant metaphor, is considerable. Wladimir has long appealed to this type of fan, the fan for whom the meeting between two boxers is one of skill and science, not blood and guts. It was an interesting slip, a rare departure from message, a message he has been broadcasting consistently for more than a decade and in four languages.
A man of rare intelligence, he has imparted those smarts to his fighting style.
Joshua, too, has hidden depths. Now a celebrity of no small standing in Great Britain, he is on the verge of boxing-superstardom and talks openly of becoming the fight game’s first billionaire (“before tax, or after?” was Wladimir’s pointed question when informed of Joshua’s ambition).
Inevitably, outside the ring, he has become less interesting just as he becomes pre-eminent.
In an early interview with Boxing Monthly he spoke openly of his musings upon death, the short prayer his team joined in before his ringwalk not unrelated. Joshua was a would-be drug dealer who must now lead the life of a media darling. The cracks still show. In an early press conference, Wladimir named him “my little brother,” a nickname that was apparently a hangover from a time when the two used to spar. There was a sense that the revival of the nickname was miscast now that the two were to become rivals in the ring with millions and a heavyweight strap at stake, but Joshua did not bite. After the conference, Joshua was approached by IFL TV, a boxing specialist broadcaster who enjoys a cozy and informal relationship with Joshua.
Joshua was inflamed by a question about this phrase, “my little brother,” and seemed to think the boxing-friendly IFL was trying to stir something up between the two. In reality, of course, his opponent had been the one stirring something up and it was an interesting glimpse of the man beneath the now beautifully veneered public figure, a man who takes status and respect as seriously as might be expected.
So is Joshua who remains the more familiar and the more beloved of boxing fans. He brings a streets background and a rags-to-riches success story borne on the back of the fight game while Wladimir befuddles, a safety-first sportsman with a PhD who goes so far as to reference his qualification in his carefully chosen nickname, Doctor Steelhammer.
And yet it is Wladimir, not Joshua, who endured the rougher upbringing.
Wladimir was born in Semey, now in Kazakhstan, a city of some 300,000 people blessed with freezing winters and sticky summers, and courtesy of the Soviet Union’s nuclear testing program, high rates of birth defect, cancer and childhood leukemia. An army brat, Wladimir was moved around through USSR as his father was moved by the demands of the cold war, and he was unlucky enough to find himself in the vicinity of the infamous explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear power station in 1986.
By comparison, Joshua’s occasional brush with London toughs and minor crime seem rather tame. The disadvantages Wladimir has overcome are far and away the more challenging and it is he that is the true example of the exultation of man by boxing.
Ancient history placed to one side, recent history has also been less kind to Wladimir. He was awful in losing to Tyson Fury in November of 2015, which was also the last time he threw a punch in anger. At distance he had a certain bounce, but as he edged his way gingerly into Fury’s range all the energy departed his body and offense was supplanted by feinting.
This was in large part due to the herky-jerky stylings and the marriage of sublime and ridiculous consummated by Fury, but in boxing, when you go, you go. Wladimir will be forty-one and seventeen months inactive when he meets Joshua ring center, and against Fury he looked to me like a fighter who could no longer pull the trigger. Although I had picked the champion to win that fight, the manner of his downfall came as no surprise to me. Wladimir is a heavyweight whose style is generated in total by his weaknesses. This is fascinating, and, I believe, unique. His control of range protects a questionable chin; his control of pace protects a questionable engine. No heavyweight champion has ever perfected the control of ring action to the extent that Wladimir has achieved.
But in adopting this, to some, unholy combination of holding, leaning, jabbing, feinting, waiting, he has created for himself a world of missed opportunity. Wladimir does not try a punch, he dials a punch. This means that dozens of fine opportunities to hit that would have been seized by Evander Holyfield, Mike Tyson, Joe Louis and Rocky Marciano pass the huge Ukrainian by.
Wladimir did not become great by learning when to punch but by learning when not to punch.
This has consequences and chief among them was always going to be the eventual loss of opportunity. Wladimir cannot use his experience of the half-chance made real by muscle memory and an eye for an opening, because Wladmir never pursued these things; his experience of them is limited at championship level. Instead, he has engineered openings with precision moves. That half-step gone, that consistency interrupted, he is rendered mortal once more.
Joshua, meanwhile, is a traditional seek-and-destroy machine in the mold of Sonny Liston. Perhaps lacking the head-movement the early Liston epitomized he makes up for this with range and size. Like Fury, he has a listed reach advantage over Wladimir and if this materializes in the ring, it may be crucial. A thumping jab is the anchor, of course, but Joshua is more than capable of delivering the lead right, he has that speed. Can Klitschko, now that he has started to slip, live with him if he has to step into range to land his own punches, and will the alarm that goes off in his head anytime he is at peril prevent him doing anything like his best work?
Joshua has problems, however. I did not care for the way he froze up a little when Dillian Whyte landed on him in their raucous 2015 encounter and I was reminded a little of Frank Bruno, although this may simply be a matter of inexperience; he may be over that bump. Physically, too, he reminds me of “Big Frank,” in that Joshua seems, physically, a cross between an underwear model and a tombstone. These carefully sculpted muscles are enormously demanding upon oxygen supplies and it is unlikely that Joshua will be able to beat Klitschko with work-rate and movement, like Fury did. This means he has to beat him with fire or youth and the first comes at risk and the second relies on fortune as it calls for Wladimir to be less past-it and more entirely washed-up.
Much, of course, depends upon Wladimir’s approach. I have been watching him far too long to be prepared to predict fireworks in writing but his 2014 knockout of Kubrat Pulev was thrilling. Writing for this website in a preview to that fight, Frank Lotierzo claimed that “catching Wladimir with something big, and as early as possible” was Pulev’s only available route to victory and Pulev apparently agreed with him, opening up early and following a hard jab in with an untidy attack. Klitschko’s response was to take the obvious opportunities dropping from the desperate charge, the result a fifth round stoppage win. Wladimir has a recent reminder of knocking out an opponent in reasonably quick time, albeit against an opponent who gave little thought to self-defense.
All that said, it is most likely we will see Wladimir try to establish his jab, sew Joshua up in a cocoon of non-resistance before coasting his way to a points win over a bowing opponent.
That same style has lent itself to a school of thought which says that Klitschko is “bad for boxing.” This is nonsense. He regularly fills huge stadiums across Europe, does television figures on this side of the pond that a Showtime executive would chew his right arm off for, and even his sojourns into the American market have generally been a success. His 2015 decision win over Bryant Jennings peaked at 1.7m viewers, “the most viewed HBO fight in years” according to ESPN.
But there is a sense that his time has passed.
Joshua-Klitschko is attractive because almost anything could happen. Klitschko could catch Joshua and he could freeze. Joshua could catch Klitschko and he could crumble. Joshua could gas. Klitschko could fail to get started, as he did against Fury. My guess is that this last will be the key factor in this fight. Wladimir looked rusty as late as the eleventh against Fury and he’s going to look rusty in the first against Joshua. This will be all the encouragement that the Brit will need to overcome an unnatural tentativeness born of a desire to pace himself.
Billions and greatness are ten miles of bad road hence, but come Sunday morning there will be a new best heavyweight in the world, and his name will be Anthony Joshua, the first man to have scored a knockout over Wladimir Klitschko since 2004.
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