Saturday's epic battle between Anthony Joshua and Wladimir Klitschko should immediately be placed into the annals of unforgettable heavyweight fights; it was definitional of the phrase "instant classic." Both fighters hit the canvas and pulled themselves up from the depths of defeat to rally. The young lion was tested as he'd never been before and the old warrior demonstrated for perhaps the final time as to why he reigned as such a formidable champion. Featuring wild momentum swings and thrilling displays of skill, perseverance and heart, boxing fans were treated to a truly captivating contest.
Facing perhaps the first moments of self-doubt in his career, as well as physical exhaustion, Joshua bested a great version of Klitschko, the former standard-bearer at heavyweight. Prior to the bout's final moments, Joshua's victory was far from certain. He had to survive a vicious knockdown in the sixth and needed to regather himself during the championship rounds to earn the victory. In the end, the ledger will read "Anthony Joshua TKO 11 Wladimir Klitschko," but that description belies the riveting nature of the match, the implications on boxing's present and future, and the elevation of both combatants in the aftermath of the fight.
Three rounds of Joshua-Klitschko will forever be remembered. The fifth started with Joshua running out of his corner and connecting with a blistering left hook. Klitschko was immediately hurt from the shot and within seconds he dropped to the canvas from Joshua's withering follow-up assault.
Klitschko, who earlier in his career was the target of significant (if somewhat undeserved) criticism for being mentally fragile, now faced an inflection point. He could admit defeat, recognizing that Joshua's power and athleticism were too much for a 41-year old, or, he could make a courageous last stand in his career. Had Klitschko capitulated, few boxing fans would've been surprised. After all, Klitschko was coming back into the ring after a long layoff, looked terrible in his last outing against Tyson Fury and ate some enormous shots from Joshua. He already had achieved a Hall of Fame-caliber career; his place in boxing's history as one of the sport's top-20 heavyweights had already been secured.
However, Klitschko wasn't ready to pass the torch just yet. He sprang to his feet and with a combination of desperation and pride, stormed after Joshua. Landing straight right hands, a blistering left hook and two uppercuts (yes, that wasn't a typo; he threw uppercuts!), Klitschko had Joshua stunned by the end of the round, seizing momentum in the fight. Heading back to his corner, Joshua realized that Klitschko was unlike any other opponent that he had faced as a professional. Joshua had landed his best hook, but it wasn't enough.
Throughout his career, Klitschko's resiliency has always been underestimated. He came back from knockout losses to Corrie Sanders and Lamon Brewster to become the dominant heavyweight force of his era. How many times did he get up from knockdowns against Sanders and Sam Peter? Although not blessed with a granite chin, Klitschko has displayed heart on numerous occasions in the ring.
After an excellent finish to the fifth, Klitschko began the sixth full of confidence. Early in the round, he landed his patented combination, the 1-2, to drop Joshua with devastating effect. Wlad's straight right hand sent Joshua back to the ropes and Joshua collapsed shortly afterward. In just a few minutes, Joshua went from the precipice of establishing his legend to full-on survival mode. Joshua was a non-factor for the rest of the sixth round. Hurt from Wlad's knockdown and gassed from punching himself out in the fifth, he held, grappled and used his legs to make it out of the round.
Joshua didn't really reemerge in the fight until the ninth. He took the seventh off to regain his legs and finally started to throw significant punches in the eighth. In the ninth, he recovered his earlier form and launched a blistering assault on Wlad's body – it was the first round that he had won since the fifth.
After 10 rounds, my scorecard was even. Joshua won almost all of the early rounds on work rate but Wlad had successfully clawed his way back. The fight was still on the table and it was unclear who had the momentum since Joshua and Klitschko had taken turns winning the previous two rounds.
Aesthetically, the match was pleasing to watch. Featuring few clinches (more on that in a moment) and with both combatants fighting in offensive styles, the rounds flew by. Wlad looked as sprightly on his feet as he had in years. He was the one pivoting, creating angles and using creative defensive tricks to avoid a lot of Joshua's forays. Joshua was most effective as the stalker in the fight, moving mostly in straight lines and looking for opportunities to land his power shots.
The beginning of the 11th round illustrated why there were so few clinches in the fight. Throughout Wlad's title reign, he had used strategic clinching to neutralize his opponents. His "jab-and-grab" style could be maddening to watch and stripped many of his fights of entertainment, but no one could deny the effectiveness of this tactic. However, Wlad clinched against Joshua sparingly, a deliberate choice by Klitschko and his trainer, Jonathon Banks.
