The Brand-New Biggest Star in Boxing

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Anthony Joshua, left, had youth and a ferocious crowd on his side during last Saturday’s boxing match, against Wladimir Klitschko, right.Anthony Joshua, left, had youth and a ferocious crowd on his side during last Saturday’s boxing match, against Wladimir Klitschko, right.CreditPHOTOGRAPH BY RICHARD HEATHCOTE / GETTY

A year and a half ago, the world got a new heavyweight boxing champion, when an unpredictable Englishman named Tyson Fury found a way to wrangle Wladimir Klitschko, the stalwart Ukrainian. Klitschko, along with his older brother, Vitali, had ruled the heavyweight division for over a decade—it was an impressive reign but not always an entertaining one, especially since the quality of their competition was widely judged to be poor. Fury’s victory was both a big upset and, for many boxing fans, a pleasant surprise. Finally, the sport had a new star: an outrageous and troubled giant who seemed to endorse the old-fashioned idea that the heavyweight champion of the world ought to be not just an athlete but a fighter and a character, too.

The first problem with Fury, though, is that he isn’t very entertaining when he is actually boxing—his fight against Klitschko, in particular, was a rather ugly and indecisive spectacle, one that became exciting only in retrospect, as fans realized that the Klitschkos’ reign was over. The second problem with Fury: he doesn’t seem interested in boxing at all. Fury dethroned Klitschko on November 28, 2015, and he hasn’t fought since. He twice pulled out of scheduled rematches with Klitschko, and at one point announced his retirement, asserting—accurately, perhaps, but not very encouragingly—that boxing was “a pile of shit.”

Klitschko hadn’t fought since losing to Fury, either, until this past Saturday night, when he made his comeback during one of the biggest boxing events of the decade: a match against Anthony Joshua, from England, a twenty-seven-year-old Olympic gold medalist who had become, in Fury’s absence, his country’s great heavyweight hope. Joshua was impressive but more or less untested: he had faced eighteen opponents in his career, most of them obscure, and knocked all of them out. It was clear that Klitschko would be Joshua’s toughest opponent yet. Still, boxing fans tend to be cynics and pessimists, and so most of us were reserving the right to say, afterward, that Joshua had been overhyped, or that Klitschko, who is forty-one, was simply too old.

There are good reasons, of course, for fans’ cynicism and pessimism. The sport has been carved up by competing corporate fiefdoms that determine which fights will happen and (more often) which won’t. Too often, viewers are asked to pay for matches that look like mismatches: this coming weekend, for example, the Mexican star Saúl (Canelo) Álvarez will fight, on pay-per-view, against Julio César Chávez, Jr., the erratic son of a Mexican legend. To watch the fight will cost you something like seventy dollars, while oddsmakers are pricing Álvarez, the favorite, at about minus six-fifty, meaning that a bettor would have to lay six hundred and fifty dollars on him in order to win a hundred dollars. The event is being promoted, brazenly and nonsensically, as a protest against President Trump’s immigration policies.

By contrast, last Saturday’s fight was the kind of matchup that the fans of other sports get to take for granted: a meeting of two of the best in the world, on relatively even terms. It was also broadcast live on Showtime—which has replaced HBO as the premier boxing network—instead of being offered on pay-per-view. It wouldn’t quite be accurate to say that the true heavyweight championship of the world was at stake. (When a champion abdicates, as Fury did, a new championship lineage can be created through a match between the top two contenders, as determined by general consensus. But often, as in this case, it takes a while for such a consensus to emerge.) Still, there was no question that the winner of Saturday’s fight would own the most impressive victory in the recent history of the division: either an old legend would be restored or a new one would be established.

Wladimir Klitschko is six feet six. He often frustrates shorter opponents by extending his jab and keeping it extended, like an older brother planting his hand on his little brother’s forehead. Against Fury, who is taller than him, Klitschko kept getting tangled up and pushed around. And against Joshua, who is also six-six, Klitschko once again struggled to establish dominance. Joshua also had youth and a ferocious crowd on his side—the fight was held at Wembley Stadium, in London, before about ninety thousand fans. What Klitschko had was wiliness, along with his jab, which has long been one of the sport’s most effective weapons.

Like most great fights, Klitschko-Joshua was a few different fights at once. Early in the fifth of twelve scheduled rounds, Klitschko began to reel and skip backward around the ring, with Joshua following; Joshua finally knocked him down with a left hook and an ensuing barrage, and, as the referee moved in to separate the boxers and begin his count, Joshua raised his hands, either to show that he had stopped punching or to claim victory. Perhaps it was both. Some fans were probably beginning to wonder whether there were any other Ukrainian cities in need of a brawny mayor.

Klitschko beat the count, though, and even as Joshua continued to punch and chase him, he seemed, shockingly, to recover. By the end of the fifth round, Joshua was staggering and gasping and holding onto Klitschko; it was as if Joshua’s barrage had cost him more than it had cost his opponent. In the sixth, Klitschko landed a short, brutal straight right, and Joshua collapsed onto his back, rolling onto his hands and knees, and then returning to his feet before the count was over; he looked much woozier than Klitschko had looked in the round before.

Somehow, Joshua, too, survived. Already this was a good fight: both boxers had shown that they were vulnerable to a hard punch, and both had shown that they could recover. What made it a great fight was the way that Joshua, unaccountably energized, set upon Klitschko in the eleventh. We later learned that, according to the judges, Joshua was slightly ahead by then, but Klitschko could have earned a draw by winning the eleventh and twelfth rounds. What transpired instead was much more exciting: Joshua snapped Klitschko’s head up with a right uppercut, and then battered him down onto the canvas. Klitschko got up, but Joshua did it again, standing his opponent up against the ropes and then knocking him down. Klitschko beat the count again, but by now he was attracting skeptical attention from the referee, and when Joshua trapped Klitschko in a corner, the referee stopped the fight, declaring Joshua the winner—the heavyweight king, the not at all undisputed champion, the brand-new biggest star in boxing—by technical knockout.

Joshua was gracious in victory, praising Klitschko and delivering, in his post-fight interview, an uplifting message that seemed to have been cribbed from inspirational Instagram memes. Klitschko is contractually entitled to a rematch, but he didn’t say outright whether he wanted one; on Tuesday, he announced, on Twitter, “I’ll be back!” It might be even more fun to watch Joshua take on, instead, Deontay Wilder, the flashy but flawed American heavyweight. Another possibility is Luis Ortiz, an imposing fighter from Cuba who is still living down a positive test, in 2014, for nandrolone, a banned steroid. And, finally, there is that other British heavyweight whose reign started and, it turned out, ended on the same night in 2015. In the ring after the fight, Joshua said, “Tyson Fury—where you at, baby?”

Naturally, Fury replied that he was ready to fight immediately. “I am sure I can beat A. J. with one arm tied behind my back,” he said.

Joshua vs. Fury would be, probably, the biggest boxing match in British history: a surefire spectacle, even if it ended up being a rout or a bore or a fiasco or a much hyped, repeatedly postponed match that never actually happened. Boxing fans would not be surprised by any of those scenarios. Boxing fans were probably more surprised, in fact, by what happened on Saturday night, when a heavyweight championship fight was as great as it was supposed to be, and when it was possible to believe, at least for an hour or so, that Fury had been wrong, and that boxing was the greatest sport in the world—or, at the very least, not a pile of shit.