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Fight #37: Anthony Joshua vs. Wladimir Klitschko

Fight #37: Anthony Joshua vs. Wladimir Klitschko, April 29, 2017, Wembley Stadium, London, United Kingdom

When Lennox Lewis retired following his victory over Vitali Klitschko in 2003, Lewis's longtime trainer, Emanuel Steward, took on a new and difficult assignment, Vitali's younger brother Wladimir. Wlad had won a portion of the heavyweight championship back in 2000, but had then suffered knockout defeats to Corrie Sanders and Lamon Brewster, losses that had left Klitschko with a reputation for having a weak chin and a lack of heart.

When Steward took over Wlad Klitschko's corner, he turned the 6'6" Ukrainian into an almost indestructible weapon, at least in the context of the post-Lewis heavyweight division. Taking advantage of a long and powerful left jab, Klitschko became a highly risk-averse fighter who employed a "jab-and-grab" style of controlling fights from distance and then grabbing his opponents after exchanges. Using his superior size to wear down the opposition, Klitschko could then finish them off with a spectacular and accurate straight right hand that was one of the hardest punches in the sport. With this new approach, Klitschko seized control of the IBO, IBF, and WBO heavyweight belts thanks to 22 consecutive victories. He never became undisputed champion because the sole remaining WBC belt was held by his brother Vitali, and there's just no way that two siblings can step into a boxing ring and fight. Think of the one-sided affairs that the Williams sisters have given us in tennis, and now add in that in this case, it would be brothers seeking to physically destroy each other, and it's easy to see why the two Klitschkos never fought.

But man, Wladimir Klitschko's fights were boring. He was almost always taller than the men he fought, and he used this incredibly cautious style to win one-sided and frankly uninteresting fights over a range of contenders that appear more and more undistinguished as time has passed. I still remember Klitschko's 2008 Madison Square Garden championship fight against Sultan Ibragimov, one of the very worst fights I have ever seen in my life, as Klitschko won every round with a repetitive jab and never even really tried for the knockout. For his part, Steward seemed to understand that Klitschko needed to become more entertaining, telling Wladimir during that Ibragimov fight, "You have to knock him out. If you don't knock him out, it's bad." But Klitschko, perhaps with the memories of his previous knockout defeats still fresh in his mind, stuck to his cautious ways and continued to rack up the victories. I don't think it is an exaggeration to say that from about 2006 to 2015, Klitschko never took a single serious punch from an opponent.

That changed in 2015, when Klitschko finally faced a fighter even taller than he was, Britain's 6'9" Tyson Fury. Fury outmoved and outboxed Klitschko over 12 rounds, winning an easy decision, in what was otherwise a pretty forgettable fight. Steward wasn't there for this fight, having died suddenly three years earlier. After that loss to Fury, Klitschko came back to face Anthony Joshua in 2017, in an attempt to regain the heavyweight title (after his victory in 2015, Fury briefly retired). At the time of this fight, Joshua was 17-0 and the consensus top heavyweight in the world, holding both the WBA and IBO heavyweight belts.

This was a matchup between a 27-year-old Joshua, the gold medalist at the 2012 London Olympics, and the 41-year-old Klitschko, the gold medalist at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. Joshua, then and now, boasts an incredibly sculpted 6'6" physique, but had previously shown a bit of a weak chin, which made Klitschko a dangerous opponent, as the fight would underscore.

Joshua controlled the early rounds of the fight, as both boxers used a high guard to snap jabs at each other. For the first three rounds or so, Klitschko looked to have a bit of ring rust, or perhaps was just showing his age, and Joshua gradually gained more confidence to start throwing power punches in addition to jabs. In the fifth round, Joshua caught Klitschko with a left hook that staggered the former champion, then blitzed him with a barrage of punches that finally sent Klitschko to the canvas. The crowd of 80,000 at Wembley Stadium roared in anticipation of a knockout, but Joshua had miscalculated. Weary from throwing so many punches, Joshua was suddenly gasping for breath, and rather than finishing the fight, he nearly got finished himself from a string of straight right hands that had Joshua staggering against the ropes, nearly out on his feet.

One minute into round six, Klitschko nailed Joshua with a hard, straight right hand, sending the Englishman tumbling to the canvas. Joshua got to his feet before the count of 10, but he looked to be very unsteady and with two minutes still to go in the round, Klitschko had plenty of time to finish him off. But he didn't. Was it just a simple fact of age, of Klitschko at 41 no longer having the endurance to take the fight to Joshua? Or was it that old Klitschko cautionary mentality, that reticence of which Steward had tried to cure Klitschko? Maybe it was a combination of both. It's possible that a younger Klitschko would have finished Joshua off right there, but it may be that this was the same Klitschko who couldn't knock out a tomato can like Sultan Ibragimov nine years earlier.

Whatever the case, Klitschko's failure to close the show in Round 6 allowed Joshua to gradually recover and get his legs back underneath him. He lost the 7th and 8th rounds, as he threw out a lazy jab just to get his stamina back. By the 9th round, Joshua was stepping into his punches again, and Klitschko once more found himself in a war with the younger fighter, throwing straight right hands in the hopes that he could put Joshua down again.

Instead, at the start of the 11th round, Joshua hit Klitschko with a hard right hand, then followed it up with a left hook. With Klitschko hurt, Joshua was more measured in his follow-up attack, landing a vicious right uppercut about thirty seconds later that sent Klitschko down. The Ukrainian struggled to his feet, only to be knocked down again with another uppercut. By this point, Klitschko was a thoroughly beaten fighter, but he pulled himself off the canvas one more time. Joshua then drove Klitschko into the ropes, and after the former champion took several shots to the head, the referee stepped in to stop it. It was Wladimir Klitschko's last stand. He ended his career with a record of 64-5, and countless questions about how he might have done against the heavyweight beasts of earlier eras.

This fight, held just four years ago, is the most recent on this list, and that's a good thing. I think in most cases you don't really know the significance of a fight until time has passed. At the time, this appeared to be a kind of passing of the torch in the heavyweight division. But subsequent events have thrown doubt on that assessment. Two years after this fight, Anthony Joshua would be knocked out by a huge underdog named Andy Ruiz. Though Joshua would later avenge that loss, it is still not clear whether he is a great heavyweight or just an underachiever whose biggest win came against a 41-year-old, past-his-prime and overly cautious Klitschko. We will know more soon enough, whenever COVID passes and Wembley Stadium can once more be filled to capacity for Tyson Fury, now out of retirement and coming off a knockout win over Deontay Wilder, to fight Anthony Joshua. The winner of that showdown will be the first man in decades to be the undisputed heavyweight champion of the world.




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