Anthony Joshua and Wladimir Klitschko will unify three of the major belts (WBA, IBF, and IBO) in the heavyweight division on Saturday night in front of 90,000 at Wembley Stadium in London and can be watched live at 4:15 p.m. ET on Showtime. Klitschko, the 41-year-old legend, is looking for redemption after a stunning loss and disappointing performance against Tyson Fury in 2015. Joshua, the undefeated 27-year-old IBF champion, will be looking to prove that his belt and 18-0 record with 18 knockouts has not simply been the product of weak opposition.
That’s what’s at stake for each fighter, but there’s far more at stake for the heavyweight division. For more than a decade, the heavyweight division has taken a back seat to other divisions of smaller fighters that have been far more interesting, mainly the welterweights with Floyd Mayweather, Manny Pacquiao, Timothy Bradley, Miguel Cotto, and now Keith Thurman, Danny Garcia, and others. The heavyweight division was once the premier division in boxing, thanks to names like Dempsey, Louis, Ali, Foreman, Frazier, Holmes, Spinks, Tyson, Holyfield, Lewis, and, early on, Klitschko.
However, from 2006 to 2015, the division came to a grinding halt thanks to the lack of competition for the Klitschko brothers. Wladimir held three belts over that time period before the loss to Fury, while his brother Vitali was the clear next best heavyweight and held the WBC title from 2008 to 2013 when he retired. With the brothers, who refused to fight each other, on top and no one close to them, the heavyweight division fell to the periphery, especially in the United States as there wasn’t a real rooting interest for American fans — Wladimir Klitschko has long made his fighting home in Germany with occasional bouts elsewhere, but rarely in the United States.
That’s why this fight is the most important fight we’ve seen in the division recently. While Fury toppled Wladimir in a stunning result nearly two years ago, it was an ugly, slow-moving fight that did little to excite fans. So, when Fury’s rapid descent from the top began and he failed to stay healthy for a rematch, the boxing world was fine moving on to better things. Now, Joshua, who like Fury is from England, presents a much more exciting in-ring style and can assume the throne atop the division.
While Joshua isn’t American, he has a swagger and style that we haven’t seen from a heavyweight in years outside of Deontay Wilder, the current WBC champ. He doesn’t lean on opponents as much as Klitschko, who loves to tie opponents up and wrestle. Joshua would prefer to keep his hands free because he has devastating power and is at his best from a distance — like Wilder. Showtime boxing analyst Al Bernstein, who will be ringside in London, isn’t sure what the exact impact will be on the division’s popularity in the States, but the excitement for the bout in England and Europe and what it could lead to makes it, for him, the biggest heavyweight fight in at least a decade.
“In terms of its impact and its enormity, when you have 90,000 people there and certainly in Europe — in the United States that’s a good question, because I don’t know what the overall impact it’s having right now — but as an important heavyweight fight I have to think it’s the biggest one of the past decade,” Bernstein said.
This isn’t the finish line, but it’s the first checkpoint of the recent heavyweight resurgence. As Bernstein noted in our conversation, it’s been a long time since there was a significant, young challenger that Klitschko had stepped in the ring against, and not only that, but waiting in the wings is another young star in Wilder.
The heavyweight division is generally not deep,” Bernstein said. “Even when you go back to the great days of it, many times it wasn’t deep, there were three or four or five fighters that were of great merit and then there would be a big drop-off. This past heavyweight division though was especially weak, because you’d get past the two brothers and a lot of times there weren’t a lot of solid people to pick from. The one thing you have to say about Wladimir Klitschko, he has literally fought everyone he could fight. The problem was, that there were not that many great fighters for him to fight.
“So, yes, that’s why this kind of takes on an importance. You’re right, the heavyweights on top of the division seem to want to fight each other. [Klitschko] fought Tyson Fury, now he’s fighting Joshua. Joshua and Wilder say they want to fight each other. Joseph Parker certainly wants to fight one of them and he knows that’s where the big money is.”
Those final few scenarios are where we will finally start to see the heavyweight division come to life in the U.S. again. Wilder is a star, who simply needs a dance partner that can make a big, exciting fight happen. The closest we’ve come to that was his first title win against Bermane Stiverne in a thrilling 12-round bout in Las Vegas that he dominated. Since, the best scheduled opponent for Wilder, Alexander Povetkin, has twice failed drug tests, forcing Deontay to turn elsewhere and continue to knock out lesser opponents in increasingly stylish fashion.
However, with Joshua, a mega-fight in the heavyweight division — a potentially pay-per-view quality matchup — could be legitimately on the horizon. For that to happen, Joshua has to get past Klitschko for the belts in order to set up an eventual matchup with Wilder. There are a few questions he will have to answer in this fight in order to pull off the win over Klitschko, even in his older age and diminishing skills.
First, is whether Joshua can handle the stage. He’s fought in front of large crowds in England, but he’ll be on the biggest stage possible at Wembley, against a legend in the sport and the toughest opponent of his life, and he will have the vast majority of the stadium rooting for him. A home ring advantage is great, but for a young fighter, it can also be a bit of a curse if he isn’t careful. Fans will want to see Joshua’s 19th knockout in 19 fights, and if he goes hunting for that, the veteran Klitschko will be waiting to set a trap for him. Bernstein isn’t too concerned that Joshua will abandon his game plan, though, and actually expects Joshua to come out with a great deal of patience to begin the fight.
I think Joshua will not start out aggressively in this fight — I don’t think he’ll be timid, he’ll throw punches — but I don’t think he’s going to be a wild attacker by any stretch,” Bernstein said. “Joshua generally [stays with the game plan]. If you look back at all of his fights, like the Breazeale fight recently where Breazeale would not go down and he had hit him with big punches, he very much stuck to the game plan. Even when he gets you hurt, he doesn’t get ahead of himself.”
That will be important for Joshua’s success. The second question is whether he’s ready to handle Klitschko’s tricks in the ring, where he loves to wear opponents down in the middle rounds by leaning on them and holding them, which saps energy trying to stay upright and free yourself from his clasp. Whether he can execute or not is yet to be seen, but at least Joshua has a plan.
“The holding is natural,” Joshua said on a recent conference call. “But what do you do when someone is holding? How do you fight them off? You bring in the upper cut, you whip in a right hand to the body until the ref tells you to break. It’s a fight so I can’t prevent the holding but it makes it interesting to see what fighter does when they’re being held. When I’m being held I’m just going to throw the right hand to the body, left hook to the body and that will start taking the wind out of Klitschko.”
Third, is whether his power can affect Klitschko in a way we haven’t seen in over a decade. Klitschko hasn’t been knocked out since 2004, and his chin and stamina in the ring are legendary. Joshua has been extremely confident in his ability to wear down the older fighter on Saturday throughout this process, and eventually finish him for a 19th knockout because he feels, as many do, that he’s the strongest fighter Klitschko’s faced in years.
Whatever happens, for at least one day, the heavyweight division will be back in the spotlight. The heavyweights are the precipice of something special with Joshua, Wilder, and even Parker a tier below. Saturday will be the first checkpoint to determine whether the youth movement continues marching forward.
A Joshua win would be a step towards the future of the division, accelerating the process of booking a mega-fight with Wilder that could really invigorate American fight fans. A Klitschko win tells the world that the old guard isn’t giving up just yet and that the heavyweight division’s youth movement still has a ways to go to topple the division’s long-time king.