LONDON — Sub-50 degrees, rain whipping sideways and still some 80,000 Anthony Joshua fans crammed into Wembley Stadium on Saturday, warmed by overcoats, cheap beer and blind passion for Britain’s favorite (boxing) son.
Ever been to a Joshua fight?
Think a soccer match, but instead of the fan attention split among a collection of players on the pitch, the ear-splitting roars are aimed in one direction.
Joshua gave the British faithful a scare on Saturday, surviving a first-round buckling and a busted nose to rally and stop Alexander Povetkin in the seventh round of his heavyweight title defense. For weeks, Joshua’s promoter, Eddie Hearn, swore Povetkin would be one of Joshua’s toughest tests, pleading with reporters to ignore Povetkin’s age (39) and PED history (he was popped twice for banned substances in 2016), and remember that the one blemish on his record came against Wladimir Klitschko in his prime.
And Hearn was right. Povetkin came out swinging early, uncorking powerful hooks and head-snapping uppercuts that put Joshua on the defensive. Against Klitschko — whom Joshua retired just 17 months earlier — Joshua was forced to climb off the deck and stop a legend. Against Povetkin, the challenge felt nearly as formidable: unlock an unpredictable opponent before the scorecards got away from him.
In the seventh, Joshua did. A thudding right hand midway through the round backed up Povetkin, a left hook moments later dazed him and a nose-splitting straight right sent him crashing to the canvas. Credit Povetkin — he crawled into the corner, nearly fell out of the ring but was able to rise before the 10 count. But Joshua, sensing blood, swarmed Povetkin with punches, forcing the referee to step in and sending a stuffed stadium into a frenzy.
In boxing, there’s a tendency to drool over potential, only to be disappointed. On Joshua’s undercard on Saturday was David Price. In 2012, David Price was Joshua — or close to it. He was a supersized Olympic medalist with crushing power. He started his career 15-0, before journeyman Tony Thompson flattened him twice. He was knocked out three more times in the next four years, and a once promising career may have ended Saturday at Wembley, when, with his body battered and his arm in pain, Price quit on his stool after the fourth round of a do-or-die fight against Sergey Kuzmin.
To many, Price is a cautionary tale.
On Saturday, Joshua (22-0) proved yet again that no one should question him anymore.
How big of a star is Joshua? If Canelo Alvarez is considered boxing’s biggest star in North America (he is), Joshua is arguably its biggest name worldwide. He’s the unified heavyweight champion with fans from eastern China to India’s shores. He could fight anyone, anywhere and likely draw massive crowds, and at 28 he is just hitting his prime.
How big can Joshua get?
Wait until he fights Deontay Wilder.
Joshua and Wilder are the heavyweight division’s Alvarez and Gennady Golovkin, bruising big men on a collision course. Negotiations have been tense, fueled by the kind of social-media trash talk that has become a hallmark of modern-day boxing negotiations. Joshua already has an April return date at Wembley booked, but no opponent signed to face him. Wilder will return to the ring in December against Tyson Fury in a fight that could make him a bigger global star.
So there is really only one question worth asking: Is Joshua ready to fight Deontay Wilder?
“You can answer that question,” Joshua said, shrugging. “You put yourself in my shoes. I’ve got all the belts, I proved myself tonight … put yourself in my shoes. If someone said, ‘Do you want to fight Wilder next?’, you would probably say yes. All the fans across the world would say yes, and I’m saying yes as well.”
— Chris Mannix (@ChrisMannixYS) September 22, 2018
Still, Wilder would say its Joshua avoiding the showdown. Wilder says he offered Joshua a $50 million guarantee (he did), offered to take a $15 million flat fee and said he would hop the first thing burning to the UK. There’s a reasonable argument to be made that it’s Joshua ducking the fight.
So what needs to happen to make Joshua-Wilder in April?
“He needs to win in December, and then we need to sit down and get the little bits out of the way,” Joshua said. “We’ve been in negotiation since after the [Carlos] Takam fight last year … the thing is, there is a lot of back and forth. But ultimately we’re two fighters in the same division, champions at the same time. At the end of the day, we have to fight each other. It would be silly of us not to.”
Indeed. The heavyweight division, long dormant, is surging back, and Joshua and Wilder are at the top of it. The unquestioned heavyweight kingpin, a title once held by the likes of Muhammad Ali, Mike Tyson and Lennox Lewis, is meaningful again. Joshua has retired Klitschko, stopped the durable Povetkin and proved he could overcome adversity once again.
“When you look at the résumé of Anthony Joshua,” Hearn said, “he’s quite incredible.”
There is just one challenge remaining. Joshua is boxing’s money man, so he calls all the shots. He says he wants Wilder to be his next opponent. He should accept no other.
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