Joshua vs Klitschko preview: heavy is the head that wears the crown...

Chris Williamson
28/04/2017 7:59am

Chris Williamson previews Saturday night's heavyweight showdown between Anthony Joshua and Wladimir Klitschko and detects the presence of a familiar boxing narrative...

That men who live by the sword eventually die by the sword is a narrative as old as boxing. The storied old champion fights on past his physical peak until unceremoniously beaten to retirement by a young replacement. The passing of the torch is rarely executed more brutally and soberly than in pugilism.

It used to be the case that the old warrior appeared physically diminished, like an imitation of their former selves, as when in 1951 the young champion Rocky Marciano left the 37-year-old great Joe Louis with softened body and balding head falling limp through the bottom rope, a striking metaphor for the diminishing impact of the ageing process.

In the modern age, nutritional and training improvements result in older combatants looking much better physically. In 1980 Muhammad Ali appeared in fine shape cosmetically, with middle-aged fat stripped away and his famous hair dyed black. The otherwise unsentimental Larry Holmes mercifully punished the old master through eleven heartbreaking rounds to register the only stoppage defeat of Ali's career, later crying in his dressing room while reflecting on the beating he'd inflicted on his hero.

Eight years later it was the 38-year-old Holmes himself who was wheeled out of retirement as fodder for a young and rampaging Mike Tyson, who mercilessly stalked the old champ until knocking him out for the only time in his own career in four rounds. In an precursor to the lineal title break Tyson Fury's forced inactivity has caused today, Holmes' conqueror Michael Spinks watched that night as king without an official throne.

Now, Wladimir Klitschko is the latest former champion to challenge the passing of time as the heir apparent Anthony Joshua looks to feast on the Ukrainian's bones and legitimise his own title reign. Klitschko (64-4) reigned for most of the past decade until Fury outpointed a hesitant and befuddled Wladimir in Germany eighteen months ago. A frustrating cocktail of of boxing politics and Fury's own demons freed up the title belts, with Joshua hoovering one and further vacant trinkets available to the winner on Saturday.

Klitschko is 41-years-old and - in appearance at least - identical to his championship days. I was in D├╝sseldorf when Wladimir relinquished the title and watched as team Klitschko walked to the ring amid a menacing sea of red tracksuits, a truly awesome sight. I suspect Fury's imperviousness to such intimidation was one key to his victory, along with his impressive lateral movement and surprising quickness. Wladimir was out-sped and out-foxed. The morning after the fight the Bild newspaper memorably quoted brother Vitali's assessment that: "Das war nicht mein bruder".

Compubox numbers suggest Klitschko threw less than twenty punches per round against Fury, landing just 22.5% of those. I also happened to be at Madison Square Garden for Klitschko's last successful defence against American Bryant Jennings, where the champion was also less active than usual. Still, against Jennings, Klitschko landed 34% of the near-fifty punches thrown on average per round. The signs are undoubtedly that he has slowed down and surely the lack of activity since those bouts can't reverse the trend.

As for Joshua, he is in some ways a clone of the Ukrainian, an Olympic champion fast-tracked to professional success. If the string of endorsements and early pay-per-view status has wearied some fans, then this should be balanced against the fact that for most of the public Joshua has delivered in the ring where it matters.

In amassing an 18-fight undefeated record he's certainly carried himself like the heavyweight champ in waiting. Although the lineal title rightly remains important for traditionalists, Sky Sports' Adam Smith suggests this sentiment is confined to insider bubbles and hardcore fans while mattering little to the general public. Sadly, perhaps, Smith is probably right and in the absence of Fury this is as good as heavyweight boxing gets. At 27-years-old, for Joshua to take on this challenge speaks volumes for his hunger for a challenge.

Joshua's trainer Rob McCracken returns to the scene of his most visible coaching triumph, where Carl Froch defeated George Groves in eight atmospheric rounds. While Joshua has benefited from a rule change allowing his mentor to work with him alongside amateur duties, Wladimir has patently missed the great strategist and motivator Emanuel Steward since he passed in 2012. With Johnathon Banks taking over as head trainer, Klitschko's performances have been mixed, ranging from the impressive four-round destruction of dangerous Kubrat Pulev to the timid appearances of his last two bouts.

One of the many intriguing questions going into Saturday's match is how each fighter will seek to impose their game plan on the other. Klitschko is famously a cerebral man and much of Steward's best work with Wladimir - as with previous charge Lennox Lewis - was invested in mentally unshackling the Ukrainian's analytical mind in order to unleash the destructive body. Unsurprisingly, the less experienced Banks struggles to offer the same connection or wealth of strategic advice.

Meanwhile, the rampant Briton has yet to come close to completing towel exercises rounds, having dispatched both of his most resistant foes, Dillian Whyte and Dominic Breazeale, in the seventh round. We can't possibly know how the muscled Englishman will perform if and when this bout reaches the final quarter of the championship distance, a time span over which his opponent is tried and tested.

While Joshua is athletic and possesses a solid left jab along with fight ending power if able to unleash those devastating hooks, uppercuts and straight rights, nothing he does is terribly unpredictable. Question marks also remain over the strength of Anthony's stamina and chin. The latter was tested by Whyte when a vicious left hook stunned AJ, before he recovered impressively. During a brief but decorated amateur career, a green Joshua was floored by Whyte and stopped by Romanian Mihai Nistor.

Klitschko in his pomp had been converted by Steward into an expert at protecting his chin while pressing advantages in strength, judging distance, footwork and mental discipline. Wladimir would close the show, although often when his opponent was significantly weakened, like a mamba having injected poison into its prey. The two fighters know each other well, with Joshua visiting the then-champion's training camp in 2014 to act as sparring partner ahead of the challenge of Kubrat Pulev.

Wembley stadium, just a stone's throw from Joshua's Watford home, will be filled with some 90,000 fans. It's been suggested that unless ringside there's little point attending since the view of the action will be so distant. I understand that, but having marvelled at photographs of old outdoor title fights such as Jack Dempsey defending against Georges Carpentier in front of 80,000 fans, I find something oddly romantic in these occasions.

Incidentally, Dempsey vs Carpentier is believed to be the first significant boxing match at which women were allowed to attend. One wonders what Dempsey's promoter Tex Rickard would make of women actually fighting on this 2017 equivalent bill.

So I'll be viewing from inside the stadium, soaking up the energy of the crowd and eager to learn if the former champion's story ends with a familiar and sad chapter. BM online contributors' favoured Joshua by four votes to three, while editor Graham Houston plumped for an inside the distance Joshua win in the April edition of the magazine.

I'm not so sure and I believe the oddsmakers have seriously mis-priced this match. Klitschko has been here many, many times before. My pick is for the Ukrainian to neutralise Joshua's formidable offence with his dominant jab claiming the centre of the ring while his footwork and spoiling tactics largely suppress Joshua's attacks.

The younger man simply doesn't offer enough that Wladimir hasn't seen before and for my money 7-1 for a Klitschko decision looks the value bet. The young champion is strong and energetic, but I suspect Klitschko will frustrate him, tie him up, control the tempo and land more often en-route to a decisive late rounds or decision victory.