By Kieran Mulvaney
LONDON – They came to crown Anthony Joshua at Wembley tonight. And in the end, the 90,000 who filled this most famous of stadiums did just that, serenading the London sky with raucous cheers before thronging the sidewalks and spilling into local bars to toast their new king. The songs they were singing were of celebration, but they were so very nearly the dirges of defeat. For several rounds, Joshua looked dead and buried, bludgeoned to the canvas by the steelhammer fists of Wladimir Klitschko, before springing back to life and blasting his way to victory in one of the very best heavyweight title bouts of recent times.
Joshua (19-0, 19 KOs) entered the ring as the favorite, despite his relatively thin professional résumé, partly because he was the younger man and partly because, at 41 years old, Klitschko was not just the older of the two but, by sporting standards, actually old. Added to that was the fact that the Ukrainian veteran had looked less than impressive in his last victory, against Bryant Jennings two years previously, and frankly dreadful seven months after that in his most recent outing, a turgid points defeat to Tyson Fury. But Klitschko (64-5, 53 KOs) has been at or near the top of the sport for a decade and a half, and carried a lot of knowledge, experience and ring savvy into the contest. One of the more popular predictions was the younger man beating the older man by early knockout; the other was the veteran taking the greenhorn into the later rounds, smothering him and turning the fight into an ugly, mauling affair.
Neither proved correct, and it was to the immense benefit of almost all involved that that was the case. Joshua was victorious but was forced to dig deeper than he could possibly have imagined, discovering wells of courage and recovery even he may not have known he had. Klitschko, although defeated, went out on his shield, providing one of the most entertaining performances in his stellar career and, even in a loss, generated immense goodwill that erased the stench of the Fury outing. And those who watched were treated to a tremendous action fight that will live long in the memory and be a yardstick against which future heavyweight bouts will be measured, and in comparison to which most will fall short.
From the very beginning, it was clear that Klitschko had every intention of surprising the prognosticators and taking the fight to the young pretender. Before the first bell rang, he was already out of his corner and partway across the ring, and for the first couple of rounds, he was the aggressor – a controlled aggressor, certainly, working almost exclusively behind a persistent, pesky jab and showing little in the way of power punches, but the one who was moving forward. His defense, too, was sharp, his head movement ensuring that Joshua’s attempts to land lead left hooks or overhand rights frequently fell short. At a smidgen over 240 pounds, Klitschko was large by the standards of most mortal human beings, but was the lightest he had weighed for a fight in eight years, and it soon became apparent that this was by design: he may have been the older man, but he was the lighter of the two on his feet, bouncing on his toes and moving forward and side to side.
Joshua began warming to his task in the third round, stepping forward with his shots and closing the gap a little as he launched power punch combinations. A short right hand landed at the end of the third for Joshua, a counter right in the fourth. Through four, the bout was surprisingly fast-paced and essentially even. It was enjoyable, but not memorable. That changed dramatically in the fifth.
Joshua came out of his corner determined to take things up a notch, and a short way into the round landed a hook that clearly hurt Klitschko. A right hand followed, and another hook, and now the Ukrainian’s legs were dancing, not because of his nifty footwork, but because the messages to them from his brain had been short-circuited. Joshua, seeing his prey was wounded, moved in for the kill and an explosive flurry sent Klitschko to the canvas. The veteran made it to his feet, and bravely sought to fight back, but his punches were weary and thrown with little authority.
And yet, suddenly, they made their mark. A hook caught the chin of Joshua, who suddenly began stepping uncertainly backward. The Briton’s legs stiffened; out of nowhere, he looked to have exchanged his boxing shoes for a set of concrete boots, his legs suddenly leaden and unyielding. The youngster seemed to have been overwhelmed by his own nervous energy as much as his opponent’s blows, but those blows were helping steer him rapidly toward the precipice. Having been in full voice a minute or so earlier, the crowd went quieter than anyone would imagine 90,000 people could ever be.
The minute’s rest between rounds proved of no respite to Joshua, but gave Klitschko all the opportunity to recover that he needed. Seeing an opportunity, he flung a wild hook in Joshua’s direction. That missed, but then a swift jab and a picture perfect straight right hand found their mark and Joshua began tumbling, like a tower of falling bricks, helped on his way by a Klitschko left hook as he crashed to the canvas, legs akimbo.
This was danger of the sort that Joshua had never experienced before, against a quality of opponent that he had not previously faced. One of the questions prefight had been whether Joshua was ready for this kind of challenge, and the answer seemed to be no. He survived the round, and the next, but he had all but stopped throwing punches, as if launching even just one would push him to a level of exhaustion beyond which he could not possibly recover. For fully six minutes, his sole goal was to be hit as little as possible, a goal that was aided by Klitschko’s inability to connect with any more meaningful power punches. The former champion did, however, keep firing jabs, keep Joshua on his back feet, keep scoring points, and keep running down the clock as the finish line came into sight.
After having accumulated no further appreciable damage following his sixth round scare, Joshua found some more spring in his step in round nine, regenerating from a man dead on his feet into one who, shocked to discover he was still alive, resolved to live life with greater purpose. Once more, as in the third, he started stepping forward behind his punches, as Klitschko’s punch output dropped ever so slightly. In the tenth, the Briton tried to dial in an overhand right behind a jab, but the one-two combination was telegraphed too far in advance and attempted too frequently and predictably, and Klitschko dodged it repeatedly.
The ninth and tenth were close, but close was a big improvement for Joshua on what had gone before. They were enough for him to have by now edged ahead on the scorecards, but in the eleventh, he ensured that those cards would be unnecessary.
A booming uppercut snapped back Klitschko’s head, and Joshua launched himself into the attack. Klitschko blocked or deflected the first follow-up punch, and the second, and the third. But then a left hook landed flush and the Ukrainian toppled over again.
This time he was badly hurt, initially missing the rope with which he sought to haul himself up, and although he beat the count, his knees were locked and his legs had all the flexibility of Frankenstein’s monster. Referee David Fields took a good look at him, but allowed him to continue, only for Joshua to dive on to him immediately and back him to the ropes, where he unleashed a flurry, punctuated by another left hook, that put Klitschko down again. Once again the old champ rose, but he was spent, and another Joshua barrage brought a conclusive intervention from Fields at the 2:25 mark. As the referee stepped between them, Joshua paused, looked at Klitschko, smiled, then turned away with his arms aloft.
After paying his respects to his fallen foe, whom he described as “a role model in and out of the ring,” he paused to gather himself and reflect on what had just passed.
“You can be a phenomenal boxer, but boxing’s about character, and when you go into the trenches, you find out what you’re made of,” he said. “In a small ring, there’s nowhere to hide.”
“I’m really sad I didn’t make it, I really wanted to,” said a crestfallen Klitschko. “Two gentlemen fought each other, and Anthony Joshua was the better man.” He looked out at the crowd. “I didn’t enjoy it as much as you,” he smiled. The sound he heard in return was the collective roar of 90,000 partisans, who had all but cheered themselves hoarse but found an extra energy now to applaud once more, this time not for their new king but for the fallen veteran, who had fought with dignity and valor even as the torch had been ripped from him by the leader of a new heavyweight generation.