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Anthony Joshua and the Return of the Heavyweights

For virtually the entirety of the 21st century, boxing's heavyweight division has been in the doldrums, reduced to a small fraction of its cultural importance thanks to the rise of the Klitschko brothers, who dominated the field for over a decade behind a stiff jab and a strong right. Possessing the size of NBA power forwards, but the agility and athleticism of offensive linemen, the reign of the Klitschkos was largely defined by boring, one-sided fights against weak and irrelevant opposition. Klitschko, both Wladimir and Vitaly, belong in the Boxing Hall of Fame, but when I think back on their reign, I will more than likely summon the memory of the February 2008 night Wladimir entered Madison Square Garden and coasted to a lopsided decision over the hapless Sultan Ibragimov. The event was a flop, and thereafter Wladimir spent most of the rest of his career filling soccer stadiums in Germany while the heavyweight division deservedly withered on the vine in the US. I certainly don't want to impugn the pleasures of Eastern European fight fans, but on the level of pure aethetics, the Klitschko era was a sad mockery of the classic heavyweight spectacles of the 1970s and 1990s.

With the emergence of the British gold medalist Anthony Joshua, and the American bronze medalist Deontay Wilder, the swagger is now back to this division, though one can legitimately question whether the resumes of these fighters will ever have any chance of competing with the Foremans or the Holyfields of years past. Joshua, a 6-foot, 6-inch, 250 pound specimen of pure athleticism and crippling power, delivered a knockout of 39-year-old Alexander Povetkin before a packed Wembley Stadium last night. Though he struggled to assert himself in the early rounds, and was momentarily buckled by a Povetkin missile at the end of the first, Joshua closed the fight in spectacular fashion, with a fusillade of blows in the seventh punctuated by one of the most spectacular right hands of recent years. Prior to that moment, Povetkin acquitted himself well, and some have taken this as a sign that the undefeated Joshua is particularly vulnerable. Indeed, a certain caution seems to have entered Joshua's game ever since he was knocked down by Klitschko more than a year ago, before rising up off the canvas to take out the Ukrainian legend and end his career. At times last night, Povetkin, deploying odd angles to befuddle Joshua, seemed to be having the better night, winning perhaps four of the first six rounds. But, particularly in the heavyweight division, power often seems to trump all else, and Povetkin was thoroughly undone in the seventh, rendering the scorecards meaningless. It was a formula for victory that seemed to be ripped from the pages of Deontay Wilder, the American champion whose boxing skills have been rightly questiond, but whose powerful right hands are unrivalled in the sport. Wilder, undefeated in 41 fights (with 40 knockouts) lacks many marquee names on his resume, but has shown resiliency and a solid chin in his highest profile victories, particularly his knockout of Luis Ortiz earlier in the year. If he gets past former lineal champion Tyson Fury in December (a big if, given Fury's undefeated record, astonishing size (he is 6 foot nine) and solid ring skills), then it will be incumbent upon Joshua and Wilder to finally meet in the ring and to give the sport its first undisputed champion since the days of Lennox Lewis. For my money, Joshua-Wilder is the best potential fight in boxing now, not because either fighter is historically elite, but simply because the outcome is truly uncertain, and the range of possibilities quite wide. Given the resumes of each fighter, it would be a shock if it didn't end in a devastating knockout. If they meet and deliver the goods, then the heavyweight division will be returned to at least a sizeable portion of its former glory. And if Wilder should conquer both Fury and Joshua in the next few months, he would finally achieve the superstar status that has evaded every American heavyweight since Evander Holyfield. Even if he doesn't prove up to that task, the mere possibility has taken the heavyweight division up several rungs from its absolute nadir in the early 2000s. And that is a cause for celebration.

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