Joshua ‘gravy train’ avoids derailment, gains new traction

Mark Butcher
23/09/2018 7:47pm

Mark Butcher reports from Wembley Stadium as AJ becomes the first man to stop Alexander Povetkin, Enzo Calzaghe receives a 10-bell salute and Lawrence Okolie sees his stock tumble ...

The Anthony Joshua ‘gravy train’ rolls on with the slight hint of a derailment only making his journey more compelling.

Joshua struggled early with the ring smarts and timing of former WBA heavyweight title-holder Alexander Povetkin before adjusting mid-fight with his jab and bodywork to set-up a clinical seventh-round finish. That glimpse of vulnerability should only serve to entice his rivals and add greater spice to a likely shootout with heavy-handed WBC champion Deontay Wilder.

Overall, Joshua impressed by adapting to adversity. He shook off a dose of 'man flu' and a damaged nose, and shipped some testing left hooks, before prevailing in another mega event at Wembley Stadium with some 80,000 in attendance. Joshua’s celebrity remains addictive to fans and brands alike and shows no sign of relenting.

The win kept alive a dream fight with Wilder on 13 April at the same venue, but that may be a pipe dream with the WBC champion facing lineal titlist Tyson Fury on 1 December and already testing negotiations thwarted by a possible rematch clause.

Promoter Eddie Hearn dubbed Fury “the most unentertaining fighter I’ve ever seen” in the post-fight press conference. But British fight fans would probably disagree, with Joshua-Fury likely to break boxing on these shores, especially if the big Mancunian seizes the WBC crown from Wilder in December. The hype for that fight would be extraordinary.

For now, a rematch with Dillian Whyte appears more probable for Joshua though Jarrell ‘Big Baby’ Miller, and even cruiserweight king Oleksandr Usyk, were mentioned as potential opponents by promoter Hearn afterwards. There is also the spectre of another mandatory engagement with the IBF’s No.1 position to be filled by the winner of Kubrat Pulev vs Hughie Fury in Bulgaria on 27 October.

After his 13 April return to the national stadium, Joshua (22-0, 21 KOs) will engage in his first overseas contest in a scheduled two-fight year. Promoter Hearn said that Joshua would ultimately fight in the US and other territories, perhaps reopening the intriguing possibility of a fight in Nigeria that was strongly mooted a year or so ago.

Povetkin (34-2, 24 KOs) gave Joshua fits for much of the early rounds yet was bemusingly adrift on the official scorecards - 58-56 (twice) and a near scandalous 59-55. He wobbled Joshua with left hooks in the first and third in a fearless challenge.

The Wembley crowd fell eerily silent, at times, as the faster Russian reeled off combinations and busted Joshua’s nose (somewhat weakened after being broken by Carlos Takam last year). Inhibited by a cut left eye, Povetkin was otherwise unfazed and had seemingly forged a slight lead by the fifth with Joshua’s fans, sensing the fight was slipping away, raising their voices to encourage their man. Displaying admirable calm and patience, the champion heeded their call and rallied impressively.

In the sixth, Joshua worked Povetkin out, dictating behind his jab and serving notice of the imminent danger with a short but hurtful right hand that dazed the Russian. One round later, Povetkin was obliterated by a sudden power surge.

The ending was sudden and electric - a right hand rocked Povetkin on his heels before a pulsating left hook and perfectly drilled right dropped the Russian like a gunshot.

Still groggy, the challenger barely survived though, on resumption, he was swiftly pummelled and wilting by the ropes when referee Steve Gray intervened, sending the partisan crowd into raptures.

Joshua later admitted that he had issues punching down with smaller opponents like Povetkin, Takam and Whyte – contests where he hasn’t shone but prevailed due to his excellent finishing ability. Facing someone of equal stature, like Wilder, he said suits him more.

Afterwards, a relaxed Joshua held court and told the assembled media where his immense attraction lies.

“The appeal is who is going to be the man to beat me? That’s what people are interested in,” mused Joshua. “It’s a tough old game. Who is going to expose me completely? All of us have weaknesses, but it’s who is going to be the man to take your ‘0’? With [Floyd] Mayweather everyone was tuning in to see who would be the man to beat him.

“You get to the stage where it seems like it’s a pantomime, that you go in there, you beat someone, it’s scripted. Boxing sometimes looks easy, but it’s far from it. Sometimes you have to go in there and really earn your money. People want to see you work. That’s what the attraction is. Who is the man to really push him, who is going to make him work tonight? Povetkin was the person to do it, he did that for seven rounds, but I came out on top.”

*

The Enzo Calzaghe tribute and traditional 10-bell salute took place early in the evening with the stadium only partially full. Some queried the timing, but BM understands that it was felt that a later tribute might not have seen the silence so immaculately observed with boisterous fans filtering into the stadium from nearby bars. An early tribute afforded Enzo the respect he so richly deserved without interruption.

**

Your average Anthony Joshua supporter and seasoned fight aficionado hail from different demographics. Wembley Stadium was sparsely populated during Price vs Kuzmin and Okolie vs Askin, fights that had promised much but delivered little, with most fans preferring to drink in the bars and arrive late to soak up the Joshua ringwalk (an event in itself) and ensuing heavyweight spectacle. When boxing’s pound-for-pound best Vasyl Lomachenko flashed up on the big screens, there were blank looks and tumbleweeds. Joshua’s reach goes beyond boxing into that of global celebrity. But for many of his fans the undercard and the raw appeal of boxing is just a backdrop to a boozy night out.

***

In one of the most crapulent fights in recent boxing history, Lawrence Okolie earned the British cruiserweight title but saw his stock tumble after a stinking, foul-filled 12-rounder against Matty Askin. With his octopus arms evoking memories of Henry Akinwande at his spoiling peak, Okolie was the principal culprit, clinging on to Askin like a long lost lover and reeling off infringement after infringement that cost him three point deductions.

After a short but sweet amateur career, the East Londoner’s best bet is to remain at British level for another year or so and learn his trade a bit more. He’s not ready for the beasts lurking above.

****

Three years after being knocked down, chewed up and spat out by late sub Yvan Mendy, London 2012 Olympic gold medallist Luke Campbell redeemed himself in their rematch to outbox the ceaseless Frenchman with his silkier skills and near faultless footwork. Mendy never stopped coming all night, but he pressured with his feet rather than his fists and was never active enough to rack up rounds or pin Campbell down.

The verdict was rarely in doubt even though Mendy finished the stronger and had his fist raised in expectation as the decision was announced. Campbell’s reward? A shot at WBC 135lbs champion Mikey Garcia, though one suspects the Mexican-American may relinquish or opt for a mega fight with Errol Spence Jr, Vasyl Lomachenko or even Terence Crawford. Garcia has bigger fish to fry.