When a fighter attempts a clinch, he isn't always immediately successful in locking up an opponent. He may grab an arm or a shoulder but the other fighter might not be neutralized instantaneously. With many opponents, failing to immediately clinch might not be an issue because they lack the athleticism, skills or desire to fire shots when under that type of physical duress. However, Joshua possesses a menacing uppercut and that punch becomes an enormous weapon at close range.
Early in the 11th, Wlad attempted a clinch. Perhaps because of fatigue, or rote muscle memory, he decided that he needed a break. However, his attempt was a clumsy one. And while his gloves were extended trying to lock Joshua up, Joshua unleashed a scorching uppercut that seemingly lifted Klitschko off the ground. The shot detonated with maximum force. Somehow, Wlad remained on his feet (let no one question his chin after that one) but Joshua followed up with an onslaught that sent Wlad to his knees.
Again, Wlad made it to his feet. Joshua, sensing that his opponent might be ready to go, jumped on Klitschko as soon as the fight resumed. Pinning Wlad on the ropes, Joshua attacked with a number of heavy shots and connected with a sizzling right uppercut/left hook combo that sent Wlad down for a second time in the round.
Somehow, Klitschko regained his faculties and beat the count (there was no quit in him). However, once the fight continued, he was offering nothing back offensively. Joshua wailed away with Wlad on the ropes and referee David Fields stepped in and stopped the fight. Perhaps there wasn't a finishing blow that landed during Joshua's final flurry but Klitschko was hurt and not throwing anything back.
In the history of boxing's quick hooks, Saturday's stoppage doesn't even register. I think that Fields is a fine referee. He let both fighters come back from vicious knockdowns and I don't think that he should have any regrets from his officiating on Saturday.
Ultimately, what made Joshua-Klitschko so satisfying is that both boxers were in world-class form, physically and mentally. When Joshua was on the canvas, there was no longer talk of coronation. He had to rise up from the abyss to earn his victory. Now, he will no longer be regarded as a protected fighter or a creation of media hype. He defeated Klitschko with superior punching power and by displaying a mental resolve that befits a champion. Joshua was pushed to the brink and he responded with guts and determination to vanquish a proud and menacing former champion. And Klitschko removed all doubts about his mental fortitude. Even at 41, he never stopped trying to win.
After the fight, both boxers hit the right notes. Joshua revealed passion when addressing the crowd, hoping that his performance could help inspire others to follow their dreams. He bestowed the utmost respect upon Klitschko. Confident yet humble, Joshua has the makings of a great ambassador for the sport.
Klitschko was gracious in defeat. Although acknowledging that the better man had won, Wlad beamed with pride in the fight's aftermath. Sure, he had wanted to win, but he performed to the best of his abilities. Always a sportsman, Wlad understood the enormity of the event and the implications of its result. Should this be the end of his career, he will leave the ring hearing only cheers from a crowd that was supposed to be hostile. There are few moral victories in boxing but I bet that Klitschko's post-fight reception from the 90,000 in Wembley will be one of the warmest memories of his career.
As boxing fans, we have waited, seemingly interminably, to experience epochal moments in the sport. In this new century, we've suffered through so many desultory heavyweight fights. After decades of disappointment, we now have one to savor. We have a fight that speaks for our generation of boxing. Joshua-Klitschko may not have been Ali-Frazier I or even Bowe-Holyfield I, but it was a damn fine fight; a fantastic one – probably the most momentous heavyweight battle in over 20 years.
There's no guarantee that the present heavyweight era will now be Anthony Joshua's. He still faces threats in the division from fighters such as Tyson Fury and Deontay Wilder. However, he delivered a show-stopping performance on Saturday that can never be taken away from him. For whatever happens throughout the rest of his career, he will always have the following legacy: he made heavyweight boxing matter again. His effort made the sports world take notice of a fresh new talent. His performance helped create new fans of the sport and will increase boxing's demand and reach. These are unassailable accomplishments.
Adam Abramowitz is the founder/head writer of saturdaynightboxing.com.
Adam Abramowitz is the founder/head writer of saturdaynightboxing.com.
He's a member of the Transnational Boxing Rankings Board.