JOSHUA TKOs KLITSCHKO — The British Empire, which in 1913 ruled over 23 percent of the world’s population and 24 percent of its land mass, ceased to exist in 1997 when the United Kingdom formally ceded control of Hong Kong to the People’s Republic of China. But the relatively small island nation, which is widely acknowledged as the birthplace of modern boxing, is enjoying a revival of sorts in the ring, with IBF titlist Anthony Joshua’s stunning, 11th-round stoppage of two-time former champion Wladimir Klitschko the biggest victory for a British citizen, at least in terms of live attendance at an event on home soil (or anywhere else), since the Marquess of Queensberry authored the Queensberry rules in 1867.
With a rabidly pro-Joshua audience of 90,000 screaming itself hoarse in London’s Wembley Stadium, the 27-year-old titlist helped make the heavyweight division relevant again, defending that belt for a third time while adding the vacant WBA strap to his collection. But it wasn’t just a case of Joshua (19-0, 19 KOs), a Londoner who was the super heavyweight gold medalist at the 2012 London Olympics, simply winning; it was the manner in which he did so against Klitschko (64-5, 54 KOs), a surefire first-ballot Hall of Famer who, despite his advanced age of 41 and coming off a career-long 17 months of inactivity, demonstrated he had plenty of gas, or petrol as the British are apt to say, still left in his tank.
Until he started righting a seemingly listing ship in the ninth round and then closed the show by scoring two emphatic knockdowns in the 11th (he also floored Klitschko in the fifth), the favored Joshua – who had never previously had to go longer than seven rounds as a professional, and was down himself in the sixth – was close to teetering on the brink. Through 10 rounds he led by 96-93 and 95-93 on the respective scorecards of judges Don Trella and Nelson Vazquez, while Steve Weisfeld had “Dr. Steelhammer” up by 95-93. But had it been the challenger who came up large in the 11th and again in the 12th, the sometimes-off but mostly-on status quo of the Klitschko Empire, in which Wlad and older brother Vitali alternated reigns for a decade and a half, might have been reinstituted instead of the brave new world of heavyweights that appears to be evolving.
Asked what had enabled him to find that figurative second wind when he appeared to be almost totally spent in the eighth round, Joshua said, “Boxing is about character. When you go to the trenches, that’s when you find out who you really are. In this small little ring here, there’s nowhere to hide.
“As I said from the get-go, it will be a boxing classic and the best man will win. I fought my heart out and I got him out of there. That’s what I’m about.”
But Klitschko – who was listless and fought on auto-pilot, as if he had just awakened from a deep sleep in losing his WBA, IBF, WBO and IBO titles on a unanimous decision to Tyson Fury on Nov. 28, 2015 — was much better this time because, well, he probably realized he needed to be. Had he been able to connect with another loaded-up right cross in the sixth round, when he had Joshua in major trouble, with over two minutes until the bell – the outcome might have been different.
“He’s a role model in and out of the ring,” Joshua, whose left eye was puffy, reflecting the hard day’s night he had just been through, said of Klitschko. “I’ve got nothing but love and respect for Wladimir Klitschko.”
Those warm, fuzzy feelings were reciprocated by Klitschko, who doesn’t have much experience being a loser but has always been gracious about it whenever things have not gone his way.
“The best man won tonight,” he allowed. “It’s an amazing event for boxing. Two gentlemen fought each other – I say `gentlemen’ because boxing came from England.
“It’s really sad that I didn’t make it tonight. I was planning to do it. It didn’t work.”
But if at first you don’t succeed, Klitschko is prepared to try, try again. He put the snafu on any suggestion that he might now hang up his gloves, saying, “Of course. We have a (rematch) contract” when asked if he was open to a do-over with Joshua.
Joshua’s promoter, Eddie Hearn of Matchroom Sport, declined to say what might be next for his main man, who seems to have emerged as the leading light in a reenergized heavyweight division. The son of Nigerian immigrants to the UK, Joshua might be described as the new sheriff (of Nottingham?) in town, the guy all the other heavyweight titlists and highly ranked contenders want to mix it up with for pride and profit. Showtime blow-by-blow announcer Mauro Ranallo called Joshua a “rock star,” an apt description of someone with the appeal to sell out a 90,000-seat soccer stadium only hours after tickets went on sale. That puts him on a plane more in keeping with Mick Jagger or Sir Paul McCartney than with other British heavyweight champions of fairly recent vintage, a list which includes Fury, Lennox Lewis (who was at ringside), Frank Bruno, Henry Akinwande and Herbie Hide.
So, what does come next for Joshua? It could well be another go at Klitschko, even if their very competitive and entertaining first fight didn’t quite rise to the Himalayan peaks of, say, “The Thrilla in Manila” (Ali-Frazier III) or “The Rumble in the Jungle” (Foreman-Ali), as Ranallo breathlessly proclaimed in anointing Part One as “The War at Wembley.”
For his part, the 6-foot-6 Joshua – who weighed in at a career-high 250.1 pounds – might be leaning toward going after fresh meat. During his post-fight, in-ring interview with Sky Sport, he called out Fury, loudly exclaiming, “Fury! Tyson Fury! Where you at, baby?
“Is that what you (British fans) want to see? Tyson Fury’s been talking a lot and he wants to come back and compete. I want to give 90,000 people another chance to witness another lovely night of boxing. I just want to fight everyone, man. I’m really enjoying this right now.”
Also in the house was Deontay Wilder (38-0, 37 KOs), the Tuscaloosa, Ala., native who, like Joshua, is intent on fully unifying the heavyweight title. How attractive would a matchup be of two big boppers who are a combined 57-0 with 56 wins inside the distance? And don’t forget WBO champ Joseph Parker (22-0, 18 KOs), the New Zealander who defends his title against mystery guest Razvan Cojanu on the Kiwi’s home turf.
If – and it’s always a big if – the standard red tape can be eliminated, the foreseeable future hopefully will be filled with the kind of heavyweight matchups that will have people talking about the division as they once did when everyone knew the names of the upper-tier stars. That was in no small part because the public had come to expect stunning displays of power, and frequently got just that.
“Joshua, he got the height, he got the power,” Wilder said before he left for England. “In the heavyweight division, you don’t need skills. You got to eliminate skills from anybody, even including myself. I don’ need skills, as long as I have the power, I’m in the game. You in the game once you got that power, that equalizer. I have it ’cause I can get you out at any given time.”
Wilder, of course, is over-simplifying the art of boxing. All fighters need skill as well as power, although some have much more of the one than the other. But the element of danger, of the sudden-strike put-away, is at the heart of boxing’s appeal. What took place in Wembley Stadium, one can only hope, is just the beginning.
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