They will never square off in the ring, but the hypothetical battle rages on in computerized matchups and continuing debate in the court of public opinion.
Who has the most valid claim to being the best British heavyweight of all time? Is it legendary Hall of Famer Lennox Lewis? Or could it be, if not now but eventually, Anthony Joshua, the much younger, slightly larger heir to the throne Lewis abdicated when he retired in 2004?
Joshua was on the line for a teleconference with the American media Friday afternoon, the purpose of which was to hype the Oct. 28 bout in which the 28-year-old world champion (19-0, 19 KOs) will defend his IBF, WBA and IBO titles against late substitute Carlos Takam (35-3-1, 27 KOs) at Principality Stadium in Cardiff, Wales. But, considering the fact that Takam, a naturalized Frenchman by way of his native Cameroon, is anywhere from a 33-1 to a 60-1 longshot in the British sports books, the Showtime-televised proceedings could justifiably be described as a preview of a glitzier coming attraction. Many of the questions directed to Joshua and his promoter, Matchroom Sport’s Eddie Hearn, dealt more with the anticipated timeline for arranging a unification showdown between Joshua and WBC champ Deontay Wilder than with Joshua’s expected dismissal of Takam, a willing but limited sort who took the fight on less than two weeks’ notice after Joshua’s originally scheduled opponent, Bulgaria’s Kubrat Pulev (25-1, 13 KOs), withdrew with a shoulder injury incurred in sparring.
Wilder (38-0, 37 KOs) also has a defense against a less-attractive pinch-hitter coming up, and now will proceed with a rematch against the WBC’s mandatory contender, Bermane Stiverne (25-2-1, 21 KOs), on Nov. 4 in Brooklyn’s Barclays Center. Stiverne filled the slot vacated by serial performance-enhancing-drug abuser Luis “King Kong” Ortiz (27-0, 23 KOs), the Cuban defector whose career now is in jeopardy after he tested positive for a banned substance a second time.
It is a testament to Joshua’s incredible and ever-increasing popularity in the United Kingdom that he not only fought before a British-record turnout of 90,000 spectators in London’s Wembley Stadium last April 29, climbing off the deck in the sixth round to stop longtime former titlist Wladimir Klitschko in the 11th, but is expected to do his thing before 75,000-plus fans against semi-mystery guest Takam.
“I think, with Floyd’s (Mayweather) departure from the sport, he’s unquestionably the biggest star in world boxing,” Hearn said of Joshua, the super heavyweight gold medalist at the 2012 London Olympics.
Added Stephen Espinoza, executive vice president and general manager of Showtime Sports: “(Joshua) is without a doubt the consensus No. 1 heavyweight in the world,” a proclamation that is sure to irritate Wilder, whose recent bouts, including the do-over with Stiverne, also have been or will be televised by Showtime.
While some obligatory lip service was paid to Takam, whom Joshua described as “more of a walk-in, take a lot to give a lot fighter,” a majority of the questions dealt with the expectation of a 2018 pairing of Joshua and Wilder, the most-anticipated heavyweight fight that can be made since Lewis, Mike Tyson, Evander Holyfield and Riddick Bowe rode off into the sunset. Is it going to happen in the upcoming calendar year and, if so, will it be in the United States, where Joshua has never fought, or in the UK?
“I’m very excited (about the possibility of testing himself against Wilder, and in America),” Joshua said. “I would love to fight in the country where all of the United States’ great champions were produced. It would just add to my scrapbook. But I’ll fight anywhere. There’s talk of (doing a fight in) Africa, and the Middle East. I’ll fight anywhere, but America definitely is at the top of the pyramid.”
So should that be taken as a definite “yes” that, barring a plan-altering upset somewhere along the way, Joshua-Wilder will take place sometime in 2018? Um, not exactly.
“It’s what Wilder needs, not me,” Joshua said of the Tuscaloosa, Ala.-based Wilder’s more pressing need for the sort of signature fight that Joshua logged against Klitschko. “So we’ll give it to him – sooner or later.”
Until Joshua and Wilder do swap punches, there also will be inevitable discussions as to the relative merits of Joshua and the now-53-year-old Lewis, who was the super heavyweight gold medalist while representing Canada at the 1988 Seoul Olympics. Apart from their Olympic successes, the two are comparable in terms of physical dimensions (Lewis is 6-foot-5 and had an optimum fighting weight in the 245-pound range to Joshua’s 6-6 and 250). But however you rank them, there is no disputing that, in whichever order, they are 1 and 2 among British big men. Before Lewis engaged in his first world title fight, winning a 12-round unanimous decision over WBC challenger Tony Tucker on May 8, 1993, heavyweights from the United Kingdom were winless in their 13 previous shots at reigning champions from the U.S., most of those defeats coming inside the distance and giving rise to the term “horizontal heavyweights.”
