If boxing’s heavyweight division is to regain its long-lost gravitas over the coming years, the starting point could arrive as quickly as this Saturday.
No fighter carries greater expectation for getting the fight game’s big men back to a position of prominence than Anthony Joshua and neither does any other pugilist possess such a striking immediate opportunity.
Joshua takes on Wladimir Klitschko at Wembley Stadium, the English capital’s national soccer arena, in a blockbuster clash that will be witnessed by a live crowd of 90,000 and serves as a junction for the division.
Klitschko, the giant Ukrainian, ruled the heavyweights by rattling off 22 consecutive wins over 11 years before losing his crown in late 2015 to Tyson Fury, who subsequently battled mental health and drug issues and has not fought since.
That opens the door for Britain’s Joshua, the 2012 Olympic champion, to potentially add the vacant WBA and IBO titles to his IBF belt, improve upon his perfect record of 18 knockouts from 18 pro fights and potentially start a long reign of his own as the man to beat.
“If you were going to cast a movie role of the world heavyweight champion then it would look something very similar to Anthony Joshua,” Stephen Espinoza, executive vice president of Showtime, told USA TODAY Sports. “Having someone as physically imposing as that, this larger than life figure who looks like a cartoon character or a superhero, is the kind of thing that can transcend sports.”
Showtime has made a significant investment in Joshua, signing an exclusive, multi-fight United States broadcast deal with him in 2016. The premium channel won the rights to broadcast the fight live in the U.S., starting at 4:15 p.m. ET, with HBO re-broadcasting the fight Saturday at 11 p.m. ET/PT. If Joshua gets past Klitschko, they hope that will stretch through a unification clash with heavy-hitting WBC champ Deontay Wilder of Alabama later this year, and beyond.
Suddenly, the heavyweights could be among the most talked-about categories in the sport once more, perhaps regaining the mythical iconic status of being a haven for the biggest and baddest brawlers on the planet.
“Maybe Father Time has caught up with (Klitschko),” Joshua said. “I am not taking anything for granted and I am certainly not taking him lightly. But I truly believe that now is my time. And my time . . . is going to last for a long time.”
Even Klitschko admitted that it is easier to drum up interest in heavyweight fights when the result is seen as something other than a foregone conclusion. That was long the case with both himself and his brother Vitali, who also held versions of the heavyweight title between 2003 and 2012 and went undefeated throughout that entire period. The brothers were never going to fight each other, there was no one around to give them meaningful challenges, and therefore the division stagnated, prompting criticism and gloomy reminiscences about better days.
“I understand why people said it was boring,” Klitschko said. “When someone is winning all the time people are going to say that. For the fans they want to see upsets and something that is unpredictable. But as a fighter, of course, you don’t want to stop winning.”
There is no certainty to this fight, not with Joshua possessing explosive knockout power but having been untested against someone as technically proficient as Klitschko, who in turn may fight with more freedom and possibly desperation now that the title he was defending all this time has gone.
“Wladimir will be hungry again,” former heavyweight champion Lennox Lewis said.
While Klitschko’s greatest success came after his style took a turn towards the defensive following some early career upset defeats, Joshua breathes fire and oozes flash. At 27, he is relatively young for a heavyweight, and the consensus is that he has significant improvement left in the tank.
Conquering the heavyweight world ultimately means conquering America, and that is a goal that both the fighter and his promoter Eddie Hearn have both earmarked. Showtime is firmly on board, and it would be no shock if Joshua’s future includes both major stadium fights in his homeland and headlining acts in Las Vegas or New York. For now, though, Saturday is all that is on his mind.
“Boxing is full of people who like to go out there and make big prophecies before coming up empty,” Joshua said. “I am about fulfilling achievements, not predicting them.”
Even more than his punching ability, it is Joshua’s look that has television executives and boxing influencers salivating. He has a string of lucrative endorsement deals that could push his earnings from the Klitschko fight to $15 million.
Hearn describes him as the “most marketable boxer in the world”, with deals ranging from clothing to energy drinks to electronics.
Joshua’s persona, combined with the fact that there is no language barrier, has led Espinoza to believe the fighter could become a legitimate crossover celebrity in the States, regardless of his nationality.
“I see no reason at all why he can’t make that step in the U.S., and take his personality and popularity well beyond just boxing, or even sports,” Espinoza added. “There is always going to be a special cache to being heavyweight champion of the world. What grabs the public is sometimes about timing, but more than anything it is about the right guy, with that special factor that draws people in. I feel he has it, and I’ve felt that way for a while now.”
Those are big expectations, but to this point Joshua has shown he can carry the hype neatly on those broad and bulging shoulders. Saturday is his chance to formally end one era and begin a new one.
Source: Martin Rogers , USA TODAY