Some refer to it as the passing of the torch or the changing of the guard. It occurs when a former longtime champ in the twilight of his career meets the newly projected star who is believed to be the next great fighter. It doesn’t happen often but when it does it usually marks the end of one era and the dawning of another.
When Jack Johnson beat James J. Jeffries it ushered in the Johnson era and closed the book on Jeffries…..the same applies to Jack Dempsey beating Jess Willard. That was followed by Gene Tunney beating Dempsey to close the book on Jack. Over the last 50 years we’ve seen the guard among heavyweight legends turn with Cassius Clay beating Sonny Liston to signify the start of the Ali era. Sixteen years later Larry Holmes defeated the legendary Ali to officially end Muhammad’s tenure as the man to beat in the division. That was followed by Mike Tyson marking his arrival as the main man in the heavyweight division by defeating Holmes. In these historic fights, we saw the new star defeat the aging star to mark the beginning of the next era.
This Saturday night the scenario could very well play out again when former heavyweight champ Wladimir Klitschko 64-4 (53), who dominated the division circa 2005-2015, takes on IBF champ Anthony Joshua 18-0 (18) with the WBA title also up for grabs. Yes, Klitschko lost his universal recognition as champ to Tyson Fury back in November of 2015. But the fight went the distance and was hardly a changing of the guard. Most correctly, write the loss off as Wladimir being on the decline and unmotivated. And even if you disagree with that, no savvy boxing observer saw Fury as being the future of the division the way they do Joshua. And that’s why over 90,000 people will gather at Wembley Stadium.
For a majority of his career Wladimir Klitschko was excoriated for never having faced a worthy opponent. Well, that cannot be said about Anthony Joshua. Other than ring experience, Joshua is Klitschko’s equal in every manner and at 27 years old he’s 14 years younger. In Joshua, Wladimir is facing an opponent who can look him in the eye, who has arms just as long, one who is his near-equal in punching power who actually puts his punches together quicker and more succinctly. And maybe most importantly, AJ has no trepidation about engaging his opponent. He lets his hands go fluidly and freely. Because of his size and strength, most of Wladimir’s opponents were forced to address his overwhelming physicality before they could go about implementing any semblance of a fight plan. And the opponents who didn’t spot him size lacked skill and the know-how to force him into doing things he didn’t want to do. Joshua doesn’t enter the ring against Klitschko having to overcome those disadvantages.
Joshua-Klitschko, if you’ve been watching both closely, isn’t a hard bout to handicap. Wladimir has much more experience and he is the bigger single shot puncher. However, his experience only becomes an issue if the fight goes beyond six or seven rounds, and his advantage in punching power only comes into play if he lets his hands go…which is never a given with Wladimir, mostly because he fears leaving himself open to counter shots. Joshua has the reach and technique to counterpunch the likes of which he’s never been confronted by before. So is it plausible to think Wladimir is going to come out and try to impose himself on Joshua? I don’t think so!
As for the negatives on Joshua, besides his lack of experience, some believe he leaves himself open for right hand counters and mention how his footwork is mostly north and south with very little lateral movement. (Although I think he gets in and out pretty quick.) And then there’s the untested chin and the rumor Wladimir knocked him out while sparring shortly after Joshua won the gold medal at the 2012 Olympics. I’ll cede the lack of experience and, of course, he hasn’t had to prove how reliable his chin is as of yet because only one fighter has really reached it, Dillian Whyte. To play devil’s advocate, even though I think the flaw in his footwork is overstated, I’ll accept it. But once again, Joshua’s supposed flaws really only apply if Wladimir attempts counters and gives him lateral movement, which he may try but in actuality Klitschko cannot be effective doing a poor man’s Muhammad Ali imitation trying to circle and fight on the move.
As for Joshua getting KO’d by Wladimir while sparring, I don’t know for sure if it’s true, but again I’ll accept it for argument’s sake. And in doing so I retort that it’s well known that in June of 1969 Jerry Quarry KO’d or nearly KO’d George Foreman while sparring with George who was training for his pro debut on the Frazier-Quarry undercard after winning a gold medal at the 1968 Olympics. Had Foreman and Quarry fought four years later, which incidentally is the year Foreman beat Joe Frazier for the undisputed heavyweight title, who would you have bet on? As it turned out George had a cast-iron chin. If by chance Joshua has half of Foreman’s chin plus Foreman’s will to win, Klitschko is really in trouble.
