Watch the weigh in for Anthony Joshua vs. Wladimir Klitschko ahead of their heavyweight title fight. Watch the full fight tomorrow night at 11 p.m. EST on HBO World Championship Boxing.
By Kieran Mulvaney
LONDON - Boxing, as has frequently been observed, is a sport of “what have you done for me lately?” Boxers are feted on their way up, forgotten and all too often callously discarded once the rise stalls or becomes a descent. By that measure, it would not have been surprising had Wladimir Klitschko’s name long ago ended up along so many heavyweights who had shown much promise, only to fizzle out when their limitations were exposed: a Ukrainian Michael Grant, a less-volatile Andrew Golota.
But, driven by immense mental fortitude as much as his notable physical strengths, Klitschko not only persisted but perfected his craft, overcoming a trio of setbacks to launch one of the most dominant heavyweight title reigns of recent times. Now, he must bounce back from a fourth reversal; a place in history already seemingly assured, his ability to do so will go a long way to dictating exactly where on the all-time list that place will be.
It has been, remarkably, nearly 20 years since word first filtered across the Atlantic of a pair of Ukrainian brothers who were rampaging through the lower ranks of the heavyweight division. It was Vitali, the elder of the two, who made his mark first, annihilating mercurial Brit Herbie Hide inside two rounds in London in 1999. But the rumors had it that Vitali’s younger brother Wladimir might be the better of the pair, with smoother movement and silkier skills than his sibling.
And yet, by the time Vitali poleaxed Hide, the first question mark had appeared on Wladimir’s résumé, and it was a significant one. He had been beating American Ross Puritty round after round, seemingly comfortably on his way to the kind of victory that any 24-0 youngster with championship aspirations should be notching up, when he ran out of gas and self-defensive abilities, crumbling to the canvas at the end of the tenth and at the beginning of the eleventh en route to a shocking TKO stoppage.
That aberration was initially cast aside as a learning moment – an unusual and disconcerting one, granted, but perhaps an aberration and a lesson in stamina for a young man who had previously been taken the distance only once and had never been past eight rounds. And the early returns suggested that that was indeed the appropriate interpretation, because after the Puritty hiccup, the Steelhammer’s steamroller flattened all in its path: Axel Schultz and Phil Jackson, Monte Barrett and Chris Byrd. Even iron-chinned Ray Mercer was dispatched inside the distance, as Klitschko returned to the upper echelons of the sport.
Then along came Corrie Sanders – a solid and talented fighter, but not considered of sufficient quality to challenge, let alone completely upend, a potential champion; and yet that’s just what he did, blitzing Klitschko in two rounds. Three fights later Lamon Brewster, who was probably not even on Sanders’ level, endured a thumping for several rounds before, in a combination of the Puritty and Sanders episodes, he turned the ride and scored a stoppage after a helpless Klitschko hit the wall.
The end, it seemed, was near. The Wladimir Klitschko story threatened to be one of promise unfulfilled, of an imposing physique married with fine technique but let down by a china chin and suspect stamina. That was 13 years ago. In the decade and more since, the narrative is altogether different.
Between the Brewster loss and his last ring appearance, against Tyson Fury in November 2015, he fought on 22 occasions. Each of them was a victory, 19 of them in world title fights. Until he came unstuck against Fury, he had looked imperious, compiling one of the all-time heavyweight championship résumés and guaranteeing first-ballot election to the Hall of Fame.
What changed? How did the flawed pretender transform himself into a legitimate champion?
The swift and simple answer comes in the form of the man who watched, somewhat helplessly and with some disbelief, as an exhausted Klitschko attempted to crawl to his corner at the conclusion of the Brewster debacle. That was the first occasion on which Emanuel Steward, who had earlier resuscitated the career of Lennox Lewis and helped develop him into the dominant heavyweight champion of his generation, was in the Ukrainian’s corner; but, rather than cut and run in the face of his charge’s failure that night, he doubled down on his commitment.
It was under Steward’s mentorship that Klitschko morphed from being acutely vulnerable to, over time, appearing all but unbeatable, a change that the fighter ascribed, as much as anything, to intensive homework.
“Emanuel Steward hasn't changed anything in me,” Klitschko told journalists a few years ago. “He said, 'Wladimir, be yourself.' The thing I learned in the amateurs is about technique and balance, strategy that he has been improving.”
"We basically write a script in the preparation, and the script was played out in the fight exactly the way we wrote it. We were analyzing everything: the way the opponent talks, the way the opponent walks, what he has done before, what was the most common thing he repeated on the strong side of the opponent and on the weak side of the opponent. And we used it.”
