By Oliver Goldstein
The consensus in Wembley Stadium is that Anthony Joshua will win. Why? Because of course he will. Wladimir Klitschko is old, hasn’t fought in eighteen months, takes a punch badly, hasn’t looked good in years. And Joshua, Joshua, as his promoters insist, is practically messianic, the second coming of all the great heavyweights of the past and a forecoming of all the great heavyweights to come. After the preliminaries are finally dusted off, Joshua’s short and violent highlight reel loops out over the big screens in the arena, punctuated finally by a portentous offering of the British heavyweight’s own: “This,” his pre-recorded voice announces, “is the perfect time.”
For the perfect time, though, the people are certainly growing nervous. Some here have better memories than others: there are mutterings about poor Frank Bruno’s eleventh round stoppage by Tim Witherspoon at the old Wembley. British heavyweights of recent vintage, it seems, have done a poor job of laying to rest the ghosts of years past. Though Lennox Lewis was of course one of the dominant heavyweights of the last thirty years, he was never near as beloved by the British public as Bruno, whose failures overwhelmingly outnumbered his successes. The less said about David Haye the better. And while Tyson Fury did beat Wladimir Klitschko in late November 2015, the fight was a dreary spectacle, and Fury’s career since has spiraled hopelessly out of control. Hugh McIlvanney’s words of nearly thirty years ago thus retain some purchase: “The experience of a century tells us that Britain does not breed heavyweight champions of the world.” Anthony Joshua will win, runs the consensus, because he must.
Nonetheless, from the stands, in spite of all this freightage, there appears something wonderfully formless and free-flowing about Joshua. It’s not just the angelic white robe that he wears to the ring, but the way Joshua seems to slip clear of the context which enmeshes him (Wembley, of course, is also the place where Henry Cooper sat Cassius Clay on his backside only to lose a couple of rounds later): nerveless, graceful, calm, the only context for Joshua seems to be himself, his initials blazing in fire either side of him. In this ring-walk, Joshua blesses the tremendous kitsch that surrounds him with tenderness and cool. The crowd is all boozy reverence and hope.
Still, after the first bell rings, a silence doesn’t so much settle over as pierce through the stadium, as the crowd’s gauche worship gives way to the solemnity of prayer. Having been so clearly the B-side in this enormous promotion, the sight of Klitschko, in all his jagged orthodoxy, sticking Joshua with the jab and dropping off him side to side seems to shock the crowd out of its euphoria. This isn’t the ambient silence in which the crowd had surveyed the preliminaries, but a silence taut with the tension of 90,000. Klitschko’s aging, after the first few rounds, seems more a rumor than a fact; the Ukrainian looks—despite his matte beige trunks—uncompromisingly like himself. If anything, his performance is more active than usual, his seriousness having hardened not into carefulness, as is customary, but aggression.
Through three and four, both seem to find a rhythm, taking turns in moving forward and stepping off. Nearby someone insists that Joshua is winning. From up so high, however, it’s hard to tell. A. J. Liebling loved sitting ringside because he could tell his favored fighters what he thought they should do, but from the nosebleeds an entirely different relation to the fight unfolds: speech isn’t so much instructional or prescriptive as perched between commentary and prayer, something that yearns to will the action it is describing into being. Moreover, to this observer at least, a fight that takes place in accordance with one rhythmic set can only serve to suit Klitschko in turn. Through four, Wladimir seems to have found his distance.
And so when Joshua suddenly bridges and breaks the gap at the start of the fifth to sink the Ukrainian to his knees, to abrupt Klitschko’s artfully-constructed stick-and-move refrain, the crowd too seems ready to burst, willing its fighter on with a roar that is guttural and fierce. Even when Klitschko lost to Fury in 2015, that had seemed a result of the Ukrainian’s bewitchment at long range: never once did Fury abridge the distance between them with such force (meaning that the result itself lacked any real satisfaction). Hence the euphoria, the ecstasy: now Klitschko is ready to go, now it’s over, now Joshua wins. Such that Klitschko’s punches, even while they’re landing, are hardly being seen, and Joshua is winning, until suddenly the crowd realizes he’s not, and Joshua’s legs have stiffened, and the crowd is silenced, and the cliff edge is here…
The round ends but the break does nothing: Joshua looks terrible. The result, all of a sudden, is a formality, Klitschko moving a jellied Joshua about the ring to his whim, whacking him with jabs, until a straight right drops the Brit to the floor. Despair murmurs through the crowd, which came to see a coronation, not a beheading. Joshua, in white trunks evoking Ali, seems haunted by the ghosts of British heavyweights past. “Go on Frank Bruno,” someone titters nearby.
Nonetheless, Klitschko, fighting with a focus and above all passion so often lacking in his past, is still Klitschko enough (or Wladimir enough) not to bring things to an absolute close, and so Joshua organizes himself to make it through the end of the round. Breathless, the seventh and eighth pass like a dream, Joshua barely throwing a punch in order to settle his legs beneath him, Klitschko haunting him with all the relentlessness of a metronome. The stadium stinks of beer and nerves and cigarettes, drowning in its own dread.
Thus, even as Joshua returns to himself through the ninth and tenth, the crowd remains locked in terror, seeing punches land that aren’t close, imagining an ending that hasn’t yet come. No one even notices the slight change of pace, or the encroachment by Joshua on Klitschko’s territory which that change entails. Hence the gasp, the shock, the scream, when a Joshua uppercut a minute into the eleventh suddenly straightens Klitschko out as if he were a man struck by lightning, his body whipped, twisted and contorted in a movement so cartoonish that even the most nervous in the top tier cannot but witness the revelation: Klitschko is hurt, Klitschko is hurt, Joshua is winning. A minute and two knockdowns later and, somehow, it is over. Joshua has his victory. Wembley, finally, has its heavyweight champion.
And so Klitschko, too, at last has his legend, having participated in a truly great fight at the very end of his long career. This was, without doubt, the most memorable performance of Klitschko’s at times less than memorable past decade, which has been punctuated as often by periods of ennui as by crashing knockouts. At 41, with a future set as a promoter at K2, Klitschko has earned the rest which surely awaits him. Joshua, now, is no longer the hope but the leader of the division. Already, in the early hours of the morning, a fight with Fury was being discussed. Still, as Klitschko will attest, Joshua would be wise to remember that the present in boxing is always already in the process of slipping away. “One wins and they embrace there while the wind/ Grows louder and the screen begins to fade,” as the poet Jack Spicer once wrote:
Then all the men and boxers bind their wounds
Behind an empty screen, and are afraid.