Joshua-Klitschko: The Future is Now (Part One)

THE HAUSER REPORT: On April 17, 1860, in Farnsborough County west of London, England’s Tom Sayers and John Heenan from the San Francisco Bay area fought to a bloody 42-round draw in what was then called “The Fight of the Century.”

Sayers-Heenan ended in chaos without a winner being declared. Heenan was fighting blind in one eye with the other eye rapidly closing. Sayers was barely able to defend himself. At that point, the ropes on one side of the ring were cut, either to save Sayers from defeat or (if the alternative version is accepted) to prevent the Englishman from being strangled to death by Heenan, who allegedly was pressing Sayers’ neck against the top strand and pushing down with all his might on the Englishman’s head.

On April 29, 2017, England was again at the center of the boxing world. This time, Wladimir Wladimirowitsch Klitschko and Anthony Oluwafemi Olaseni Joshua did battle at Wembley Stadium in London.

It was a massive event and boxing’s most anticipated heavyweight title fight since Lennox Lewis vs. Mike Tyson fifteen years ago. It was generation versus generation with the past meeting the future in the present. Two men vying for the right to be called the best heavyweight on the planet on a night that the 90,000 fans who were in attendance will always remember.

Wladimir Klitschko is a man of intelligence and grace. He won a gold medal in the super-heavyweight division on behalf of Ukraine at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics and embarked upon a pro career that has spanned more than two decades.

Entering the Joshua fight, Klitschko’s record stood 64 wins against 4 losses with 53 knockouts and 3 KOs by. His sojourn through the professional ranks began with 24 consecutive victories, all but one by knockout.

Then, in 1998, Klitschko fought Ross Puritty, a journeyman from Oklahoma who traveled to Ukraine with 13 losses on his record. Klitschko beat up on Puritty for ten rounds. But in round eleven, Wladimir crumbled from physical and mental exhaustion.

Sixteen Klitschko victories followed that defeat with only one opponent going the distance. In 2000, Wladimir annexed the WBO heavyweight crown with a unanimous-decision triumph over Chris Byrd. But three years later, South African Corrie Sanders knocked Klitschko down multiple times en route to a second-round blowout. In 2004, Wladimir dominated Lamon Brewster early but was unable to come out of his corner after the fifth round.

At that point, Klitschko reconfigured his fighting style under the tutelage of trainer Emanuel Steward, won 22 fights in a row, and earned recognition as the dominant heavyweight in the world. At various times, he held the WBA, IBF, and WBO crowns. His nine-year championship reign came to an end on November 28, 2015, when he turned in an embarrassingly lackluster effort en route to a unanimous-decision defeat at the hands of Tyson Fury.

When Klitschko lost to Fury, he was dismissed as a has-been by some and a never-was by others.

Adam Berlin wrote, “Klitschko deserves praise for carrying himself like a champion outside the ring. He is respectful. He is articulate. But inside the ring, Klitschko has never been great. He has fought carefully, relying on his physical attributes to wear his rivals down. He has made leaning on smaller men an art. It’s a rational style. It’s a logical style. It’s a careful style. And while a methodical approach to boxing can lead to success, it never leads to greatness.”

“Wladimir Klitschko,” Berlin continued, “was never great. He was very good during an era when the rest of the heavyweights were less than very good. Most fighters cement their legacy with a win. Klitschko’s legacy is cemented with this loss. In this loss, he didn’t even fight. It wasn’t age. It wasn’t a bad night. It was Wladimir Klitschko being Wladimir Klitschko. That’s who he is. That’s who he’ll always be. That’s how he’ll go down in history.”

Frank Lotierzo concurred, declaring, “After twelve rounds of inept boxing, two things are clear. Wladimir Klitschko won’t fight and Tyson Fury can’t fight, at least not at the championship level. Fury was very lucky to have been in with a fighter like Klitschko, who has gone back physically as a fighter and, on this night, demonstrated that, when he doesn’t own every physical advantage conceivable over his opponent, he is very limited and physically handcuffed by his mental trepidation.”

That was the biggest knock on Klitschko: his mental state. Older brother Vitali (who reigned first as WBO and then as WBC heavyweight champion for five years) was universally perceived as the tougher Klitschko. As Tom Gerbasi wrote, “Vitali finds a way to win. Wladimir finds a way to lose. That’s the difference.”

Years ago, I had breakfast with the Klitschko brothers and asked each one whether he was more nervous when he or his brother was fighting. Wladimir answered first: “When Vitali fights, I am more nervous than he is.”

Then Wladimir added with a smile, “And when I fight, I am more nervous than he is.”

Anthony Joshua was born in England. His parents are from Nigeria, where Anthony spent part of his early childhood with his mother, who was trying to conduct business in her native land.

