Coming into 2017, boxing had a big problem. That problem was the year 2016.
It had been a terrible 12-month period that produced no truly historic fights or impactful positive events. The Greatest Heavyweight Champion of all-time, Muhammad Ali, was laid to rest in Louisville after a long fight with Father Time. His contemporary, then lineal heavyweight champion of the world Tyson Fury, laid down his unified crown for an endless bite to eat.
As the New Year 2017 opened, the heavyweight championship of the world was again vacant. Tyson the Troubled Traveller wouldn’t be rematching former champion Wladimir Klitschko as contractually obligated, opting instead to retire as the uncrowned Gypsy King…of Wlad Klit.
This lineal vacancy opened the door for young Anthony Joshua; hulking Olympic Gold Medalist from Watford, England—and boxing is grateful that AJ, 20-0 (20 KOs), stepped through it to claim the true heavyweight championship of the world; winning our Fight of the Year in the Event of the Year.
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While boxing suffered in 2016, Joshua was biding his time. Some thought it all might’ve been simply too much too soon for him. “When the red carpet is laid out for you,” explained Joshua of his rapid, four-year ascent from amateur to prospect to World Heavyweight Champion—to biggest money maker in boxing, “You can only walk down it with the experience that you have.”
On Saturday night April 29 in London, England, Joshua’s meager 44 rounds of experience in just 18 bouts was enough for him to overcome the aging ex-champion Klitschko—but not without a fight-of-the-year effort for the ages from both gentlemen sportsmen. By way of comparison, Klitschko entered the bout at 64-4 (53 KOs) with a whopping 358 rounds of pro experience.
In excess of 90,000 people turned out at Wembley Stadium to see it as if Jack Dempsey and Gene Tunney were gloving up for a third go. In 1927 America, Tunney retired Dempsey in front of 105,000 souls in Chicago before making one defense of his heavyweight championship before also retiring. Klitschko is now in a state of retirement courtesy of Joshua who has already racked up one successful defense of the title against his own Tom Heeney, one Carlos Takam.
Competing to not only avenge his ugly 2015 title loss to Tyson Fury, Klitschko, 40, now sought to show boxing fans and media alike that he could excite them rather than put them to sleep. To do that, Klitschko would need to engage at close range with a dangerous young power puncher in that power puncher’s U.K. backyard, quite an alien strategy to the safety-first Klitschko brother.
It almost worked.
The early rounds were tense and competitive. Olympian giants traded thick jabs and quick feints for six strategic minutes. In the third, Joshua started letting his very heavy hands go and Klitschko didn’t like it one bit, sometimes clinching and/or retreating from action.
In the fourth, Klitschko answered AJ’s good third round, backing him up with right hands early; forcing the Big Brit to hold. As a sign of things to come, Joshua weathered the storm and by round’s end reclaimed the initiative. To make matters worse (later) for Klitschko, Joshua was now targeting the open body of “Dr. Steelhammer” whenever Klitschko lingered in-close too long.
The fifth round was a sight to see. Joshua pressed his initiative and within 30 seconds of the bell to start the round, Klitschko was down on all-fours from a violent volley of punches.
Klitschko got up quickly but his body moved slowly. Blood was leaking from a rip under his left eye. Desperate, Wlad loaded up with long languid left hooks, all of which Joshua easily ducked.
Then BOOM! a clubbing right hand to the chin suddenly stiffened Joshua and all 90K of his countrymen must’ve wondered if AJ was nothing but the second coming of Frank Bruno. As weary as Joshua was late in the fifth frame, Klitschko couldn’t finish him off or knock him down.
That would soon change.
The sixth began modestly. Joshua was still being cautious while Klitschko looked for one punch to end the fight. With two minutes left in the round, Wlad hammered a massive right to the chin of AJ who fell hard and fast onto his back like so many of Klitschko’s previous opponents. Up at the count of five, Joshua survived but it was hard to tell who the sixth round took more out of.
The seventh opened to a fight still very much in doubt. An evenly fought heavyweight title bout this superb hadn’t been contested since Klitschko’s older brother Vitali challenged Lennox Lewis for the heavyweight title in L.A. in 2003. Lewis won a bloody war on cuts but retired soon afterwards. For Klitschko to avoid a similar fate, the onus was on him to get AJ outta there.
It didn’t happen.
Ultimately, youth trumped experience. Old was outdone by new. The next Big Thing clobbered the last/less big thing. Sir Anthony triumphantly stopped King Klitschko in the eleventh round after a pair of dramatic crash knockdowns left Wlad unable to protect himself. American referee David Fields waved it off at 2:25 with Klitschko on the ropes taking a beating to the head and body.
Passing The Torch
AJ, the new Heavyweight King held court in the ring while a dejected but dignified Klitschko looked on. “I dig deep,” said Joshua. “Boxing is about character. When you go to the trenches, that’s when you find out who you really are so find out what you’re good at and keeping digging.”
“The best man won and it’s a great event for boxing,” declared Klitschko after earning much new respect in London with his gutsy effort. “It’s sad I didn’t make it,” he said. “My plan didn’t work.”
Checkmated, Klitschko soon retired.
A short time before his legendary night in London, Joshua was asked about the future of heavyweight boxing (is there one?) and how he saw himself fitting into it. Can you beat Klitschko? Will you fight WBC champ Deontay Wilder? Is Fury coming back to fight you?
Joshua countered like a champ.
“Foreman fought Ali. Ali fought Frazier. Holyfield fought Tyson and Lewis fought Holyfield so I can’t shy away from any of it,” he said. “These big fights are going to happen sooner than later. That’s why I prepare myself and train for ten fights ahead because it’s only going to get tougher.”
One down, two to go for AJ.
“What else am I going to do in 2018,” he says of the next Big Fight. “Wilder doesn’t need a better performance to compete with me. He’s a heavyweight. He’s a champion. He’s winning and that speaks volumes. We give credit where credit is due so that will definitely be respected.”
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