Interestingly, after Joshua won the 2012 Olympic gold medal, the British-born son of Nigerian immigrants met with Lewis, the British-born son of Jamaican immigrants, in Montego Bay, Jamaica, to discuss his future plans in boxing.
“I was trying to make the decision about turning professional,” Joshua recalled. “He was saying you want to build quietly, you want to build with small shows. But Eddie and Matchroom had other plans,” which called for a more accelerated progression up through the ranks. And so it was that Joshua got his first world title, the IBF version, on a two-round smoking of Charles Martin on April 9, 2016, in just his 16th pro bout, half the time it took for Lewis, in his 32nd outing, to get that winning shot at Tucker.
Prior to Joshua’s seminal clash with the aging but still-dangerous Klitschko, Lewis was asked how the UK’s latest heavyweight ring hero stacked up against him.
“Could he be better than me? I don’t think so,” the ever-proud Lewis told Gareth A. Davies of The Telegraph. “It’s difficult for me to say another man is better than me. To me, there is a lot Anthony Joshua still needs to learn. As he goes on he will learn but his trainers need to understand that, too, because each fight for him is a learning curve. You don’t want to learn in important fights, you want to be prepared for them.”
Pressed for a yea or nay on whether Joshua can become legitimately great, Lewis said the potential was there. “He can do anything he wants,” Lewis continued. “But saying it and doing it are two different things. We can say it, but it’s up to him to do it.”
For now, Joshua is being diplomatic when asked about his generation-gap jockeying with “Double L” for British heavyweight supremacy.
“It’s an honor,” he said of drawing comparisons to Lewis. “I’m going to do some research and see where Lennox was at this stage (compared to Joshua) in terms of career-building. I feel Lennox is someone I can definitely learn from. If you gave me a list of boxers to study and learn from, I would put Lennox in my top 10, 100 percent.”
Nonetheless, comparisons generally tend to make the newcomer feel like a Johnny-come-lately. “Either you’re the next Lennox Lewis or you’re nobody in boxing,” Joshua said. “Either you’re the next Mike Tyson or you’re nobody. But if I can be compared to these guys, legends of the game, I am definitely moving in the right direction.”
There is, of course, much work to be done yet by Joshua to merit a place in such discussions, as Showtime analyst Steve Farhood and Nigel Collins, former editor of The Ring, acknowledge. But both agree he’s off to an impressive start.
“I would say those comparisons are inevitable but premature,” said Farhood, who will not be making the trip to Wales because of a painful bout with kidney stones. “Lewis and Joshua are similar in size and they’re both Olympic gold medalists. If there’s a difference, it’s that before Lewis won his first world pro title he fought much better opponents than Joshua has to this point, with the exception of Klitschko.
“The Klitschko fight marks the real start of Anthony Joshua as a potential special heavyweight. It gave us tremendous hope for what might yet come. If the Klitschko fight proved anything, it’s that Joshua is (a) somewhat vulnerable, and (b) has the potential for greatness. You couldn’t write a script any better than how it turned out in Wembley that night. He had to overcome adversity, getting off the deck, coming back to win where there wasn’t a person in the building that thought he had a chance in round six. To me, all that proved something that most heavyweights don’t get a chance to prove at this relatively early part of their careers, which is that Anthony Joshua has heart and determination.”
Collins is of the same mind, saying “It’s early, but Lewis is a good measuring stick for Joshua. It does seem pretty clear that Joshua is more popular in the UK than Lewis ever was, but popularity is not the same thing as ability. Lewis was a first-ballot Hall of Famer, and deserved to be. Joshua doesn’t have a sufficient body of work to make a truly valid comparison yet. It does seem to me that he’s a little more aggressive in style that Lewis was, and he does look like the best heavyweight around right now.”
One comparison to Lewis that the undefeated Joshua doesn’t want is the penchant for sometimes taking an opponent lightly, and paying for that mistake. It happened twice, in knockout losses to Oliver McCall and Hasim Rahman, both of which he avenged. It remains to be seen if Carlos Takam can slip into the role of a McCall or a Rahman on Oct. 28, which would only serve to send a jumbled heavyweight division into a further tizzy.
Photo credit: Mark Robinson / Matchroom Boxing
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