Joshua was six years old when Klitschko won his Olympic gold medal. One day before Anthony turned eleven, Wladimir won his first world championship belt. In 2012, sixteen years after Klitschko accomplished the feat in Atlanta, Joshua won a gold medal in the super-heavyweight division at the London Olympics.

Prior to meeting Klitschko in the ring, Joshua had 18 knockout victories in as many professional fights. He’d claimed the IBF heavyweight belt by knocking out Charles Martin on April 9, 2016. Next, he successfully defended his title against Dominic Breazeale and Eric Molina. Everyone agreed that Joshua had a great deal of potential. But prior to facing Klitschko, he’d never fought a world-class fighter.

Eighty thousand tickets for Joshua-Klitschko went on sale in January and quickly sold out. Later that month, municipal officials approved the sale of an additional 10,000 tickets, raising the stadium capacity to 90,000. That broke the previous Wembley record set by the 2014 rematch between Carl Froch and George Groves and equaled the British attendance record for boxing established in 1939 when Len Harvey successfully defended his British and Commonwealth light-heavyweight titles against Jock McAvoy in London.

Joshua-Klitschko was televised on pay-per-view in the United Kingdom by Sky Sports. There was a delay in finding a TV home in the United States due to what Bart Barry called “a 100-day catfight between HBO and Showtime [that] may be a plot to drive the last 50,000 committed boxing fans in our nation to pirated streams but it probably isn’t.” Ultimately, HBO and Showtime shared TV rights.

The promotional narrative was keyed to Joshua. The fight would be “epic . . . a stepping stone toward greatness . . . a pivotal moment in boxing history.”

The fighters conducted themselves with sportsmanship and dignity throughout the promotion.

In a reference to erratic past behavior by Tyson Fury and Shannon Briggs, Klitschko began a January 31 press conference for Joshua-Klitschko in New York with the observation, “I’m used to fighters throwing tables or wearing batman costumes or chasing me in a speedboat. So this is very nice for me.”

Referring further to the Fury fight, Klitschko added, “What happened was a great experience for me. I always think that, as one window closes, another opens.

Something came out of me and I have tremendous motivation and I’m obsessed with the goal of getting the titles back.”

But Wladimir sounded a bit pensive when talking about the past (“It’s good to be young and ambitious”). And he conceded, “It’s strange to be the B-side. I’m not used to that.”

Joshua, for his part, was respectful toward Klitschko (“He’s the real deal. He’s proved it. He’s lived it. He’s walked it”). But Anthony was forthright in saying, “I’m going for the knockout. That’s what I do. This is my gold-medal fight all over again.”

Joshua was a clear betting favorite. His team wouldn’t have taken the fight if it hadn’t believed that the oddsmakers were right. But most predictions as to the outcome were qualified with a “but.” That uncertainty was crucial to the promotion.

“This is the perfect time for the fight because of the risk,” promoter Eddie Hearn said. “It’s a gamble. If it wasn’t a risk, if it wasn’t a gamble, do you think we’d break pay-per-view records? Do you think we’d have 90,000 in Wembley? To make a great fight, the timing has to be perfect and there has to be risks on both sides. Anthony Joshua can lose and that’s exciting.”

Thirty months earlier, Joshua had served as a sparring partner for Klitschko prior to Wladimir’s 2014 knockout victory over Kubrat Pulev. Now those sparring sessions were scoured for clues.

“I didn’t go to try to prove anything with the sparring,” Joshua told the media. “I mainly went to see how a champion sets up his training camp.”

Pressed for more, Anthony added, “Wladimir is technical. He will try to maneuver you with his left hand to put you in position to throw his right hand. He’s patient. He was trying to set me up so he could throw his shots. That’s what I got from sparring with him.”

Klitschko also had memories of their time together.

“There are up to fifteen sparring partners in every camp,” Wladimir recounted. “People are coming and going, and some of them I don’t remember. But I remember Joshua. He impressed me with his attitude. He was very raw, but he carried himself well. I liked his attitude. He was in the background, learning. Sometimes you need to be quiet and just watch. He was observing everything. That is unusual. I’ve had Olympic champions and former world champions in my camp, but his attitude was totally different. He was not trying to impress anybody. He was sitting on the side, not talking too much. He was watching, learning, asking questions. He was very polite. He was different from the others. We got a feeling for each other. We sparred fifteen or twenty rounds together.”

But that was in 2014. Joshua had gotten better since then. Klitschko had gotten older. And sparring isn’t fighting.

The case for a Joshua victory on April 29 rested in part on the age differential between the fighters. Wladimir is 41. Anthony is 27. Earlier in Klitschko’s career, he’d shown a tendency to fade as fights progressed. At 41, he was expected to tire if pressured by Joshua.

