Sunday 16 December 2018

Little storm of frustrated machismo over 10th round stoppage highlights rising expectations around Anthony Joshua

A general view of the action during the fight between Anthony Joshua and Carlos Takam for the World Heavyweight Title at Principality Stadium on October 28, 2017 in Cardiff, Wales. (Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images)
A general view of the action during the fight between Anthony Joshua and Carlos Takam for the World Heavyweight Title at Principality Stadium on October 28, 2017 in Cardiff, Wales. (Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images)

Paul Hayward

Anthony Joshua gave them 10 entertaining rounds and plenty of gore, but still they booed and moaned about value for money on their TV screens. Britain’s world heavyweight champion said of his previously pristine trunks and boots, “everything was white, now it’s pink,” from Carlos Takam’s blood, and advised us: “Look at the guy’s face.”

A 10th round stoppage that saved Takam from a ferocious barrage that was building ominously upset some former fighters, whose opinions carry weight, of course, but come from the well of courage and stubbornness that sustains their trade. Parts of the crowd resented the intervention because they had been denied the thing they came to see: a man spreadeagled, beaten unconscious. The referee decided instead that Takam was slipping into the danger zone and stepped in to save him.

Ethics aside, this little storm of frustrated machismo from some in the Principality Stadium is a measure of how expectations have risen around the best British heavyweight since Lennox Lewis, who is still learning not to be drawn into brawls when a disciplined application of his skills would serve him better.

Over two fights, against Wladimir Klitschko and now a super-sub summoned 12 days ago, Joshua has fought in front of 160,000 spectators. In Cardiff, 78,000 greeted him as they would the Wales rugby team trotting out for the start of the Six Nations Championship.

No fighter could experience this without noticing an extra burden of responsibility - to entertain, win, knock people out. Joshua will take those pressures into unification bouts in 2018 against Joseph Parker and Deontay Wilder. Neither has his natural talent, but the Takam fight told him that everyone is dangerous at world title level, because everyone wants what you have.

Joshua acknowledged, but also seemed discomforted by, the bloodlust of people who thought Takam should have been bludgeoned to the ground when he had already taken three big shots and was open to more.

“I don’t care if I spark him out, if it goes 12 rounds, if the ref ends it,” Joshua said after his 20th straight win. “The pressure comes because people want to see the fighters I fight unconscious every time. I was delivering. I put him down, I hurt him now and again, I slashed both his eyes. You should see my shorts and boots. They were pure white. Now they’re pink from all the blood. Carlos was showing the ref signs that hie eyes were nearly hanging off from the cuts. They were deep. But when the ref stopped it, he showed he wanted to carry on. That’s a fighter’s instinct.

“I do understand people want to see him unconscious. I was trying. The ref’s job is to let the fighter live on another day. You know where I’m coming from?”

The ref’s job is to let the fighter live another day. And Takam will, because his reputation was enhanced. With his low, tight, bobbing style, he presented unexpected difficulties for Joshua, who had trained for the bigger, more conventional Kubrat Pulev.

In true Evander Holyfield style, Takam bored up into Joshua’s face with his head in the second round and smashed into his nose - a collision (accidental, Joshua thought) which shaped the rest of the fight. It unnerved the defending champion and ignited his instinct to turn the occasion into a street fight - an urge his trainer Robert McCracken warned against. The instruction was not to get “cocky” against an adversary who came into the ring with the classic outsider’s objective. “All they want to do is land one shot,” Joshua said, not only of Takam but the army of journeymen who hope to get lucky when the big phone call comes.

Takam’s eyes were minced by the time the stoppage came. Twice - in the fifth and ninth rounds - the ring doctor had inspected his cuts to determine whether he could continue. Joshua was bloodied, roughed up, tested, and handed a useful lesson in fighting opponents of Takam’s height and style, yet may of those watching still demanded a repeat of the Klitschko fight - an all-time heavyweight classic - as if this is Joshua’s national duty from now on.

Eddie Hearn, his promoter, spoke of “the pressure this young man’s under when he fights” and the “expectancy of the country on his shoulders.” In the other corner - an opponent looking to land “that one sweet haymaker,” in Joshua’s terminology, and take “the belts to France.” After 20 fights - not many for one in his elevated position - Joshua now lives in a world where “I can’t afford to mess up.”

True, “everything is bubbling nicely for 2018,” but without self-discipline, Joshua says he might be “reckless” in his lifestyle. The cultivation of his fame since the Klitschko fight brings a balancing obligation not to lose the dedication that allowed him to reach that pinnacle in the first place. Huge international fights, especially in America, will help him retain his focus.

In the early hours of Sunday, when a reflective mood had set in, Joshua said: “Heavyweight boxing is madness. It’s different. Look at the guy’s face after. Heavyweight boxing is crazy, you’ve got to be tough. People want to see him unconscious. It’s crazy, like a gladiatorial arena.” Hearn chipped in, “the public want to see those [knock-out] shots. ” And Joshua said again, correctly: “The ref’s job is to let the fighter live another day.”

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