Saturday 20 January 2018

Fight for the ages ranks among best since Ali era as Joshua breathes life into boxing

Anthony Joshua celebrates after victory over Wladimir Klitschko at Wembley Stadium. Photo: Richard Heathcote/Getty Images
Anthony Joshua celebrates after victory over Wladimir Klitschko at Wembley Stadium. Photo: Richard Heathcote/Getty Images

Paul Hayward

Rising from the floor to win is boxing's most potent storyline. When both fighters return from the horizontal to the upright in a colossal struggle for heavyweight supremacy, history is bound to take a special interest.

Anthony Joshua's victory over Wladimir Klitschko belongs with the best bouts in the marquee weight division since the gilded age of Muhammad Ali, George Foreman and Joe Frazier.

The protective fence around the Ali era can be left in place. There is no need to crowbar Joshua v Klitschko into that kind of bracket. But nor is there any duty to downplay Saturday night's barn-burner out of loyalty to the greats of the past.

It was certainly the best heavyweight fight in the UK since the war, and undeniably the most lucrative. Nobody in that 90,000 Wembley crowd will care about the stats or the money. They are too busy sorting through their emotions.

A kind of disbelieving awe settled on the audience after, first, Klitschko and then Joshua hit the floor for counts of eight in the fifth and sixth rounds, respectively. Already, by mid-fight, it was possible to see an extraordinary battle developing, in which both fighters were able to shake off shattering knock-downs.

Most fights would have ended with either of those setbacks because both fighters were pretty much still out on their feet when they returned to the vertical.

Yet each composed himself, adjusted his tactics and rumbled on to the stunning denouement of the 11th round, where Joshua (pictured) displayed composure beyond his years to devastate Klitschko with a brutal uppercut. From there, he was able to unload the barrage that sent Klitschko down again and finally brought the referee scampering to the Ukrainian's rescue.

In that narrative, you can see the elements that make a truly 'great' fight: the torrid see-sawing that makes a crowd feel sick with adrenalin, excitement, dread and, perhaps, a measure of guilt at being witness to something so utterly dangerous.

These are the factors, too, that connect Joshua-Klitschko to the immortal heavyweight contests. This one had something extra: mutual respect and stirring speeches by the two bruised and swollen protagonists. Few boxing matches are a life lesson to those who watch them. But this one was.

As Klitschko said later: "We both did great, we did a lot for the sport in how we promoted this fight, respectfully treated each other."

The greatest heavyweights of the modern era pre-date a time when the top division descended into mediocrity and chaos. To understand how Joshua's charisma, charm and talent have rescued his trade, you have only to look at the champions of the post-Mike Tyson/Lennox Lewis era.

John Ruiz, Nikolai Valuev, Oleg Maskaev, Samuel Peter, Bermane Stiverne and Charles Martin (who Joshua dethroned) all wore one of the three major belts around the time when Vitali and Wladimir Klitschko were the dominant figures in a denuded age.

Now, the gilded age no longer feels like a vanished era, though there are caveats. Joshua cannot hope to be hit that hard in every fight and reign for 10 years. Joshua deserves the highest praise for coming through multiple storms but his defensive work will have to improve.

Joe Louis v Max Schmeling and other sepia-tinted memories aside, the Thrilla in Manila, the Rumble in the Jungle and the Ali-Frazier fight at Madison Square Garden in March 1971 wear a gloss that can never be rubbed off, because the heavyweight division was so immensely strong back then, and the historical themes so great (chiefly Ali's political activism).

A more sensible comparison would be with the Riddick Bowe-Evander Holyfield fights of the early 1990s, which featured the same ebbing and flowing, the same impossible bravery.

A great showdown tends to require both fighters to be at or near their prime. At 27, and 19 fights in, Joshua is probably short of his, and Klitschko is past his best, despite the valour and technical skill he showed at Wembley.

The power of Joshua-Klitschko was that it felt like the start of something: a potentially long reign for an adored champion after a dramatic spectacle.

Joshua, meanwhile, understood perfectly why the fight had been so gripping, saying: "Sugar Ray Leonard, with all the skill, all the ability he had, said there are times when you have to show character, and go to the trenches. Without that, you'll never go on and do great things in the sport.

"If you get knocked down eight times, you get up nine. That's what life's about."

This is what earns the page in history. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Irish Independent

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