The biggest heavyweight fight since Lewis-Tyson takes place on Saturday at Wembley Stadium in London as British phenom Anthony Joshua (18-0, 18 KOs) faces former heavyweight king Wladimir Klitschko (64-4, 53 KOs). This matchup presents the ultimate crossroads fight – the young lion against the grizzled veteran. Klitschko, 41, lost his title belts to Tyson Fury in 2015 and enters the ring coming off of a 17-month layoff. Joshua, 27, will be making the third defense of his title belt, with Klitschko representing by far his toughest opponent to date.
Both fighters possess one-punch knockout ability. Although Joshua has the advantages of youth and athleticism, Klitschko has vast experience in big fights and a bevy of veteran tricks. Will Saturday represent an official changing of the guard in the heavyweight division or will Klitschko reaffirm his Hall of Fame status in the ring? Will Joshua be exposed as a pretender to the heavyweight throne or will he emerge as the next great champion in boxing's glamour division? The possibilities are mouth-watering.
Below are the keys to the fight. My prediction will be at the end of the article.
1. What does Wlad have left?
It's no secret that Wlad looked like an old fighter against Fury. Unable to consistently pull the trigger and flummoxed by Fury's style, Klitschko, a dominating force for over a decade in the division, suddenly was mortal. Now, to be fair to Wlad, it must be said that Fury had a brilliant game plan. He selectively engaged and also confused Wlad by switching stances. Fury also used his wide reach to thwart Klitschko's jab.
Although Joshua possesses height, reach and a great jab, he hasn't risen to his status in the sport by being cute on the outside. He won't be following the Fury game plan. He's there to knock guys out. This will provide Klitschko with more opportunities to engage than he had against Fury. But can Wlad still let his hands go? Can he capitalize on openings and opportunities?
Going by the statistics, the smart bet would be to pick against the older, inactive fighter. However, Wlad only needs to land one of his thunderbolts to win. With his right hand and left hooks as knockout weapons, he has several viable paths to victory. But can he still execute?
2. Joshua's chin.
Joshua hasn't exactly faced a Murderers' Row of opponents through this point of his career. And even that statement is too kind. Of all of Joshua's opponents, perhaps only Dillian Whyte and Dominic Breazeale could even be considered as "B-class" fighters. In addition, Joshua has infrequently shared the ring with anyone who could be regarded as a puncher.
Joshua did get tagged by Whyte in their fight and was visibly shaken. However, he stayed on his feet and recovered to get a knockout win. Although Whyte's power is notable, it doesn't come close to approaching Wladimir's. If Joshua can withstand Klitschko's power, he will have a much easier road to victory on Saturday. If he can't, he'll be in a world of trouble.
3. Wlad's left hook.
Certainly Joshua has sparred with fighters who possess solid jabs and right crosses. However, I highly doubt Joshua has encountered a heavyweight who can hook like Wladimir can. Klitschko's left hook is a punishing weapon. Notably, he ended fights against Ray Austin and Kubrat Pulev with that punch. It's a short, compact shot that Wlad often lands with maximum detonation.
Wlad uses the hook in two different ways. He'll lead with it and he'll also hook off the jab (throwing the left hook after the jab as part of a combination). The uniqueness of Wlad's hook is that it's so well disguised. At first, it looks like another jab is coming. Fighters get hit with his jab so often that they become overly concerned with the shot and set their defenses to thwart it. Sensing this, Wlad will sneak in a hook, and often with lethal consequences.
I think that Wlad's hook will be his key punch of the fight. If he can establish it with regularity, Joshua will have difficulty knowing where the shots will be coming from and how to defend himself against them. Klitschko's hook will tell us how well Joshua can improvise and make adjustments in the ring. If he is adequately prepared for that punch and/or can make the necessary changes to negate Wlad's hook, then Klitschko will be down a major weapon in the fight. However, Wlad will have the element of surprise with the shot early in the match. If he can land it early, he can change the trajectory of the fight.
4. Joshua must avoid clinches.
Everyone knows that Klitschko hates fighting on the inside. Without possessing an uppercut and almost pathologically unwilling to go the body, Klitschko ties up whenever he can at close range. His former trainer, Emanuel Steward, taught him a variety of techniques to lock down an opponent in the trenches. Using his arms, elbows and shoulders to grapple and clinch, Klitschko has been successful at neutralizing opponents who want to work on the inside.