When we last saw Klitschko against Tyson Fury, he just wouldn’t let his hands go, and that was against a guy who he didn’t believe could hurt him. It was the only time in Wladimir’s career that he wasn’t stopped in defeat. Maybe he was off emotionally that night; it happens. And because the Fury fight was such a stinker, most forget how tentative Klitschko was against Bryant Jennings in his bout before that. During a majority of the bout with Jennings he wouldn’t pull the trigger, and that’s a terrible pattern for him going into the Joshua bout, especially because Anthony likes to get off and thrives on forcing his opponents out of their defensive shell, leaving them no choice but to try and fight him off.
As the bout approaches I believe Klitschko is more stymied by his mental make-up and refusal to be bold and take risks than he is hindered by his birth certificate. Even at his age Wladimir is still the bigger single shot puncher with his right hand and left-hook. But how well will he be served by those weapons if he keeps them in their holsters, hoping that Joshua allows him to win a jabbing contest? If the bout evolves into a slow paced, stab and grab type of fight, Klitschko has a good chance to win. But I’m confident that Team Joshua knows this and has prepared Anthony on how to disrupt it and not fall into the trap.
Joshua knows that regardless of what Wladimir has told the press, he will enter the ring with a mindset focused first on not getting hit and then somehow extending the fight rounds to where his experience becomes a factor in the outcome. And that is where the fight will be decided because I doubt Joshua will jab and paw with him more than a round, if that.
Once Joshua’s big right hand whizzes by Klitschko’s head, Wladimir will panic and think survival and that will translate into Joshua being able to pitch at him without having to deal with much coming back other than Klitschko throwing an occasional home run shot trying to get lucky or to break Joshua’s momentum. Once Joshua has Klitschko fighting not to get knocked out instead of to win, he can unload his full arsenal. Joshua’s quicker hands and his ability to put his punches together with accuracy and power will be too much for Klitschko to cope with. Once Wladimir is getting the worst of any semblance of an exchange, I believe he may accept that his time has come and gone and this big strong kid is taking over.
If I were advising Wladimir, I’d tell him to come out like Marvin Hagler did against Thomas Hearns and take it to Joshua who may harbor doubts regarding his own chin. What’s the difference if you are stopped in the 2nd or the 6th round?
“Jump on Joshua,” I would say, “while you have all your strength and are fresh and strong. The longer the fight goes, the slower you get and his hands are faster than yours to start with.” I’d tell Wladimir that you both hit too hard for this fight to go 12 rounds, so go out and beat him to the punch. The last thing Joshua will be ready for is you coming out and unloading on him. That’s Klitschko’s best shot — not boxing him and trying to slow the pace because Joshua won’t allow that. Once Klitschko lets Joshua set the tempo, there’s no turning back or reversing it without getting lucky, and even then it might be too late.
Listening to Joshua speak this week it’s abundantly clear he knows what’s at stake and that he fully understands that he cannot beat Klitschko in the same manner that Tyson Fury did. No, Joshua has been told and has come to believe that he’s a special fighter, and to convince the skeptics he can’t be extended 12 rounds by a 41-year-old ex-champ who has been stopped three times before and lost his last fight.
In the final analysis, Klitschko’s reluctance to let his hands go in an attempt to put Joshua on the defense will enable Joshua to assume the role of the predator and AJ has too many weapons for Klitschko to overcome once Klitschko has been reduced to fighting as the prey. In addition to being Klitschko’s equal and even better at some things, Joshua’s confidence is sky high and he’s peaking physically. Actually, Joshua would be a bad match up for a prime Klitschko due to the psychological baggage that accompanied Wladimir Klitschko to the ring for a majority of his title tenure.
Yes, Wladimir could get lucky and ice Joshua with his Sunday punch, but will he throw it before it’s too late? I look for Anthony Joshua to get after Wladimir Klitschko by the second round and plant the seed of doubt in his mind.
Photo credit: Esther Lin / Showtime
Frank Lotierzo can be contacted at GlovedFist@Gmail.com
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