By Gordon Marino
Norman Mailer once described the heavyweight champion as “the toe of God.” With the likes of Joe Louis, Rocky Marciano and Muhammad Ali, Mailer’s image did not seem like much of a stretch. But if championships, like people, can fall on hard times, then it must be said that the heavyweight title has endured a long rough patch. The last undisputed heavyweight king was Lennox Lewis in 2004, and for years now, the axis of boxing has shifted south in weight classes.
However, the times are -- or at least might -- be changing. On Saturday, the most significant heavyweight title showdown since Lewis vs. Mike Tyson will transpire when Anthony Joshua (18-0, 18 KOs) defends his IBF title against Wladimir Klitschko (64-4, 53 KOs) on HBO World Championship Boxing at 11 p.m. ET/PT; the vacant WBA and IBO crowns will also be at stake.
Professional pugilism began in Britain and with the UK currently claiming more than 10 world champions, it is boom time for boxing in England. The Joshua vs. Klitschko fight will take place before 90,000 fans at the sold-out Wembley Stadium – that is not too far below the 104,000 who witnessed the epic Jack Dempsey vs. Gene Tunney II in September 1927 at Soldier Field in Chicago.
Saturday’s fight is the age-old but compelling story of experience versus youth. A 1996 Olympic gold medalist, Klitschko is 41 years old and 68 fights deep into a professional career that commenced during Bill Clinton’s first term in office. Joshua, who garnered gold for the UK in the London Games, is 27 and has had 10 fewer fights than Klitschko has had world title tilts.
Going more than a decade without a defeat, Klitschko, a.k.a "Dr. Steelhammer," dominated the big boy division until his 2015 upset loss to Tyson Fury. Recently, trainer Freddie Roach gleefully noted that there is finally a group of promising heavyweights and the Hall of Fame trainer ranks Joshua at the top.
With quickness and explosive power, Joshua is supremely gifted but untested.
All of Joshua’s triumphs have come within the distance. He has never had to push leather beyond the seventh round. Despite a 78 percent knockout ratio, Klitschko has gone 12 rounds in four of his last seven fights. He has notched victories over Sultan Ibragimov, Hasim Rahman, Ruslan Chagaev, David Haye, Samuel Peter, Alexander Povetkin and Kubrat Pulev. Joshua has yet to toe the line with anyone in Klitschko’s galaxy of competition.
Then again, there comes a time when there is a changing of the guard, such as the night in 1951 when Rocky Marciano blasted the 37-year-old Joe Louis through the ropes and into permanent retirement. Moreover, with the exception of George Foreman and Muhammad Ali, heavyweights past the age of 35 have not had much success in reclaiming their crowns.
Despite his prodigious talents, there were daunting pitfalls in Klitschko’s trek to the heavyweight summit. In 1998, Klitschko was upset by Ross Puritty. In 2003, after a series of victories, he was upended by a cannon shot from the languid but powerful southpaw, Corrie Sanders. In 2004, Lamon Brewster came back from a near knockout to stop the Ukrainian giant. One thing was clear – a steel fist does not make for a steel chin – but Klitschko has always had the mental strength to peel himself off the canvas, both literally and figuratively.
In 2003, Klitschko engaged the services of one of the supreme gurus of the sweet science, the late Emanuel Steward. Emanuel restrung Klitschko’s style, helping him to keep his weight back and develop a straight concussive jab. Steward, who was a mentor in more ways than one, calmed his charge down and taught him how to control distance and patiently set up his punches. With those new tools and a right hand that Foreman once described as the most powerful since, well, Big George’s, Klitschko went on to win titles from three of the major sanctioning bodies. Klitschko made 17 consecutive defenses of the IBF belt and 13 of the WBA crown.
The combatants are the size of NBA forwards -- both Klitschko and Joshua stand 6-foot-6 and hover around 245 pounds -- and Joshua is with a near equal reach. Joshua owns the advantage in speed and sheer explosiveness. Both gladiators are object lessons in orthodox boxing styles, but there is nothing orthodox or common about their preternatural power. Both men can anesthetize with a single swipe of their right hand.
There have been contests in which almost 9 minutes ticked by before Klitschko launched anything besides a straight left. He is cautious about committing to big punches before his picador jabs have sapped his rival’s strength and resolve.
The Ukrainian’s strategy has long been to command attention with his jab and then ignite his cruise missile of a straight right just when his opponent is anticipating getting hammered with another jab. Klitschko also renders rivals horizontal with his left hook. This is a blow that he sometimes brings behind a straight left and frequently uses in order to move his man into the crosshairs of his right.
Perhaps it is his wariness of leaving himself open, but Klitschko has been known to go the distance while throwing body shots that could be counted on less than one hand. On the inside, instead of bending and punching, he has been warned by referees about his octopus tactics. Emanuel Steward once told me that in sparring sessions, Klitschko demonstrated a devastating uppercut, and yet perhaps for fear of leaving himself open, he seldom lets that punch fly under the big top.
Klitschko does not move his head. He tends to slide straight back when he is pressed and he squares up when pushed to the ropes. Also, it could be argued that for someone with his pulverizing pop, Klitschko bounces around too much and. as a result, his tank sometimes reads “near empty” in the late rounds.
Though Joshua also keeps his head in the firing line, he bends a little more than Klitschko. He moves in and out fluidly and feints well with his footwork. Joshua generally stays in the pocket when he is blitzed; however, he tends to drop his left when he fires his right, and sometimes brings his left back low after he jabs.
Brought up in military outposts, Klitschko is a practitioner of stoic philosophy. He never gets out of shape. In camp, he leads a Spartan existence and has to be restrained from over-training. Klitschko lives by the stoic adage, “Control your mind and you control everything.”
And yet, if there is one aspect of his mind that he has had difficulty controlling, it is his devastating reaction to losing. In a recent press conference, Klitschko revealed, “I am obsessed with winning this fight. It’s important for me to prove to myself that I am able to defeat every man facing me in the ring. I am ready to walk a long and hard walk to show that I can master myself and can be proud of myself.”
There are not many fighters who see mastering opponents in terms of mastering themselves— but that is Klitschko. In this case, self-mastery and that “long hard walk” might be a matter of taking the risks of letting his heavy hands go, a risk he failed to take against Tyson Fury.
Klitschko and Joshua are both stalkers. They won’t have to look far to find each other. If the referee does not allow a Wrestlemania-type brawl, it will be bombs away. The victor could easily be decided by whoever succeeds in planting the first big shot.
In his powerful “Boom Boom Mancini,” the late Warren Zevon sings, “You can have the speed and the right combinations, but if you can’t take the punches, it don’t mean a thing.” Joshua certainly has the speed and the right combinations. On Saturday night we may see about the rest.
The Adonis-like champion has vowed that he will do his part to bring the explosives. “I am going for the knockout,” Joshua said. “I want to show the world that I am the heavyweight to be reckoned with.”