That thoroughness in preparation allowed Klitschko to anticipate almost everything an opponent might throw at him and to negate it almost before a punch had been thrown. It enabled him to be ruthlessly dominant. It laid the foundations for a lengthy reign. And it also diminished his popularity.
The fights before Steward’s arrival had made clear Klitschko’s strengths – his power, his stiff jab, his distance and range – as well as his glaring weaknesses. Under Steward he maximized the former with a ruthless efficiency, keeping foes at bay whenever possible and tying them up whenever they come in close, pounding his opponents at an almost metronomic pace – anything to avoid the kind of fast-paced, explosive brawls that had been his undoing.
It did not make him the most exciting of champions. A 2015 New York Times profile described Klitschko’s as a style “that can at times make fencing look combative.” But his ability to stick to the script revealed an obsessive attention to detail and an iron-willed refusal to deviate from his path.
“He’s not the kind of guy to lose focus,” Johnathan Banks, who assumed duties as Klitschko’s trainer after Steward died in 2012, said in that same Times article. “You can’t be at the top this long and lose focus.”
But Banks was also keenly aware of the lack of enthusiasm, particularly on the western side of the Atlantic, for all that his fighter had accomplished.
“The thing that bothers me is that the American public will not appreciate what he has done until he’s long retired,” he said. Except that at least some surely did immediately after he surrendered his belts to Fury in an ugly, sloppy bout. For a decade, the sport’s flagship division could boast a champion who was never out of shape, was never out of line or offensive, could speak five languages fluently and in any of them speak with intelligence about subjects such as the political situation in his native Ukraine. The contrast with the foul-mouthed – and admittedly troubled – Fury could not have been more clear.
At least in the classy Anthony Joshua, his opponent on Saturday night, he faces somebody who is cut more from his own cloth. But Klitschko is not yet ready to cede the stage. At 41 years old, and 17 months on from his sluggish outing against Fury, he knows that his career obituaries have been all but filed. But he also knows that the first drafts were penned 13 years ago, only to be crumpled up and thrown into the trash. This proud and confident man will enter the ring at Wembley Arena in search of one more night of glory before the final paragraphs are written.
HBO Boxing Insider Kieran Mulvaney goes one-on-one with Wladimir Klitschko. WORLD CHAMPIONSHIP BOXING: Joshua vs. Klitschko airs Saturday, April 29 at 11pm ET/PT on HBO.
HBO Boxing Insider Kieran Mulvaney goes one-on-one with Anthony Joshua. WORLD CHAMPIONSHIP BOXING: Joshua vs. Klitschko airs Saturday, April 29 at 11pm ET/PT on HBO.
Watch a live stream of the Anthony Joshua vs. Wladimir Klitschko final press conference on Friday, April 27 beginning at 9 a.m. ET/6 a.m. PT.
By Eric Raskin
The blood pushes past a glob of Vaseline and spills from a cut over his eye, but he pays it no mind as he barrels forward, trying to corner the man who a few minutes ago was his predator but now has become his prey.
He steps at just the right angle to cut off the ring, then fires off a left hook to the rib cage, causing his opponent’s hands to drop and his legs to lose their bounce. He seizes the opening with a vicious torrent of punches upstairs, then goes back to the body. One more left hook liquefies the liver, and the helpless victim crumples, doing little more than roll around and make tragedy-mask faces until the count reaches 10.
The ring swells with bodies, and the victor is carried around the ring. The blood is still flowing, but it’s no longer a cause for concern. Now it’s a point of pride, part of the legacy, adding color, quite literally, to the tale of the night the great warrior prevailed in dramatic fashion.
When you close your eyes and picture this scene, whom do you see? Julio Cesar Chavez Sr.? If you’re a tad older, maybe Ruben Olivares? If you’re slightly younger, perhaps Erik Morales?
It’s not the precise “who” that’s important. It’s the “where.”
The great majority of fight fans, when reading the description above, are sure to picture a fighter from Mexico. That’s not to say that a Ricky Hatton or a Micky Ward or a Shane Mosley or a Miguel Cotto couldn’t end a fight in the exact same way. But the notion of the “Mexican fighter” is potent. It is its own sub-genre of boxing.
You don’t have to be from Mexico, or even from anywhere in the Americas, to aspire to “Mexican style,” as a certain Kazakh middleweight has shown us. Perhaps “Mexican fighter” is a stereotype, but it’s the good kind of stereotype, almost always meant as a compliment.
