With a predictably easy win over Eric Molina yesterday in Manchester, Anthony Joshua not only stayed undefeated and retained his IBF heavyweight title, but he set in stone an April 29 date with former world heavyweight champion Wladimir Klitschko at Wembley Stadium.
Joshua-Klitschko will be one of the biggest fights of 2017, potentially even the biggest in the sport. Though Klitschko, 40, is coming off of a loss and didn’t fight at all in 2016, he’s still a major name, and the 27-year-old Joshua has rapidly become a legitimate superstar, able to sell out venues like Manchester Arena and the O2 in London while facing fumbling challengers whose defeat is inevitable.
Klitschko (64-4, 53 KO) will be fighting in the United Kingdom for the first time since 2000, when he beat Monte Barrett at New London Arena, his only pro fight in the country. He was due to return this year against Tyson Fury, but that mandatory rematch completely fell apart, and Klitschko has moved on to the biggest target out there: Anthony Joshua.
Joshua (18-0, 18 KO) has thus far been able to club away at opponents without much coming back. Dillian Whyte — who beat Dereck Chisora in an all-out war on Saturday — has given him his toughest test thus far, kinda-sorta rocking Joshua one time, which passes for a struggle as AJ has gone so far.
There is the Joshua Army out there who seem to believe their man is invincible, owing in part to hype and in part to genuine and understandably enthusiasm. He’s got the look, the physique, the pedigree, and thus far he has mowed down his competition.
But nobody is superhuman, and Joshua is not unbeatable. The question is, is he taking too big of a step up from the likes of Molina and Dominic Breazeale to facing Klitschko?
I think there’s a good chance that he is. Klitschko may be 40, may have been inactive this year, and may be coming off of a loss, but on those counts:
- He’s a pretty young 40, all things considered. He spent his prime years taking next to zero punishment in one-sided fights.
- The year off could be a problem, too, but he is well known for always staying in great condition.
- The loss was to Tyson Fury, who has a totally different style than Joshua.
That last one is the biggest thing I believe could be overlooked by some of Joshua’s more indefatigable supporters. Fury was taller than Klitschko, had a longer reach than Klitschko, and as a result was content to stay on the outside and poke at Wladimir enough to score one of the most dramatically dull decisions in recent memory. It was a winning game plan, and one that Joshua simply cannot duplicate. It’s not his style, and he doesn’t have the same dimensions as Fury, which allowed it in the first place.
Joshua is an offense-first fighter. He likes to lead the action. And there is a chance, given Klitschko’s still-questionable chin, that Joshua might crack him early on and put him away, just as he’s done to the lesser opponents he’s beaten so far.
Klitschko, though, is not easy to hit with power shots from range, and getting inside on him is just as difficult, as he will gladly hold, hug, grab, and wrestle to keep fighters from working in there. He’s a master of the negative clinch. We once had a piece on this site about Joe Calzaghe being a master of clinching to disrupt rhythm. Klitschko more or less just clinches. A lot.
One of the things that gives me confidence in Joshua here is that Eddie Hearn is not a reckless promoter. If he didn’t 100% believe that Anthony Joshua would beat Wladimir Klitschko, he wouldn’t have made this fight. He can make great money for himself and his fighter by pitting Joshua against just about anyone. The nerdy critiques from folks like myself, pointing out that Eric Molina was a garbage opponent in a world title fight, will always be drowned out by the boisterous many screaming for Joshua to bring carnage upon another patsy’s face.
But Hearn has booked the biggest fight that’s out there for Joshua, and it’s not one without some danger. The last time we saw Wladimir Klitschko face an aggressive opponent, he tore Kubrat Pulev — a good fighter, mind you — to pieces. If Anthony Joshua is indeed as special as he’s being sold, then he’s better than Pulev and the comparison doesn’t really work.
If he’s not, though, if he’s a good fighter who has feasted upon the overmatched and nothing more, he might be in over his head in this one. But at least he has the guts to go in there and prove himself, to take the chance, to risk something, when he really doesn’t have to do anything more than he’s been doing. That says a good deal about Joshua.