Photos: Lawrence Lustig/Matchroom
By Kieran Mulvaney
LONDON - With the exception of a few years early this century, there has been a stadium in Wembley, in northwest London, since 1923. The original version, graced by a pair of iconic towers, hosted – among many other things – the 1948 Olympics and the Live Aid Concert in 1985. It saw a moment that nearly changed the tide of boxing history forever, when Henry Cooper flattened the future Muhammad Ali with his patented left hook at the end of the fourth round of their 1963 contest, a punch so hard that Ali testified “my ancestors in Africa felt it.” it was also the site of this nation’s most celebrated sporting triumph, when England won the 1966 World Cup; the captain of that team, Bobby Moore, stands guard in statue form in front of the new stadium, which was opened in 2007, four years after its predecessor was demolished.
Wembley 2.0 replaces the twin towers with a 436-feet tall, 1,033 feet long steel lattice arch, billed as the longest single roof structure in the world. Its 90,000-seat capacity makes it the largest stadium in the United Kingdom and the second largest in Europe (behind only Barcelona’s legendary Nou Camp). It also – and anyone who has attended a major sporting event can testify to the importance of this – boasts the largest number of toilets of any venue in the world. (Two thousand six hundred and eighteen, if you were wondering.)
In 2014, the new stadium hosted its first boxing card, headlined by Carl Froch knocking out George Groves in the eighth round of their super-middleweight championship rematch. The 80,000-strong throng on hand that night was the largest postwar boxing crowd in Britain; it will be surpassed on Saturday night, when Wembley will be filled to its capacity as Britain’s own Anthony Joshua takes on Wladimir Klitschko in a battle to determine the consensus top dog in the heavyweight division (although a presently inactive Tyson Fury would beg to differ).
Particularly for an interloper from a land where the sport is often met with a shrug, it is difficult to overstate how huge the event is here in the country where boxing’s rules were codified – and not just in the literal sense of 90,000 people witnessing a combined 13 feet and 490 pounds of humanity doing battle.
A media workout at nearby Wembley Arena on Wednesday evening featured the kind of production values, including strobe-lit boxer entrances, more often seen on fight night. The live-streamed press conference, held at the British broadcaster’s campus headquarters in western London, was attended by hundreds of the company’s employees, who lined hallways, stairways and balconies to catch a glimpse of both men. The website of one of the most popular tabloid newspapers posted more than 60 articles on the bout during fight week. In search of new and interesting angles, UK media has cast a wide net: that aforementioned tabloid included pieces on Joshua’s new Range Rover and the life of ring announcer Michael Buffer, while the BBC website on Wednesday featured a profile of a Romanian amateur boxer who competed against Joshua in 2011.
The excitement is not just because it is a heavyweight title fight; courtesy primarily of Lennox Lewis, UK boxing fans have experienced a fair few of them in living memory, including several on these shores. It is more that, in Joshua, plenty of British fans feel they have a home-bred fighter capable of being a true superstar. He is warmer and more effortlessly congenial in both public and private than the more reserved Lewis ever was; and unlike his predecessor, the Olympic gold medal he won was for Great Britain, not Canada. Furthermore, that medal came not just in the Olympics, but the 2012 games, held here in London in a summer that saw the greatest surge of sporting patriotism since Moore and his teammates conquered the world.
Not everybody is won over, and Joshua has neither the everyman appeal nor the depth and intensity of support enjoyed by Ricky Hatton in his pomp. But the Manchester Hitman, surely the single most popular boxer in modern British history, is perhaps an impossible yardstick by which to measure anyone; and for Joshua, these are early days. He is just 18 fights into his professional career, after all, and that is perhaps the primary reason why enthusiasm for him is leavened with a degree of caution. At 41 years old and with 68 pro bouts under his belt, Klitschko is almost certainly past his peak, but Joshua still looks at times to be short of his. He is, unusually, a champion-slash-prospect, one who might prove vulnerable to the kind of old school tricks and moves that the Ukrainian will have at his disposal.
Should he pass this test, however, then fully expect much of the reticence presently attached to his support to fall away. And if it does, and if Joshua does go on to be everything his most fervent supporters hope he might be, then Saturday night may become etched in the annals of the greatest events to take place at this most historic of venues.
Weights from London:
Anthony Joshua: 250.1 lbs.
Wladimir Klitschko: 240.5 lbs.