“When I think of a Mexican fighter,” says veteran ESPN and ESPN Deportes boxing broadcaster Bernardo Osuna, “I envision a warrior, a fighter who comes forward, who’s willing to take a punch to give a punch, who, when the chips are down, is willing to do what it takes to win. He’s willing to bleed to score a victory. He’s willing to get up off the canvas to score a victory. There’s a saying in Spanish, ‘Morir en la raya,’ which translates to English as ‘Die on the line.’ That’s how they feel. The Mexican fighter is willing to go that far in order to come away with the victory.”
While the heart and desire that Osuna cites are a key part of the picture, there are also certain stylistic tendencies associated with Mexican pugilists. The approach is built around pressure, around aggressiveness, around body punching, with an emphasis usually on the left hook. There’s no rule against having skill or utilizing defense, but there are unwritten rules about how to employ them. A potshotting jabber who’s always on his toes, circling, bouncing out of danger, doing anything that could be remotely construed as running—that stuff doesn’t fly south of the border.
While the legendary “Lion of Culiacan” Chavez is the most famous purveyor of the Mexican style, he wasn’t the first Mexican to use it at the elite level. That distinction most likely goes to Luis Villanueva Paramo of Mexico City, much better known during a 255-fight career spanning all the way from 1929 to 1961 as Kid Azteca. He scored 114 knockouts among 192 wins, and is said to have influenced such 1960s and ’70s successors as Vicente Saldivar and Olivares, the latter of whom was probably the most beloved Mexican fighter until Chavez came along.
After Chavez elevated the ceiling for star power in the ’80s and ’90s — notably scoring the most iconic and most Mexican-style win in the nation’s history, stopping Meldrick Taylor with two seconds left in the final round while trailing on the scorecards — he helped open the door for a generation that included rivals Juan Manuel Marquez, Marco Antonio Barrera, and Erik Morales.
Among all those names are many with sublime skills, men who didn’t need to take a punch in order to land one. But they all took their share anyway, and are adored for it.
“I think the Mexican fan feels, if you have a skill set, you can use it, but when it comes down to it and you need to come up with something special, that’s when the Mexican in you comes out,” Osuna says. “When I think of who best embodies what it means to be a Mexican fighter, I would say Ruben Olivares. He was skilled, but that guy would take a shot to give a shot, and he just had a huge heart. If you want to go to a more modern fighter, I’d say Juan Manuel Marquez, especially when you look at the Manny Pacquiao fights. In the first one, he gets off the canvas three times. In the fourth fight, he’s bloodied, it looks like he’s about to be knocked out, and he finds a way to land that one punch.
“The Mexican fight fan respects someone who works as hard as they do. The Mexican fan is, say, a gardener that goes out every morning at 4 a.m. and then works until sundown and comes home to his family. When Marquez gets up off the canvas three times in the first round, that’s representative of the Mexican fight fan. Someone who goes out there and, whatever it takes, however many hours it takes to get the job done, they’re gonna get it done and they’re gonna get it done right.”
All of which begs the question: How “Mexican” are the two men set to square off on May 6 in the biggest all-Mexican showdown since … well, maybe ever, if you’re looking at the size of the event and fighters’ purses? Canelo Alvarez and Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. are the two biggest boxing stars Mexico currently has to offer, but they also have their detractors on both sides of the border.
About Chavez, who didn’t come from an impoverished background and was literally born marketable, there are doubts about whether he works as hard as those blue-collar fans demand. About Canelo, there are questions about his willingness to take on all comers — specifically, that “Mexican-style” fellow, Gennady Golovkin.
And neither Chavez nor Alvarez has had a signature Mexican-style victory yet, that dramatic win achieved via heart and relentlessness in the face of adversity. On May 6, fans of all nationalities will tune in, hoping to see the battle of Mexico’s two biggest stars settled in as Mexican a style as possible.
No matter what happens on Saturday, April 29 at London's historic Wembley Stadium, history will be made. Either Anthony Joshua will cement his place as "the next big thing" in boxing -- a title that his opponent, Wladimir Klitschko, 41, held nearly two decades ago -- or the most dominant big man of his time will reassume the throne, becoming only the second heavyweight to win a major title after age 40 (George Foreman, 45) and reclaiming the crown he lost so dismally to Tyson Fury in November of 2015.
Which storyline will be fulfilled before one of the largest boxing crowds ever assembled? The time is drawing near (watch the fight on HBO at 11 p.m. ET/PT).