Joshua goes to the body with regularity and that's been a significant factor in his success as a fighter. He likes to go downstairs with jabs, right hands and left hooks. And frankly, against an older fighter who doesn't want to work on the inside, he must continue to employ this approach. However, he needs to be clever when attacking Klitschko at close range. He must use angles when initiating offense and come inside behind punches. He has to rely on his athleticism, firing quick shots to the body before he can be clinched. Quick lateral movement will help. When Wlad does start to grapple, it's imperative that Joshua works with a free hand whenever possible.
Joshua's refusal to accept the clinch is vital. Psychologically, Joshua's mindset for the fight must be that whenever he's in a clinch, he's losing. He has to refuse clinches at all junctures and bang away at Klitschko whenever possible. This won't be an easy undertaking for Joshua but it's of paramount importance.
5. Finishing ability.
In Saturday's fight, it won't be enough to land a bomb here and there and be assured of a victory. Both fighters have one-punch knockout power and have demonstrated recuperative powers. Klitschko, who once upon a time was thought of as chinny, has come off the deck to win before in his career and has more recently taken huge shots from Mariusz Wach and Kubrat Pulev on his road to victory. He's come a long way from his Corrie Sanders days. Joshua was rocked against Whyte but he steadied himself and earned a knockout victory.
Neither fighter can afford to let a hurt opponent off the hook. The risks are too great. Either one can come back to knock out the other. Thus, it's imperative to put down wounded prey. Does Joshua have the technique and creativity to finish the kill? Can he avoid the clinches and delays if Klitschko is hurt? Does Wlad still possess the athleticism and quick movement to stop Joshua if he's hurt? Can he still put punches together to get the KO? Can he corral Joshua's movement? Who will be the one to finish the job?
After Steward's passing, Klitschko enlisted Jonathon Banks, a former sparring partner and one of Steward's protégés, as his next cornerman. Klitschko and Banks had a spectacular performance against Pulev but they were both awful against Fury. Banks lacked urgency in the Fury fight, failing to motivate Klitschko or notify him that he was well behind in the match. In addition, Banks was giving Klitschko specific instructions in that fight that were nonsensical, such as telling Wlad to jab to the head and body in the 10th round – even though Klitschko was well behind in the fight and that he never goes to the body. It was if Banks had never seen Klitschko fight before!
Nevertheless, Klitschko has retained Banks for Saturday's match. Certainly Klitschko will be in good condition for Saturday's fight but does Banks have the right game plan to defeat Joshua? Can he make adjustments in the corner and give Klitschko the proper instruction between rounds?
Joshua will be trained by Rob McCracken, an excellent coach who guided Carl Froch throughout his notable career (which included several huge fights). McCracken, serving as Team Great Britain's head trainer, has also been instrumental in resurrecting Britain's amateur boxing program.
McCracken has always impressed me with inventive game plans and matching the strengths of his fighter with the weaknesses of his opponents. Joshua will need a lot of assistance with Klitschko and McCracken has been through the wars. He's rallied fighters when they were down on the cards or sprawled out on the canvas. He's honest in the corner and cogent with directions. If the fight comes down to which side makes the better adjustments, my money will certainly be on Joshua/McCracken.
In a perfect world, I'd love to see Joshua blitz Klitschko from the opening bell and test the older fighter's body and desire. However, I don't think that Klitschko will be a willing participant in that endeavor. Wlad will be overly cautious during the early rounds, trying to establish his pace in the fight and contain Joshua's explosiveness. Expect very few landed punches in the opening three frames. Both boxers will look for ways into the fight. Joshua will try to open Klitschko up with quick one-two combinations and Wlad will attempt to establish the jab.
As the fight progresses, I expect Joshua to relax more and start to increase his work rate. Using his athleticism, Joshua will find success going in and out with quick forays. Eventually, he will see that Klitschko's reaction times aren't sufficient enough to defend against that approach. Joshua will continue to take more chances as he finds success.
Ultimately, I think that Joshua's punch fluidity and athleticism will be too much for the 41-year-old to handle. Joshua will eventually unleash three-and-four punch combinations and Klitschko won't be able to defend himself properly. I'm looking for Joshua to land a finishing blow, either a left hook or a straight right hand, at the end of a lengthy combination. Wlad might block the first two shots, but numbers three and four will put him down for good.