Moreover, Klitschko has compiled an impressive body of work. But the names on his ring ledger have been lacking, particularly in recent years.

Since the start of 2012, Wladimir had beaten Jean Marc Mormeck, Tony Thompson, Mariusz Wach, Francesco Pianeta, Alexander Povetkin, Alex Leapai, Kubrat Pulev, and Bryant Jennings, and lost to Tyson Fury. His last impressive performance had been against Povetkin four years ago.

Luis Ortiz’s 2015 knockout of Bryant Jennings (who’d gone the distance against Klitschko seven months earlier) cast further doubt on Wladimir’s standing. And Klitschko hadn’t fought since November 2015 when he lost to Tyson Fury. The 17-month layoff was the longest of his career. Would Wladimir come back against Joshua rested and strong or would he come back old, as Bernard Hopkins did when he creaked around the ring before being knocked out of it by Joe Smith last year?

Rob McCracken has trained Joshua since Anthony’s days as an amateur.

McCracken was deferential toward Klitschko in the build-up to the fight, saying, “He’s a very good fighter. He’s a former Olympic champion, been hugely successful as a heavyweight, been champion for a decade or so. Can box, can spoil, can punch, very experienced, very tricky. If you let Klitschko get going and he gets that jab going, he starts pushing and shoving and looking for the right hand, then he’s a real handful and difficult hard work. He’s been a tremendous fighter and he still is.”

But McCracked added, “As great a fighter as Klitschko has been, Father Time is a terrible person when he shows up. And he’s already shown up.”

Joshua sounded a similar note, saying, “Boxing is a young man’s sport. It’s my time now.”

Ricky Hatton concurred, noting, “Klitschko seems to have been around forever. And none of us go on forever.”

Still, Wladimir was a live underdog. Joshua’s chin was suspect. And Klitschko can punch.

“What does Anthony do when he gets hit again and again?” Wladimir asked at the New York press conference. “What does he do if he has to go backward? Is he the new Lennox Lewis, or is he the new Frank Bruno?”

Tyson Fury had been able to neutralize Klitschko’s power because he circled constantly and used side-to-side movement to keep Wladimir turning. That’s not Joshua’s style.

Also, the other side of the age coin is experience.

Klitschko had fought 68 times as a professional and gone into the tenth round or later on thirteen occasions. Joshua had logged a total of 103 minutes 27 seconds of ring time in his entire professional career and fought into the seventh round only twice (against Dillian Whyte and Dominic Breazeale). Each of Joshua’s other fights had ended inside of three rounds.

“A.J. has lots of energy,” Klitschko observed. “He’s young. He wants to show it. He has those big muscles that give him confidence. But did you hear about boxing? It’s the sweet science. Experience is something that you cannot buy in a shop. You gain it over the years. It is an advantage.”

“It’s hard to pick a winner,” Lennox Lewis said. “Anthony is a great young fighter. I have a lot of respect for him. He has worked hard and dealt with things well. But as far as experience goes, he is lacking a bit. You can go in there and knock out eighteen guys straight, but what have you learned? So you’ve got Joshua, who is young and strong. And you’ve got Klitschko, who is old but with so much knowledge and experience. That’s why it’s so intriguing.”

British boxing writer Gareth A. Davies framed the issue as follows: “It’s all about timing. Either Joshua and his team have got it spot-on and will feast on a great champion’s carcass; or Klitschko will delve into his memory bank, roll back the clock, get that jab pumping again, drain Joshua in clinches, and re-emerge as The Man, having taken a raw novice to school. Has the jump in class been carefully measured and timed to perfection or will the difference in levels be Joshua’s undoing?”

“Until you step into the ring with someone, you don’t know what you’re facing,” Joshua acknowledged.

“The question is out there,” Klitschko said. “Do I still got it, or is it too late?”

Then Wladimir put the fight in perspective in a way that suited him best: “Please excuse me as this may sound arrogant. But a parallel. Mount Everest, the highest mountain in the world. It’s been there for a long time and will be there for a long time. You can climb it during a certain period of time, during two weeks in April, I believe. You can get to the top and say, ‘I conquered Everest!’ Then you’ve got to run down because it’s going to take you down if you miss the time. A lot of people died there. Some made it back. But Mount Everest is still there. Is Mount Everest defeated? It’s still there and it’s going to take another life this April.”

Part Two of “Joshua-Klitschko: The Future is Now” will be posted on The Sweet Science tomorrow.

Check out more boxing news on video at The Boxing Channel.

Thomas Hauser can be reached by email at thauser@rcn.com. His most recent book – A Hard World: An Inside Look at Another Year in Boxing – was published by the University of Arkansas Press. In 2004, the Boxing Writers Association of America honored Hauser with the Nat Fleischer Award for career excellence in boxing journalism.

Farnsborough County