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.”