Unbeaten, Untied and Nearly Unscored Upon: Joshua's pro career has been nothing but storybook-quality thus far -- 18 fights, 18 wins, 18 knockouts and two defenses of the IBF title he pounded off Charles Martin's head a little more than a year ago. His three title fights against Martin, Dominic Breazeale and Eric Molina have been an extension of his career as a whole: utter dominance.
In those bouts, Joshua obliterated his opponents in every statistical way: he led 18.3 to 3.9 in total punches landed per round; 7.9 to 1.8 in jab connects per round; and 10.4 to 2.1 in landed power shots each round. Plus, take a look at his percentage gaps : 42%-17% overall, 38%-13% jabs and 46%-22% power.
More amazingly, he has inflicted this damage while averaging just 43.3 punches per round, slightly below the 44.7 heavyweight average. Then again, Martin, Breazeale and Molina averaged a combined 23.6 per round. Of those, Molina offered the feeblest resistance, as he averaged just 12.7 punches per round to Joshua's 39.2 and was out-landed 38-6 overall, 13-1 jabs and 25-5 power. He attempted only 13 power shots to Joshua's 66, a clear indicator of how hesitant he was to risk being hit back. It didn't matter, however; Joshua shrugged his shoulders, hit Molina back anyway and finished the job in impressive fashion.
Add in the Whyte fight and Joshua threw/landed slightly above heavyweight average for total punches (18.2 landed/49.2 thrown) and landed above average with his jab (7.3 per round). Meanwhile, opponents landed half the heavyweight average in all CompuBox categories. Is that a testament to Joshua's power or lack of quality opposition -- or both? Will he do the same to the one-time King of Kings in the heavyweight division?
Rusted Trigger: As has Klitschko aged, his ability to produce sufficient volume has significantly eroded. He averaged just 19.3 punches per round against Fury and reached double-digit connects in just one round (12 in the ninth). His 52 total connects in 12 rounds was, by far, the lowest total of his career in a fight that went 10 rounds or more. Worse yet, his previous low was 134 against David Haye.
His low output was a continuation of a trend: Klitschko averaged a modest 45.4 punches per round in out-pointing Bryant Jennings; 18.9 in stopping Kubrat Pulev; 34.8 in outscoring Alexander Povetkin; and 46.2 in stopping Francesco Pianetta. Taking it further, in his last 14 fights, Klitschko did amass a 10.6 plus/minus rating and landed 8.7 jabs per round (No. 3 among CompuBox categorical leaders).
It's his dependence on the jab and lack of power punching that raises questions. A whopping 66% of Wladimir's thrown punches per round are jabs (28.9 of 43.8 per round), which is 24.5% higher than the CompuBox averge of 41.5% (23.1 of 55.6) and No., 1 on the CompuBox categorical leaders list. Also No. 1: A whopping 60.4% of his landed punches are jabs (8.7 of 11.4), which is 32% higher than the CompuBox average (4.8 of 16.9) and 14.2% higher than No. 2 Mikey Garcia at 46.2% (6.7 of 14.5).
Then there's his lack of power punching: Klitschko landed just 5.7 power shots per round -- the lowest total for any fighter on CompuBox's categorical leaders list (he threw just 14.9 per round) -- also the lowest total for any fighter on CompuBox's categorical leaders list. Can Klitschko possibly recapture a semblance of his former self? He'll have to if he is to have a chance against Joshua, much less beat him.
COMPUBOX ANALYSIS – ANTHONY JOSHUA vs. WLADIMIR KLITSCHKO
Did you know? Klitschko shares the heavyweight record for jabs landed in a round, 38 (vs. Hasim Rahman in round three), with his brother Vitali, who also landed 38 jabs in the first round in his win over Ed Mahone.
Prediction: Throughout history, the heavyweight division has had its "passing the torch" fights. Corbett vs. Sullivan. Tunney vs. Dempsey. Charles vs. Louis. Holmes vs. Ali. Tyson vs. Holmes. Add Joshua vs. Klitschko to the list. Joshua, a model of poise thus far, is younger, bigger, faster, stronger and fresher while Klitschko, coming off his worst performance in more than a decade, is 41 years old, emerging from a career-long 17-month layoff and fighting in the champion's home country. That is too much for the legendary "Dr. Steelhammer" to handle. This is Joshua's moment and that moment will come after scoring a TKO in the middle rounds.
HBO Boxing Insider Kieran Mulvaney sets the stage as two heavyweight warriors collide in a world title bout.
Joshua vs. Klitschko airs in primetime on Saturday, April 29 on HBO at approximately 11 p.m. ET/PT.