Anthony Joshua & the Reclamation of the Greatest Prize in Sport

Time was the heavyweight championship of the world was the greatest prize in sports and the heavyweight champion of the world bestrode the globe like a colossus; men like Jack Johnson, Jack Dempsey, Joe Louis, Muhammad Ali and, in more recent times, Mike Tyson, captured the public’s imagination and symbolised the times in which they lived and fought. The World Heavyweight Champion was the ultimate sporting symbol, the pinnacle of athletic achievement.

It’s a long time since a heavyweight champion has captured the public’s imagination as the fragmented state of boxing titles, increasing marginalisation of the sport in the age of satellite television and pay per view coverage, and the all-consuming monster of Premier League football devouring column inches with rumour and gossip to the detriment of actual sports coverage, have all conspired to push the heavyweight champion of the world further and further from public consciousness.

Since the lengthy, controversial and chaotic demise of Iron Mike Tyson the heavyweight title has been worn by some tremendous fighters but none of them has managed to achieve the global recognition and acclaim of champions past.

Formidable fighters such as Riddick Bowe and Evander Holyfield waged titanic wars in the ring but failed to dominate the sport in the manner of the aforementioned greats. Lennox Lewis and Wladimir Klitschko were dominant champions that lacked that ‘X factor’ that separates the fighters that dominate their sport from those that truly transcend it.

Which brings me to today, and to Anthony Joshua.

Today’s world is the world of social media, a world that lends itself to instant celebrity and popularity, to unprecendted hype, promotion and self-promotion. As a young champion that understands the modern world in which he operates Anthony Joshua has benefited as much as anyone from the opportunities it provides; a meteoric rise to the top of the heavyweight division achieved in under 20 bouts accompanied by the kind of wealth and acclaim that can satiate even the largest of appetites.

There is a flipside in this age of instant renown: the fate of instantly becoming yesterday’s news, the analogy of tomorrow’s fish and chip paper replaced by haemorrhaging social media followers and hashtags that fail to trend, as exposure as the latest in a line of hype-jobs, of promise over achievement, of style over substance, brings the gravy train to a shuddering halt.

The fact that he had arrived at this defining moment – a challenge in the shape of long-reigning Ukrainian powerhouse Wladimir Klitshcko – largely untested and with a string of questions next to his name, is testament in large part to the devastating power that had accounted for 18 previous opponents in the sum total of only 44 rounds, or approximately two hours of professional ring time. In doing so, many questions remained ahead of Joshua’s stiffest challenge: how well could he take a punch from a top heavyweight? How would he fair against a man that could take his shots and come back with heavy artillery of his own? How would his stamina hold up in a long, drawn out encounter? How big would his heart prove to be if an opponent managed to drag him into the trenches and forced him to dig into his deepest reserves?

At 41 years old and after 17 months out of the ring following defeat to Tyson Fury – a fight in which he looked befuddled and disinterested (Fury of course had a lot to do with that) – Klitshcko entered the ring last night with questions to answer himself: did he still have the desire to take himself into the trenches? Was the loss to Fury a bad night or a sign of the irreversible decline that all top athletes eventually face? Would he have enough left to be able to ask the questions of Joshua that no other opponent had been able to ask?

All of the ingredients added up to the perfect crossroads fight but after all of the hype would the fight deliver and would we end up any closer to the answers for each man?

 In the event the fight exceeded even the highest of expectations and after the final devastating punches had been thrown Anthony Joshua had proven that he is the real deal, answering the doubters’ questions and demonstrating that he has the attributes to justify the expectations placed on his enormous shoulders.

Throughout the 11 rounds of brutal, electrifying action Joshua took some huge punches from a Klitschko that looked as good as he has for years, and for the most part he took them. The exception was in a torrid 6th round when a perfectly delivered booming right hand sent him crashing to the canvas. Rising on unsteady legs and clearly badly hurt it was doubtful Joshua would see out the round with Klitschko having the patience of experience and the luxury of time to apply the finishing touches. That he couldn’t says a lot for Joshua’s ability to regroup when hurt and to fire back with enough to stay in the fight without offering the opportunities that Klitschko would have been only too eager to take.

Such powers of recovery are a significant weapon in the fighter’s armoury – whilst building an undefeated fighter to be an unbeatable monster leads to questions, doubts and accusations of being a ‘hype-job’ when his mortality is revealed, history shows that any fighter can be knocked down and hurt but it takes a true champion to recover and turn things in his favour.

That Joshua turned things in his favour in a fight-ending manner in the 11th round of a bruising, see-saw battle answered questions about his stamina, his will and fighting heart, and his ability to carry concussive power into the final stages of a gruelling fight. Answering such questions in such an affirmative manner makes AJ a terrifying prospect for future opponents – after scaling such heights after so little professional ring time (and a very short, if glittering amateur career) the question is just how good can Anthony Joshua go on to be?

 A huge, powerful, athletically gifted young man, Joshua’s ‘Stay Humble’ persona is no fabrication. A genuinely lovely guy with feet firmly on the ground and an unquenchable desire to learn, improve and continue to hone his craft, surrounded by a first-rate team of professionals to help him maximise every bit of his talent, would seem to suggest that the dangers of hubris and complacency are being held firmly at bay.

Perhaps the bigger question is who can provide sufficient challenge to allow his talent to flourish? Fellow heavyweight title claimant Deontay Wilder has a massive punch and has the size to match Joshua but his lack of technique could prove to be his undoing. And whilst an all-British clash with Tyson Fury is a mouth-watering prospect with Fury’s unorthodox skills and movement having the potential to give any heavyweight fits, the former champion has massive questions of his own to answer as to whether he can get himself in any sort of condition both physically and mentally to even test the division’s new ruler.

With seemingly little limit to what Joshua can go on to achieve immense credit must also be given to the man who passed on the heavyweight torch, Wladimir Klitschko. After over a decade atop the division with a reign built on a style that was crushingly effective whilst often criticised for being crushingly dull, and with credit often countered by memories of the champion’s fragility after conclusive earlier career knockout defeats, Klitschko secured his place in history last night. At the age of 41 he had no right to be able to display the kind of hunger, athleticism and ability to withstand punishment that he did and should he deservedly ride into the sunset he will leave the sport with the memory of a pulsating, give and take battle in which he showed that he could take it every bit as well as he has dished it out over the years.

All fighters need defining fights to secure their place in history and it is perhaps ironic that one of heavyweight’s most dominant champions may end up cementing his legacy by virtue of a defeat.

For Joshua the future appears to hold no limits, and in his destructive hands and golden smile lay the potential for the world heavyweight champion to once again captivate the world and return to the mantle of the greatest prize in sport.

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