Who does Anthony Joshua want to fight next? “Wilder. That’s it,” was his unequivocal answer. His words breathing delight and welcome warmth into the rain-soaked Wembley crowd who’d watched him end Alexander Povetkin’s challenge in the seventh round.
The spectators had moments earlier yelled Deontay Wilder’s name in chorus when the champion had thrown the question to them. Wembley’s booked already - April 13, 2019. The diary’s open. Just awaiting the American WBC belt holder’s RSVP. But Joshua and the fans’ dream guest list might yet be ripped up if Tyson Fury bests the clubbing Alabamian in their December date.
That wasn’t really the point. The night was about clearing matters up. From his perspective. A night about rediscovering his aggression and booming right hand after the tactical and technical defence against Joseph Parker. A night about cleaning out a highly talented, but doping-tainted Povetkin. A night about controlling the control-ables beyond the contractual wrangles of the boxing business.
But the post-fight clarification of his position possibly carried equal significance to the boxing. It’s a position of no fear, of an undiluted desire to fight the best. The message - Joshua is playing for legacy. His stance - there has been and will be no dodging based on the danger of defeat.
When you consider another big Wembley crowd, millions more pounds pouring in to go with the millions already there, there’s reason to believe him. What else is motivating him other than boxing immortality? Surely not money? The decision by a wayward teen Joshua to take up the sport in earnest in 2007 looks one of the most profitable investments of our time.
November 8 marks the 10-year anniversary of his first amateur fight. Next month it’s five years since his first professional bout. When you layer the lucrative endorsements on top of the stunning ring earnings, Joshua and his family should be made for centuries to come. But yet he remains motivated to go on. Motivated be an all-time great, the all-time great heavyweight amidst a pantheon of storied warriors.
The financial imperative that weighs heavy on the rest of us, not there for the 28-year-old, perhaps. But the quest to leave an indelible mark of greatness brings its own, different stresses. And pre-fight Joshua candidly conceded he had begun to feel the pressure of the public’s expectancy and had begun to feel affected by the accusations of Wilder-dodging.
Post-fight Joshua also alluded to his frustration at contract wrangles with Wilder’s team and pleadingly asked his promoter, Eddie Hearn to confirm there were no more imminent mandatory challengers. And well he might be wary of more mandatories because the 39-year-old Russian, Povetkin nearly played the part of party pooper to perfection.
Joshua’s ring walk was spectacularly befitting of the national stadium - his face fused with the roaring male lion on the giant screen an aggressive welcome to his fellow Olympic goal medallist.
His 6ft-6-inch, 17 1/2 stone frame clad in a cosy-looking robe, Joshua sauntered down the tunnel and into the chilly air. His relaxed gait maybe slightly at odds with the subtle signs of tension on his smiling face. The stunning show of pyrotechnics that illuminated his stroll to the ropes in the drizzle reminded the 2004 Champion from Athens he was a support act, at best.
But Povetkin wasn’t bothered by any of that. Aware of the millions of Russians watching on, including his friend, President Vladimir Putin, the older man began fast. Belying his birth certificate, Povetkin repeatedly bobbed and weaved into range and unloaded on the home fighter. Left hooks and overhand rights had been forecast by many, and they duly came - in bunches. He rocked Joshua seconds before the bell in the first round.
With Joshua returning for the second stanza with a possible broken nose and streaming eyes, Povetkin sensed father time had left the door ajar for one last genuine shot at glory. He gamely tried to burst through that door.
The Russian raid continued throughout the opening rounds, punches landing with worrying frequency for Joshua’s camp, you’d imagine. But credit to the Champion, who’d adapted by the fourth and had started to control the fight at range - a happy place to be, given his 7-inch reach advantage.
Joshua may have been the draw. The Champ. But Povetkin’s CV was deeper. He’d had 132 amateur bouts to Joshua’s 43. Came in with 224 pro rounds to the young lion’s 77. That gap showed at the start. Still, the Brit demonstrated his ability to adjust and learn - an ability that has underpinned his stratospheric rise from novice slugger to the summit of the sport in a decade.
And once Joshua’s jab began to snap and the right hand began to threaten a devastating detonation, the crowd relaxed a touch. The intense jeopardy posed by Povetkin early, diminished, minute by minute, as we entered the middle rounds.
Povetkin will never be remembered as a great sportsman - people found guilty of doping generally aren’t. But for traditionalists, the respect demonstrated by both men with the touching of gloves and nodding of headings upon each bell would have been warming.
Respect wasn’t going to halt Joshua’s quest for legend status though. With the older man visibly blowing, the finale came in the seventh. Joshua said afterwards that his right hand had gone missing in his previous defence. Well, it turned up in brutal mood on Povetkin’s chin. He stumbled to his feet, determined to extend his visit to the last-chance saloon but a flurry of punches sent him tumbling back to the canvas.
And it was done. Joshua 22-0 with his 21st KO win. The crowd erupted to in joy and perhaps a touch of relief to salute the man who’d brought them out on a cold, wet autumn night. A glorious end to a slightly strange night. The undercard had offered a surreal and mixed build-up.
Liverpool giant David Price’s attempts to get back on track against unbeaten Russian Sergey Kuzmin was thwarted mid-fight by a torn right bicep - Price retired by his corner, wisely given the right-hand remains his main weapon. A six defeat for the 35-year-old though and it remains to be seen if he comes again.
Londoner Lawrence Okolie mauled and manhandled his way to the British Cruiserweight title with a unanimous points win over the Matty Askin. But en route Okolie’s spoiling tactics earned him points deductions and the displeasure of Askin and the viewers - social media critics howled for his disqualification.
Luke Campbell, like Joshua a gold medallist from 2012, did turn in a superb if un-explosive showing to avenge his loss to Yvan Mendy. Campbell, who turns 31 next week, boxed and moved to a wide points win in the WBC Lightweight eliminator.
But it was left to Joshua to light up the night - literally with the pre-fight show, but more meaningfully by becoming the first man to stop Povetkin.
He’s fast becoming a challenge to Sir Elton John’s status as Watford’s most famous son and perhaps leading us to question whether Wembley is the home of England’s football team?
Yep, the venue’s booked for April 13 - Joshua and his team confident in their drawing power. A point not lost on Eddie Hearn who reminded us Fury and Wilder have yet to confirm a venue for their match.
Joshua’s remains an incredibly explosive and incredibly wealthy athlete. But beyond money and belts, he retains vast reserves of arguably the most important 21st-century currency - public attention and affection.
As I left last night, I walked past the Hollywood actor Idris Elba in the tunnel, a star, like the thousands of punters, drawn like a moth to the ever-brighter light of AJ.
He remains on the road to the legacy he craves. Roll on April 13. Will it be Wilder, will it be Fury? We look forward to finding out.News Now - Sport News